What Does 'Best New Artist' Mean When the World's on Fire?

Conan Gray was ready to conquer. By the time this year began, the rising pop and rock artist had achieved the dreams of guitar-playing teenagers everywhere — building a loyal YouTube following from his suburban Texas home, signing a major deal with Republic Records, releasing a single with hundreds of millions of streams (“Maniac”), and finally getting ready to drop a debut album in March 2020 that could put him solidly in contention for a Best New Artist Grammy in 2021.

No one anticipated that a global pandemic and the resulting economic crisis were about to change nearly everything about how new artists get recognized. “We had an entire radio tour scheduled,” says Colette Patnaude, one of Gray’s managers. “We had late-night shows like Jimmy Fallon scheduled. We had all this stuff planned, but it all just came to a screeching halt.”

Since signing with Republic in 2018, Gray has introduced himself through an EP, a handful of singles, and a North American headlining tour. That was just the warm-up, though; this year was meant to be the big race. By the time his album arrived, a few weeks into quarantine, “Maniac” — initially released as a standalone track last November — had surpassed 200 million total streams. (It’s now at 350 million.) The album became the United States’ biggest new artist debut of 2020, premiering at Number 5 on the Rolling Stone Top 200. But Gray, freshly 21, was left with few options to promote his work.

It’s been a painful year for young artists, many of whom have spent years waiting for their moment to shine and are now struggling with losing momentum. In an industry where relevancy is next to impossible to obtain and maintain, a months-long pause can derail entire careers. And with first-round voting for 2021 Grammy nominations beginning on September 30th, Gray and other top contenders for the Best New Artist category — including Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Roddy Ricch, Summer Walker, Tones and I, Trevor Daniel, Ingrid Andress, and other talks of the town — are facing one of the most challenging years that developing artists have ever experienced.

“There is a huge limitation that’s been placed on [new artists], because they can’t get that face-to-face interaction with the fans,” RCA Records EVP of A&R Tunji Balogun says. “People are being creative and doing in-home stuff, but still, it feels like a lot of people aren’t going to be able to reach their full potential this year.”

As Balogun points out, artists aren’t incapable of making an impact even with these unprecedented limitations. “You can still have commercial success,” he says. “You can still release music, and it can still chart.” Doja Cat’s chart-topping hit “Say So,” for example, still managed to rack up more than half a billion streams on Spotify alone, and over 20 million TikTok videos have been created using the song.

Artists might just have to work harder and think outside the box to cut through  the noise online. “[The Best New Artist category] has always been a mix of commercial success and a perceived level of cultural impact,” says Balogun. “But the definition of that cultural side is changing and evolving, because there’s not as much that you can do. The artists that are able to master the online conversation will be able to make more noise in a time like this.”

Balogun cites RCA artist H.E.R. as a prime example of an introvert who, in an effort to adapt, made social media work in her favor on her own terms. “She does this Instagram Live show called Girls With Guitars every Thursday. She invites other female artists — mostly who play guitar — she creates a space, they have a moment, they play each other’s songs and talk to each other about their inspirations.” Guests have included everyone from Jhené Aiko to Sheryl Crow, and Balogun considers the show noteworthy for boosting her online presence while remaining authentic to her brand.

“The new class of artists are the ones most in tune with the internet, because the majority of them broke off the internet,” he says. “The majority of them are kids who grew up experiencing culture online. They’re extremely equipped to deal with things like this. It just depends on whatever their artist brand is.”

Even before Covid-19 hit, it was already getting harder for Recording Academy voters to tell the difference between one-hit wonders and career artists, thanks to the rise of streaming and social media platforms like TikTok. Now, with the tours, showcases, and in-person meetings that new acts normally use to get in front of Grammy voters largely off the table, that will be even more difficult.

Justin Lubliner, founder of the music company the Darkroom, who signed 2020 Best New Artist winner Billie Eilish to Interscope, highlights the role that TikTok has played in artist development over the last year or so. “TikTok breaks songs by taking the songs out of context,” he says. “TikTok is amazing, but a lot of the times, songs break off of it because they’re part of a viral trend or they’re in a video of a huge TikTok celebrity dancing. Some of the biggest songs don’t get [artists] the visibility they need as a performer, musician, or artist. If you look at some of the biggest playlists on platforms, a lot of the artists are not superstar artists. They’re artists who are having a viral moment with a big record.”

The rise of TikTok, replacing the once-almighty terrestrial radio as a driver of youth culture, is one of many reasons that it was a good idea for the Grammys to diversify their membership this year. Previously, the voting body has had a longtime reputation for being far removed from music’s current pulse. Balogun says that, while Best New Artist nominations have often seemed appropriate to him in the past, the winner has typically ended up being the artist who’s sold the most records or had the most radio play. “I’ve been in a lot of those conversations and a lot of those screening rooms, and it’s an extremely time-consuming, meticulous process,” he says. “A lot of the types of people that they needed to bring in don’t have the time for it because they’re busy working, making records, and running around starting their careers.”

That meant that voters in the category often included a disproportionate number of industry veterans who probably don’t have TikTok accounts. The 2,300 artists, songwriters, producers and other music professionals who were invited to join the Recording Academy this July have the opportunity to shake things up. “It feels like the [Recording] Academy has been very aggressive just to recruit a new class,” adds Ryan Chisholm, GM of Work of Art Management, where “Falling” hitmaker Trevor Daniel is signed. “It needs to reflect a younger demo, which I think they’re now starting to tap into.”

Insiders have also welcomed the academy’s change to the Best New Artist eligibility rule that put a maximum on the number of tracks an act could have released in the past. “I think that was a long-overdue and very positive change,” Balogun adds. “It’s not like the old days where you couldn’t release anything until you were signed. A lot of artists — by the time they’ve gotten a deal — have put out dozens to hundreds of songs. That doesn’t mean that they’ve had their mainstream moment yet.”

Leave it to a global pandemic to really highlight that point. What else can acts do right now but put out music? Traditionally speaking, they might want to release a record, let it sit in the marketplace for a bit, and then tour around it. That’s what country newcomer Ingrid Andress was planning on doing on the heels of her album Lady Like, which dropped a few weeks into the pandemic.

Andress had multiple late-night looks for street week, as well as a tour with Dan + Shay that had just kicked off when live music came to a halt this spring. “Honestly, there was never a thought in my mind that we would push this album release,” manager Blythe Scokin says. Five months into the pandemic, she thinks it’s more important than ever to serve the fans with music regardless of a tour. “With things going the way they are, we’ll likely roll into our second album cycle without yet properly touring the first, because it’s that important to keep releasing music,” Scokin adds. “That doesn’t mean when we get back on the road that Ingrid won’t be performing songs from Lady Like, though, and I think the fans will be hungry for it.”

Patnaude and Conan Gray co-manager Eddie Wintle suggest that self-sufficiency might be an even more important factor now, when compared to the pre-Billie Eilish years. With studios closed and social distancing at the forefront of everyone’s minds, the artist who’s able to churn out impactful records from their bedroom with minimal collaborators is at an advantage.

Some say, furthermore, that the state of the world in 2020 means that the 2021 Best New Artist’s brand must include elements of protest. The music industry is now totally reliant on the internet — and the online community is fervent about influencers using their platforms to promote social justice.

“The Best New Artist means so much more than just putting out music and having streaming numbers — or radio, or whatever it is,” says Wintle. “Virtually every artist that is up and coming in today’s world has to have either a large or rapidly growing social presence, and all the people being considered are young adults. To not lend their voices and use their platforms to talk about what’s going on right now is virtually not an option.” Wintle points out that there are artists who are more passionate about politics than others: “But I think that everyone has to be some sort of activist right now.”

Whether it’s through protest songs or Instagram posts, the state of the world will be reflected in next year’s Best New Artist in some way. One thing’s for sure, though: It’s hard to remember another time when the category was such a toss-up.

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