Grammy Noms: Why Live Matters

Bruno Mars
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Atlantic Records
– Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars performs at New York

With this year’s Grammy nominations announced on Tuesday (Nov. 28) morning, the gala 60th anniversary of the venerable awards show will return to New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the first time in 15 years, since 2003.

After all the hoopla about who was honored – and who was snubbed (we’re looking at you, Ed Sheeran) – the CBS telecast on January 28, 2018 will be less about the awards themselves, with only a handful being given out on-air, and more about the performances. 

Pundits tend to forget, above everything, the Grammy Awards is a TV show that rises and falls on the quality of the artists to not only command the live audience, but the millions who watch from their couches. And while the Grammys recognize recordings, live performances play a large part in who gets honored.

That is why six-time nominee Bruno Mars, who captured nods for Album of the Year (24K Magic), Record (“24K Magic”) and Song of the Year (“That’s What I Like”), represents must-see TV.  We’ve already seen what he can do at the 2014 Super Bowl and in 2016, when he joined Mark Ronson on “Uptown Funk” along with Beyoncé and Coldplay for the finale at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif as well as recently slaying at the 2017 American Music Awards (below).

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The European leg of Mars’ “24K Magic” world tour started in Antwerp, Belgium, in March, grossing more than $50.6 million for 44 shows in 34 cities (with 98 percent of tickets sold), according to box office reports submitted to Pollstar. The U.S. leg kicked off with a July 15 concert at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas that grossed nearly $1.9 million, with 16,281 tickets sold (98 percent capacity). After wrapping up the U.S. with three nights at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., earlier this month, Mars will close out 2018 with gigs in South America and two nights in Las Vegas Dec. 30-31.

As one Grammy voter told Variety, “Did you see Bruno’s show? Every member of that band was playing his ass off and the choreography was unbelievable.  If there was an entertainer of the year category for the Grammys, he would win it.” Perhaps that helps explain as well as anything the absence of one-man band Sheeran from this year’s major categories.

The year’s other two big Grammy nominees – Jay-Z with eight nods and Kendrick Lamar at seven, each contenders for Album and Record of the Year – are both exceptions to the rule that hip-hop doesn’t translate to the live stage.

While Jay-Z’s current “4:44” tour, which began at Anaheim’s Honda Center on Oct. 27 and closes at the Forum on Dec. 21, has been plagued by a few cancellations and below-market-value tickets on secondary sites, the hip-hop icon is a proven concert draw.

Lamar has announced 17 European dates for his “The DAMN. Tour” starting Feb. 7 at Dublin’s 3Arena with opening act James Blake. The rapper spent the summer playing 36 North American dates from July through September, including sold-out gigs at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.; Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, Wash.; and American Airlines Center in Dallas; which grossed more than $3.5 million.

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As for the other major contenders, Album of the Year nominee Lorde (Melodrama) launched an ambitious, 59-date “Melodrama” world tour in Manchester, England, in September. After playing Europe she headed to her native New Zealand, as well as Australia, in November. The tour resumes in North America in March 2018. Her sizzling performance at this past summer’s Lollapalooza festival in Chicago was memorably cut short by a thunderstorm after she got soaked and was forced to leave the stage. 

Childish Gambino
Jack Plunkett / Invision / AP
– Childish Gambino
Austin City Limits Music Festival, Zilker Park, Austin, TX

The final Album of the Year nominee is Childish Gambino for Awaken, My Love! This was a major surprise in the category, with Donald Glover taking time from his busy acting and producing career to create a funk tribute to

Due to his busy schedule, Glover – who has told the media he intends to retire the CG character – played only a handful of dates in 2017, including an appearance at Governors Ball in Randall’s Island, N.Y., and a sold-out co-bill show with Dave Chappelle at Radio City Music Hall that grossed $857,265.

One of the main Grammy awards where live performances are key is the Best Music Film category, where Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ One More Time With Feeling competes with Amir-Ben Levy’s epic Grateful Dead doc, Long Strange Trip; the HBO Jimmy Iovine/Dr. Dre feature, The Defiant Ones; PBS’ Soundbreaking, about the art of music production and recording; and Two Trains Runnin’, detailing the civil rights marches in Mississippi in 1964, which included college students along with blues musicians and record collectors.

Director Andrew Dominik’s One More Time with Feeling captures the making of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ album, Skeleton Tree, filmed in 3D, which was heavily influenced by the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur.  Reliving that experience while recording the painful album offers a raw, unvarnished look at Cave’s method, which teeters between real-life anguish and the artifice of music which attempts to put tragedy into some kind of perspective. Dominik’s fly-on-the-wall observations wrench the emotions to create art.

The other major, performance-based documentary, Long Strange Trip, sees director Ben Levy approach the movie like a Grateful Dead concert.  Filmed for Amazon in six, 38-to-58-minute acts, taken together, it goes on assorted tangents and riffs just like a Dead show, with forays into the band’s psychedelic past, its roadies and extended family, its fans and how mainstream success was its undoing. The live appeal of the band was cemented by its series of five “Fare-Thee-Well” 50th anniversary tour dates in 2015, which grossed upwards of $50 million, culminating in three sold-out shows at Chicago’s 

So, when you’re tuning into the Grammy Awards in January, be aware that, while live performances are only honored with TV time, some of those statues being handed out are the result of on-stage charisma, spawned by tireless road work at sold-out venues, entertaining millions of fans.