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Drake’s defiant gesture – along with similar actions by other major artists like the Weeknd – represents a paradigm shift in the music industry.Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press

Earlier this week, Drake pulled himself from Grammy Awards contention by withdrawing his nominations for Best Rap Album (for Certified Lover Boy) and Best Rap Performance (Way 2 Sexy). It’s perhaps easy to see the move as one made in a snit – snubbed in the major categories, the ego-wounded Toronto-bred rapper may have turned down his genre-specific nods in protest.

In the bigger picture, Drake’s defiant gesture – along with similar actions by other major artists like the Weeknd – represents a paradigm shift in the music industry. The tail now wags the dog, and the gatekeepers have lost the keys to the castle.

Metaphors aside, Drake (or the Weeknd or Adele or Taylor Swift) simply doesn’t need the Grammys as much as the Grammys need him. Utilizing social media to reach audiences and communicate with their fans, superstar recording artists are more in charge of their careers than ever before. They no longer require mainstream media or award shows as they once did.

“The Grammys or the Junos matter a lot when you’re a mid-level artist or when you’re in the jazz category,” says Steve Waxman, an industry veteran and former publicist with Warner Music Canada. “But when it comes to Drake or Adele or the Weeknd, I don’t think it means anything to them.”

Judging by some of his past comments, Drake would agree on the increasing irrelevance of the Grammys. In 2020, the Started From the Bottom hitmaker blasted the Recording Academy, which presents the awards, after fellow Toronto superstar the Weeknd received no nominations despite having a recording-breaking year that included the blockbuster album After Hours and the chart-topping single Blinding Lights.

“I think we should stop allowing ourselves to be shocked every year by the disconnect between impactful music and these awards and just accept that what once was the highest form of recognition may no longer matter to the artists that exist now and the ones that come after,” Drake posted on Instagram.

A year ago, the Weeknd called Grammy organizers “corrupt” and criticized what he called “secret committees” who arrived at the shortlisted nominees. This spring, the Weeknd said he would no longer submit his music to the Grammys, citing a lack of trust in the awards.

It’s possible Drake is taking a principled stance against award shows – more likely, it’s rather the case of one of the biggest artists of the past decade being miffed after only four of his 47 Grammy nominations over his career resulted in actual awards, and never in one of the four major categories. Similarly, after a bizarrely unsuccessful history at the Juno Awards, Drake’s record label and management team no longer submit his music for consideration each year with the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

In the end, the reason for the beef with the Grammys or the Junos doesn’t matter. And ultimately, if the awards have little value to artists of the stature of Drake or the Weeknd, those prizes themselves increasingly fail to matter, too, industry insiders say.

“For high-level artists, it’s questionable whether they need these shows or not,” says Toronto publicist Anya Wilson. “If it’s becoming uncomfortable for them to be in a judgmental format like the Grammys, I have to respect their decision to decline nominations.”

Wilson, who began her career decades ago in London, working with everyone from David Bowie to the Kinks to Paul McCartney, has seen the declining impact that televised award shows have on music consumption. Any post-Grammy uptick in music sales that winners used to see, for example, is increasingly less relevant by the year.

“I feel artists have sufficient outlets themselves to eclipse any post-show sales bumps these days,” Wilson says.

The music business also simply isn’t the same as it was in the 1970s – it’s not even the same that it was in 2020. Viewership for the 63rd annual Grammy Awards in 2021 fell 53 per cent from the year before, to 8.8 million viewers, according to CBS. An artist’s performance on the broadcast of what was once billed as “music’s biggest night” is less consequential than ever.

“At the end of the day, any performance on an awards show is just another piece of content that goes up on social media,” Waxman says.

Nowhere is the transition in the music industry more apparent than when it comes to social media. Not long ago, any major recording artist would use legacy media outlets and appearances for exposure, including those coveted awards-show spots. But now, the tables have turned.

“From my own experience, when it comes to the bigger artists who do mainstream interviews, those media outlets will come back to the artist’s team to ask them to share the article on the artist’s socials,” Waxman notes. “The media outlets are now trying to grow their own social media through the artist’s, instead of the other way around.”

Few are savvier at growing their brand without help from mainstream media and record labels than Drake and the Weeknd. The latter, the Ethiopian-Canadian born Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, built a career based on a mysterious, enigmatic persona who initially rarely did interviews. Drake, known to his mother as Aubrey Graham, runs his own music and merchandising empire, OVO Sound.

Drake doesn’t engage often with traditional media, and neither do many of the artists on his OVO label. “It was very frustrating and peculiar dealing with the younger OVO artists, because we couldn’t get them to do anything with the press,” says Waxman, who worked for Warner Music, which distributes OVO releases (Drake has his own separate deal with Universal Music, which releases his albums). “It wasn’t the traditional way to break artists, where we would want to get as much exposure as possible.”

In the digital landscape of streaming and social media, artists create their own exposure. The hip hop world took advantage of this first – and artists like Drake and his contemporaries are continuing that tradition in today’s fast-paced, digital-first realm of music. Everybody else – including the big awards shows that used to give artists the spotlight they sought – is just trying to catch up at this point.

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