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How Grammy Wins and Losses Shape Artists’ Creative Trajectories

What happens to musicians after they receive recognition from their peers? Prof. Balázs Kovács and his co-authors found that Grammy winners tend to branch out in new directions afterward—but nominees who don’t win become more creatively cautious.

Billie Eilish with an armful of trophies at the Grammy Awards in 2020.

Billie Eilish at the Grammy Awards in 2020.

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

You might assume that getting nominated for an award is good for an artist, even if they don’t win. After all, the recognition shows that they’re respected by peers and often increases their sales.

But a new study by Balázs Kovács, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Yale SOM, and his colleagues suggests that these career nods might come with an artistic downside. The researchers analyzed Grammy awards over six decades and tracked how much the winners and nominees “differentiated” themselves from other musicians afterward—that is, whether their albums became more or less similar to those by others in their genre.

The team found that winners often branched out in creative new directions. But nominees who didn’t win tended to play it safe and conform more strongly to their genre’s styles.

Since artistic awards typically have five or ten nominees for each category and only one winner, “the net effect is actually negative,” Kovács says. “Having awards might be bad for the field.”

The study didn’t delve into the reasons that nominees might become less creative. Perhaps they felt they should stick to tried-and-true styles in order to win next time, Kovács suggests. Or the loss might have caused some anxiety, which dampened their ability to form new ideas.

It’s a matter of taste whether the more “differentiated” music produced by the winners was actually better than the nominees’ music. But in general, unique material is what moves art forward, Kovács says: “If people were to do the same thing again and again and again,” that wouldn’t be good for the field.

In a previous study, Kovács investigated the effects of awards on books. His team found that winning a major award substantially boosted the number of ratings the book received on Goodreads. But the average rating tended to drop after a win, perhaps because many people had bought the book only because of the award—not because they thought the subject matter and style would appeal to them.

Kovács and his collaborators, Giacomo Negro of Emory University and Glenn Carroll of Stanford University, wondered if awards affected artists themselves, not just the way their work was received. “It’s much less known how the actual artists change,” Kovács says.

One could imagine that an award might allow winners to make bolder art because they’ve gained credibility. On the other hand, the artist might figure that they should just keep using the formula that works. Or even if they wanted to become more experimental, their publisher—such as a book publisher or record company—might push them to keep making the same type of material because it sells well.

Kovács’ team decided to focus on four major Grammy categories from 1959 to 2018: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. They gathered data on albums by artists who had released music at some point during that period, including winners, nominees, and musicians who weren’t nominated.

For each album, the researchers examined two sets of data. One set came from the database AllMusic, which tags albums with genres (such as Blues, Country, and R&B) and styles (such as Fusion, Experimental, and Indie Rock).

The other type of data was the music’s “sonic” attributes, such as the tempo, whether the songs were heavily vocal or instrumental, how much was acoustic, and so on. This data came from the company The Echo Nest (now part of Spotify), which uses machine learning software to generate numerical scores for 10 of these features.

Based on this information, the team could compare every pair of albums and quantify how different they were from each other. Artists then received scores capturing how different their work’s style and sonic features were from other musicians’ albums in their genre released over the last three years. The researchers also gathered information about the albums’ Billboard rankings, production credits, and record labels.

Before the awards, the winners and non-winning nominees appeared to be similar across many criteria. For instance, the team didn’t see significant gaps between the two groups in their commercial success, production resources, or how much their music differed from others in their genre.

But after the awards, the winners’ stylistic differentiation scores tended to go up. (Their sonic differentiation didn’t change much.) For instance, when Jody Watley won in 1987, her album used contemporary R&B and dance-pop styles; afterward, she veered into the rock/pop genre and urban and house styles. Grammy winners might have gained more bargaining power with their record label and thus more freedom to shape their projects, the researchers speculated.

In contrast, the rest of the nominees “actually become more similar to the rest of the genre” in style, Kovács says. “They become less creative.” One example is the guitarist Charlie Byrd, who was nominated in 1962 for an album that incorporated styles such as bossa nova and Brazilian jazz. His albums over the next decade largely adhered to the same aesthetic approach.

That said, winners didn’t uniformly benefit from their recognition. Among musicians with independent record labels, winners’ stylistic differentiation scores were 29% higher than those of other nominees; for those with major labels, winners’ scores were only 10% higher. The first group might have had more latitude to take creative risks because they could threaten to leave if they weren’t happy, Kovács says.

And an artist’s previous commercial success mattered too. Winners who had ranked at the bottom of the Billboard chart before the award increased their differentiation scores much more than those who had topped the chart. The successful musicians might have felt less compelled to change since they were already making money with their current approach.

The study raises the question of whether award-granting organizations should avoid releasing the names of nominees. But this practice would deprive nominees of a career boost; the team did find that their Billboard rankings went up even if they didn’t win.

Future research could explore the psychological and sociological reasons that the winners’ and nominees’ behavior diverged. Until then, simply knowing about the risk of becoming more conformist might help nominees resist such impulses. “They should be aware that this is happening,” Kovács says.

Department: Research