The beginning of 2005 was just as dismal as the last week of 2004. The Indian Ocean tsunami continued to dominate the news. Traditionally, and well it should be, when there is an historical event with global impact, the entertainment industry in all its various forms, grows pretty silent. For example, late night talk shows are careful to be relevant without poking fun. Many will remember after 9/11 radio put out a list of songs that could not be played as a sign of respect.
Things moved relatively slowly until the day of the Grammy Awards, February 13, 2005. Two big contenders had been the focus of a campaign since the beginning of December. Will Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill Records, had never won and this was his third nomination. The first Hawaiian Grammy would be awarded, and Charles Michael Brotman , producer of Slack Key, Vol. 2, was on one hand, a dark horse. On the other, the probability he would win was pretty high. A lot would depend on the strategy we used.
That year, the Grammys were held in Los Angeles, the same time zone I was in. Hawaii was a few hours behind, and Ackerman’s home in Vermont was a few hours ahead. I was prepared for everything and prepared for nothing at the same time. Again, I wouldn’t write a press release about a win ahead of time due to that silly little superstition.
Finally, the phone rang sometime around 2 PM and the head of Brotman’s record label was on a cell phone that continued to cut in and out. I could not hear for the life of me what Jody was saying. So I had her repeat it several times. I was pretty sure due to her excitement they’d won Hawaii’s first Grammy Award, but I had to be sure. And sure enough that was the case. Their press release was easy to put together and send off to a gazillion media outlets. The state of Hawaii had retained a separate PR firm to handle all the press for the 5 nominees, so I was in touch with them for the remainder of the afternoon.
Will Ackerman wasn’t attending the awards show, so I had to rely on Grammy.com for that news. I continued to check the site until his category came up and his was the only name in the slot. I scrolled the site up and down to make sure that only the winners were named in each category, and Ackerman had won. Since he didn’t go to Los Angeles, I told his assistant I would call her, and we’d take the situation from there – regardless. So I called her. No answer. I called Will’s office, then his studio. No answer.
About every 20 minutes for three hours I called the same three numbers over and over again. I didn’t want to leave a message really – but finally I did leave a voice mail with Will saying, “Well, it looks like you’ve won a Grammy. Call me as soon as you can.”
About two hours later he called and said he was standing in sub-zero weather in Montreal so he could hear me. He said, “What do you mean it looks like I won a Grammy?” My reply, “You won! You definitely won the Grammy!” It was a bit of a surreal experience, as I absolutely could not be in touch with media until I’d let him know. By this time it was probably six in the evening, and all music journalists knew everything I knew. But I put a press release together and sent it out far and wide until the televised portion of the Grammys was shown Pacific Time.
I stayed up til 3:00 a.m. sending the news out about our two wins and slept on the couch near my office in case the phone rang. Will called at 7:00 a.m. and we talked briefly, then off to work again for me for about a week. It was tricky this time due to working across five different time zones, and after 72 hours passed with only 7 hours sleep, things began to slow down.
The Hawaiian win had the most traction just because there was so much attention on the state for their inclusion by the Recording Academy after many, many years. Brotman had lived in Hawaii for several years but he is not a native, so there was a little dust up over that. The Hawaiian press took umbrage with the fact Brotman is Caucasian, though many slack key players on the winning album are Hawaiian natives. All in all, things worked out fine, in spite of a few altruistic opinions. It was an historic win in more ways than one!
Ackerman didn’t have any performance dates lined up around this time, which didn’t give the press much reason to keep the story moving forward. So I called a booking agent familiar with his work, and got that ball rolling. George Winston who is really responsible for reviving interest in slack key guitar worked extensively with Ackerman in the early days of Windham Hill Records, and for many years after that. Though we tried to make that point relevant within the Hawaiian community, it was all just a little too late. They were celebrating their win on their terms.
In spite of my relative novice experience in this realm of music, I discovered that strategy is most important. The few things I can say about any given nomination are:
- Hire an independent publicist to handle whatever kind of campaign you decide upon. A record label is really in no position to handle a campaign especially if they have more than one nominee in any given category.
- Over the top campaigning is frowned upon by the Recording Academy. Follow their rules.
- Assess strengths and weaknesses for your nominee and compare those facts to everyone else nominated in the category.
- Once a nominee, that will always remain on the record. It is among the highest honors in a musician’s career. Over the years I’ve seen people stretch that truth beyond reasonable limits. If someone submits an album for consideration, it is simply a submission. Anyone is welcome to do so within the timelines and guidelines set forth by the Recording Academy. By no means does submitting a recording mean anything more than that. There is no such thing as “almost a nominee or making it through the first round.”
- Be prepared for anything – good, bad, indifferent. My experience is proof positive Murphy’s Law doesn’t care who you are – if it can happen, it very well might.