Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rockhall Matters

It is that time of year again in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame cycle, when the nominees for the Class of 2016 will be announced. Brief review of rules and criteria: an artist is eligible 25 years after the release of their first album or single. They have changed the wording slightly regarding the criteria, but as it stands here is what they say: The artist must “…have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence. We shall consider factors such as an artist's musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.” (emphasis added).

So, breaking that down, the only real qualification after the time limit is “musical excellence.” Therein, of course, lies the perpetual problem when you have a Nominating Committee that meets in secret once a year to put the nominees out there. Of late, there have been a list of approximately 15 nominees per year, where about 5-6 end up getting inducted. Once the nominees are determined, voting goes out to a larger group. Nobody knows the exact number, but about 500 artists, critics and industry insiders make up the voting body. Each current inductee gets a vote (therein lies another problem, what does Jerry Lee Lewis really know about The Smiths or The Replacements?) They have thrown the fans a bone, mostly symbolic but appreciated, with a poll that fans can participate in and then the results of that poll will be one ballot. Which is about how much they respect fan opinion in this whole process, 1 out of 500, although statistics show that whichever artist tops the fan ballot almost always is inducted. To make things more intriguing, there was a purge this year on the Nominating Committee where a decent number of members were booted, so the Committee is smaller now.

On the Committee, to try and make up for their alleged deficiencies in certain genres, they have created some sub-committees to specialize in those genres. The category that is most paid attention to is the “Performer” category, but there are some other categories that avoid the mass voting stage and people can be inducted directly by the Committee, like Early Influence, the Ahment Ertugen Award (formerly Non-Performer, meant to honor important non-musicians in the industry like producers, record execs, journalists, etc.) and Musical Excellence (which from what I can tell, is primarily used by the Committee to shoe in artists they know won’t be voted in by the voters, most notoriously used last year to inexplicably give Ringo Starr his second induction). Here is the most up to date list of who we know is on the Committee.

Jon Landau and Steve Van Zandt are considered two of the biggest power players, although Questlove and Tom Morello have been throwing their weight around too. Several of Questlove’s pet projects have gotten in during the past few cycles (like Hall & Oates, for instance), and Morello is credited for finally getting KISS nominated a second time (and then inducted, despite former Committee Member Dave Marsh’s famous pronouncement that as long as he was on the Committee, he would make sure that KISS never got in). Through Van Zandt, it is believed that Bruce Springsteen makes his opinions known, and for the conspiracy theorists out there, the shadowy puppet master orchestrator is believed to be former Committee member (and inductee) Jan Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine.

Back to the problems of the process. “Musical Excellence” is fairly meaningless because it is almost entirely subjective. While all Halls of Fame have some if this problem, the RRHOF seems to have the worst. So I guess you can only really turn to the factors that they list for guidance, although we do not know how much Landau, et al. actually pay attention to them vs. just trying to get in their favorites. (When Ahmet Ertugen was alive and was the Chairman of the Committee, an unusually high number of artists who had recorded on Atlantic Records were getting in, which was the label Ertugen founded and ran).

Notice one factor missing is any mention of sales. They have rather proudly stated several times that record sales are not an important factor. Which I find odd. Granted, it should not be the major factor, but for a Hall of Fame that honors what is a “popular” music, perhaps what has been “popular” over time (measured by record sales) ought to be considered? But the more concrete factors that I can discern from their statement are: Influence, Length and Depth, Innovation and Technical/Stylistic Superiority. Influence I am absolutely on board with, as well as Innovation. Technical/Stylistic Superiority can be problematic. There are many obscure guitar players sitting around smoking a doobie in their suburban garage with great technique. Stylistic Superiority I take as leaders within genres, which I agree with, but you will see there are many genre leaders who have been snubbed thus far. Length and Depth are decent factors, but longevity alone does not necessarily make great rock and roll. And if you look at some inductees, they have had very short careers. Velvet Underground released four records, and the Sex Pistols really only released one of note. (Both are deserving, by the way).

Soon I will post my list/commentary on the most glaring snubs in my view, and then hopefully will be evaluating the actual nominees for 2016 soon thereafter. This post started as the snub post, but the intro became so lengthy that it became a post itself.