The logic behind the awards’ 84 different honors, explained

When the 2017 Grammy Awards are held on Sunday, February 12, only a handful of winners will be announced during the performance-filled ceremony that airs on live TV.

But the Grammys will hand out awards in literally dozens of less glamorous categories before the live broadcast begins.

Just what are these categories? What’s being rewarded? Read on.

1) Why are there so many categories?

The Grammys are a massive awards show. There are 84 total categories where someone can take home an award, and, believe it or not, there used to be more than 100. The current categories run the gamut from Song of the Year to Best Metal Performance and everything in between. There are so many categories because they must cover any song written in a given year — yes, even your cover of “Take on Me” done in the style of traditional Inuit throat singing.

Here is the full list of every Grammy category.

2) Why does it matter how many categories there are?

Awards are only as important as they are difficult to receive.

Take the Academy Awards, for example. There are only 24 categories that a person can win an Oscar in, and they vary in prestige. For male actors, for example, only two people (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor) can say they are an Academy Award winner in a given year. You only have so many chances.

The Grammys give out almost four times as many awards as the Academy Awards, and they vary only slightly in prestige. The distinction between the award for Rock Song and the award for R&B song isn’t one of quality. It’s one of genre.

At the Grammys, talent is split into so many different categories that winning an award doesn’t matter nearly as much. It would be like if the Oscars split the Best Picture category into nine genres of movie and awarded each film a gold statue.

But there are a few higher-prestige awards — four of them, to be specific.

Taylor Swift won three Grammys in 2016: Album of the Year and Best Pop Album for 1989, and Best Music Video for “Bad Blood.” Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Taylor Swift won three Grammys in 2016: Album of the Year and Best Pop Album for 1989, and Best Music Video for “Bad Blood.”

3) What are the biggest categories?

  • Record of the Year
  • Album of the Year
  • Song of the Year
  • Best New Artist

These four awards are the big guns of the Grammys. Winning one of them means an artist gets to give a speech during the primetime broadcast and have a picture of her kissing her trophy plastered across the internet.

Winning a Grammy can increase sales for artists who receive their awards during the live show, a boost known as the “Grammy effect.” In particular, since 2001 the Album of the Year Award has historically bumped sales by at least 50 percent and sometimes by more than 900 percent, according to data gathered by NPR.

If you’re lucky enough to be awarded a Grammy during the awards’ live broadcast (an honor usually limited to the big four categories and the best albums in rock, country, R&B, and rap), your album will see a sales bump. Beck, who won Album of the Year in 2015 for Morning Phase, saw a sales bump of 945 percent after the Grammys. Taylor Swift’s 1989, which won Album of the Year in 2016, saw a sales bump of 91 percent after its win.

But that high is short-lived even for a big four winner. Can you name the Best New Artist from 2016? (It was Meghan Trainor.) What about Rap Album? (Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.) Maybe you can’t name the last Oscar winner for Best Picture, either, but at least you immediately know what that means. (It was Spotlight, by the way.)

Winning more than one Grammy in a major category can bring a much bigger increase in sales, however. After Adele won three of the big four awards in 2012 (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year for her album 21 and its song “Rolling in the Deep”), her post-award sales bounce was 207 percent — and she has since sold more than 10 million copies of the award-winning album. This year, something similar could happen to Beyoncé, or again to Adele; both women are nominated in multiple categories, including Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year.

But it’s not like Adele or Beyoncé was hurting for sales before the Grammys. Paradoxically, you’re more likely to win multiple trophies in the big four if you’re already a big seller.

Sam Smith won big at the 2015 Grammys, taking home four trophies including Best New Artist, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year.  Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Sam Smith won big at the 2015 Grammys, taking home four trophies, including Best New Artist, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year.

4) What is the difference between Song of the Year and Record of the Year?

The answer is actually much simpler than it might seem.

Song of the Year is an award for a song itself, not the performance of a song. It is awarded to the songwriters who wrote the lyrics and melody.

Record of the Year is the award for a song in its entirety, as it appears on an album. It includes the artist’s performance of the song, the song’s production values, the song’s recording engineering, and the mixing of the performance. Record of the Year is awarded to the winning song’s producers, mixers, and engineers, as well as the performing artist.

5) What is the difference between a Performance award and a Song award?

In almost every genre there are two awards — one for the year’s best song and one for the year’s best performance. For example, in 2016, Best Rock song went to the members of the Alabama Shakes for “Don’t Wanna Fight.” But Best Rock Performance went to “Circe” by Ghost. This could seem confusing, but it’s almost exactly the same as the distinction between Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

Song awards are given to songwriters. Performance awards are given to everyone involved in a song, including the performing artist. If the Grammy powers that be wanted to make the difference less confusing, they could rename Record of the Year to Performance of the Year.

All of this has to do with the way songs are written and copyrighted. In fact, there are two copyright owners to every single song. The first copyright, known as the mechanical copyright, belongs to the people who write and compose the song. (Its name stems from the invention of mechanical pianos.) The Best Song award, then, honors the songwriters behind massive pop stars. The second copyright belongs to the performer.

However, because so many artists write their own songs, it’s possible to win both Best Song and Best Performance for the same track. For example, in 1971 Paul Simon won the Grammy for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year, because he both wrote and performed the Simon & Garfunkel song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Alicia Keys holds her 2002 Grammys, one of which was for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, an award that no longer exists.  Vince Bucci/Getty Images
Alicia Keys holds her 2002 Grammys, one of which was for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, an award that no longer exists.

6) Are the categories the same every year?

No. When the Grammys debuted in 1959, they had just 28 categories. At the 53rd Grammys (in 2011), there were 109 categories. Since then, the Recording Academy has consolidated some of the categories to cut down on awards glut:

According to the Grammys website:

In early 2009, The Academy embarked on its first-ever comprehensive evaluation of the GRAMMY Awards structure and process. A great deal of research, discussion, and evaluation led to a call for change, embracing the idea that a transformation of the entire awards structure would ensure that each genre would be treated in parity to others.

Between 2011 and 2012, the Grammy committee cut 31 categories, including Best Rock Solo Vocal Performance, Best Urban/Alternative Performance, and Best Contemporary Jazz Album. You can see a breakdown of the categories here. Since then, the Grammys have added a handful of categories, to put the current total at 84.

The most important change made was the removal of the distinction between male and female soloists. Instead of Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, there’s now just Best Pop Solo Performance, which pits artists like Beyoncé and Justin Bieber against each other. The change also removed many of the R&B genre’s distinctions, including Contemporary R&B. This later led to the creation of the Urban Contemporary category in 2011.

7) How do songs get nominated in a category?

The nomination and voting process for the Grammys is complex. Members of the Recording Academy are allowed to nominate candidates in the big four categories and then in up to nine genre categories. But those votes might not actually count: The nomination votes are tabulated, but then a private committee decides on the actual nominees.

Once the nominees are chosen, all Recording Academy members get to vote for the winners of the big four awards, as well as the winners of up to 20 genre categories. The secret committee (presumably) does not intervene.

If you have more questions about how the Academy selects the award winners, you can find all the answers in Vox’s Grammy voting explainer.

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