Unpacking the New Grammy Songwriter of the Year Award — It’s Not for Taylor Swift or Paul McCartney (Unless…)

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The most remarkable thing about the new Grammy award for songwriter of the year is that it didn’t already exist. Instead, the song of the year category — a marquee honor given to songwriters — may have been considered as fulfilling that recognition. By contrast, producers have been getting awards since 1975, and the engineered album category has existed since the very first Grammys in 1959.

All of which leaves both Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. and Grammy-winning songwriter and chair of the Academy’s songwriters and composers wing Evan Bogart saying they’re baffled as to why it took so along for the talents of songwriters to stand on their own. But after several years of lobbying — and under-the-breath frustration — it’s finally here, and although there are some questions about the rules, all parties appear ecstatic.

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There is, however, some fine print: This is not another award for the Taylor Swifts and Paul McCartneys of the world, unless they specifically wrote songs for other artists. The official 65th Grammy Awards Rules and Guidelines specify: “Songwriters must have written a minimum of five songs in which they are credited ‘solely’ as a songwriter or co-writer. Songs in which the songwriter was also credited as a primary or featured artist, producer or any other supporting role do not qualify to achieve a minimum song threshold for consideration.”

Bogart stresses: “It’s not intended to take away from the incredible artists or producers who write their songs. But there really wasn’t a Grammy award that honors the people whose job is to write songs for others, the ones who can say, ‘Hey, I’m not performing at the Grammys; I’m not on the cover of Rolling Stone; and you’re not going to know my name — but you’re singing my melodies and lyrics.’ And some of the songwriters who have likely submitted for [the 2023 Grammys] might have five cuts for country artists, two cuts in R&B, a pop single — they span genres and impact the musical landscape in ways that almost don’t exist in any other craft.”

However, the rules do not necessarily exclude all artists and performers, as potential nominees may submit four additional songs on which they did perform or produce. Ryan Tedder and Jon Bellion are two well-known artists who also write extensively for others. And if, for example, Ed Sheeran wrote at least five officially released songs for other artists that he didn’t perform or produce himself, “We would absolutely welcome him with open arms into this category based on those rules,” Bogart says.

While the artist-writer divide seems fairly clear-cut, some have expressed displeasure with the producer caveat: Particularly in pop, hip-hop and R&B — today’s most popular and commercially successful genres of music — songwriters often produce their work as well. Bogart responds, “Similar to the artists, they could submit five songs where they only wrote, as well as four they wrote and produced. We didn’t want to create a category that would basically be a mirror image of producer of the year, and I actually think it’d be wonderful if somebody qualified for both — it would show just how much they impacted the landscape.”

Another potential wrinkle is the occasional, usually surreptitious practice of a person receiving a songwriting credit (and royalties) for business reasons, rather than a substantive musical or lyrical contribution — a tactic that dates back to the dawn of the music industry. However, Bogart says there’s a guardrail in place for those as well.

“That was a contributing factor to the five-song threshold, because mostly that’s not happening five times in any given year,” he says. “And even if it does, we have a committee to safeguard against any of that.”

Linda Moran, CEO of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, tells Variety, “Since ‘it all begins with a song,’ it is hard to believe that it took so long for songwriters to be adequately acknowledged as an integral part of the recording process. Although the award’s requirements are confusing, if not controversial, the Academy is to be applauded for creating the award and for their good intentions. At the end of the day, any time a songwriter is honored is a time for celebration!”

To be fair, this is the category’s first year, and under Mason the Academy has shown no hesitation to change rules that aren’t really working in practice — most notably, the decision last year to do away with most of the “secret” committees that had previously curated the larger voting body’s list of nominees. However, the committees remain for a handful of specialized “craft” categories including producer, engineering and artwork — and songwriter of the year.

And if something doesn’t seem to be working, “This isn’t set in stone forever, right?,” Bogart adds. “We’re going to get feedback from everybody: Did it fully reflect what’s going on in music? Was the barrier of entry too high or too low? And I think, like with every new category at the Recording Academy, over the years you’ll see tweaks to make it right.”

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