NARAS: The Evil Empire by Ross Johnson

Ross Johnson has been around the Memphis music scene for over 30 years. He has some opinions. Here they are. 

As threatened a few weeks back, here is my poisoned take on the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, aka NARAS.  Strictly my jaundiced opinion, but what exactly does NARAS do?  Well, they are the association behind the annual Grammy Awards, the music biz smooch fest that is televised on network television every March (do I have the date right, voting members of the Academy?), the program where recordings and artists you never heard of are feted and lauded in a kind of reverse mirror image version of the Oscars.

And like the Oscars, lots of industry figures are trotted out to present and receive obscure and dubious awards for lifetime achievements in the biz or for best microphone placement by a studio engineer while being screamed at by a coked-up producer. Alright, perhaps not for microphone placement under duress, but awards are given for many, many reasons.  And the cumulative effect of all those awards given is rather numbing so that by program end you are seething in anticipation of who will win artist or record of the year.  Sour grapes?  You bet!

I first became aware of NARAS locally in late 1982 when I heard a couple of Memphis music industry stalwarts giggle about being “voting members of the Academy now” and how they were going to vote for Avalon by Roxy Music as best album of the year (it probably was that dismal of a year).  What struck me as odd was that these two figures had always been more than cynical about Memphis music biz politics, eschewing the usual guff that accompanied the business of making music in the Bluff City.  Instead they were positively bubbly about their chance to, uh, have a voice that would be heard by their peers in the Academy.  I was a bit distressed by their uncharacteristic chirpiness and more than a little curious about why they were so jazzed about being members of NARAS.

Oh, and I got my chance to learn about the role that NARAS played as the 80s wore on into the 90s and Memphis came to rely more and more on its past glories to maintain its reputation as a music town to still rival Nashville and Los Angeles.  Tons of vanity recordings (no, I won’t go there again, I swear) were done in local studios; even some spec deals were awarded and actual major label recording contracts were handed out to a few local artists to not much avail in terms of record sales.  And NARAS was there to pound the rah-rah drums like a chamber of commerce styled booster club.  Meanwhile, a handful of recording studios, producers and engineers quietly propped up the rotting infrastructure of the local music industry by keeping their doors open to clients, both major label and indie, during this often disheartening period.  I won’t list the studios or the names of the people who kept the real recording industry afloat here then, but they were here well before the ascendance of NARAS into its current inflated position.

Alright maybe I am wrong about all this (ya think, Ross?) and there is nothing shameful in being involved with NARAS. However, I do know that until the local music industry was effectively shut down as a vital commercial concern in the mid/late1970s (I know that I covered this slightly in my last installment, but bear with me for a minute) music makers in this town were concerned with the making and selling of Memphis music, not with NARAS committees and becoming a voting member of the Academy (I need to get off that phrase, but I just can’t resist overusing it).  I have been to a few NARAS sponsored events in the past twenty years and run into a number of artists and songwriters who sold millions of recordings during the golden era of Memphis music (oh, let’s say 1955 until about 1975) and I just want to ask them what they were doing hobnobbing with never-weres and losers like myself.  So far I have not gotten up the nerve to ask any of my former idols why they were involved with NARAS when they had once tasted real commercial and artistic success.  At least, not until now I haven’t.  I guess you get bored and lonely even after you had all those hits and amassed your fortune.  You need someone to hang out with, to talk to about the glory days …hence NARAS.

If the failure of the local biz around 1975 opened up the door for NARAS it also allowed the not visibly talented like myself to begin recording and performing under the inclusive umbrella of punk rock.  I am grateful for the chance to abuse unsuspecting audiences and record buyers with my brand of musical magic, but perhaps the democratization and leveling of performance standards in the wake of Memphis music’s commercial implosion was not such a good thing.  As an old friend last night said to me at a local club where we witnessed an indie band (can that term still be used, I wonder) from Australia who reminded us both of a tuneless Neil Diamond tribute act or a touring company of Godspell:  “Maybe punk rock was not such a good idea.  People should have to take a talent test before they can play live or make a record.”  Next time:  Where do we go to take that talent test?

See Also:

Memphis, TN: Vanity Recording Capital of the Universe by Ross Johnson

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  • Latenttendencies

    The only evil local empire consists of people who will read
    this bullshit and follow untalented, unsuccessful, bitter wanna-be’s like Ross

  • guest

    I love Ross the Boss.

  • Guest

    If you went to and learned about how much NARAS has helped this region your opinion may only be focused towards the grammies and not the organization as a whole.


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