‘It’s the Damn Song’
For years, having a Grammy category exclusively for songwriters felt like a pipe dream. “As creatives, songwriters are consistently under-credited and largely under-compensated,” wrote manager and executive Nick Jarjour in an April column for Variety. That story echoed one he had written four years earlier, in which he called the lack of an award “a glaring fundamental issue.” At the time, Jarjour, along with other Academy members, submitted a proposal for the category’s inclusion, but it eventually failed.
Of course, there have always been ways for songwriters to get honored at the Grammys in some way, via genre awards like Best Rock Song and the general-field Song of the Year. But while producers have their own field in Producer of the Year, songwriters themselves — in this case those who write the music but don’t have a hand in producing or singing it — never had an equivalent way to be recognized on their own. Sure, songwriters’ organizations like BMI had given out awards for years, and the Academy of Country Music began awarding Songwriter of the Year in 2012, but both lacked the visibility and authority of Music’s Biggest Night.
In that April Variety column, Jarjour wrote about his “sense of renewed optimism and hope — that an era of songwriter recognition and remuneration will come.” He was proven right a few months later, when the Grammys announced an award for Songwriter of the Year. That four-year reversal is the best illustration of the recent progress songwriters have made in the industry, from sheer visibility to advocacy for better pay. And the Recording Academy has been a late, but eventual, conduit for that progress. They established a Songwriters & Composers Wing in March 2021, which quickly got to work on this award proposal. Only in 2018 did primary songwriters (on at least 33 percent of the album) begin sharing in nominations and wins for Album of the Year, while the Academy began crediting all songwriters (along with producers, engineers, and featured artists) on AOTY selections just last year.
The new award is a subject of excitement in the songwriting community, a tight-knit coterie of creatives due to the collaborative nature of their work. A total of 62 songwriters submitted for the inaugural category — a varied slate of rising stars and established names from across genres, including performers and producers (and even one duo). To be eligible, a songwriter needed five songs on which they did not perform or produce, to keep the focus on people who primarily write; singer-songwriters and writer-producers could submit four additional songs where they performed or produced.
To capture the importance of the moment, Vulture spoke to three career songwriters about what the Songwriter of the Year Grammy means to them. All three hoped the award would increase visibility for artists like them at a time when they still need it and give nominees and winners a much-needed career boost. “I hope people are happy about it,” says Lori McKenna, a longtime country songwriter. “The intent is to recognize craft songwriters, and, like, what’s wrong with that?”
Songs you know: “Cozy” (Beyoncé), “Rain on Me” (Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande), “positions” (Ariana Grande)
Past Grammy nominations: Best R&B Song for “No Guidance” (Chris Brown featuring Drake)
Other honors: Two Hot 100 No. 1s
Submitted for Songwriter of the Year: Yes
You can’t have a beat without a song. Music is a collaboration, and they need to shed light on everybody who helps with that. Creating Songwriter of the Year, it’s a big step. Finally we get our just due, because we get the short end of the stick at the Grammys every year.
Just giving the producers the attention [through Producer of the Year] is unethical because music is a collaboration; it’s 50/50. It makes us feel like we’re not valued and that we don’t matter as much when it comes to creating a song. When you’re working with artists and it comes down to fees, you give the producer money, but the songwriter has to wait nine months, maybe, to see a small amount of money if it’s not on the radio. Labels have budgets and they don’t want to give it to songwriters, even just a small fee. They’re so ready to cut the check for one half of the creators but not the other half. Songwriters have less leverage, too, because producers own the master.
I definitely submitted, so fingers crossed. It was bittersweet because one, it was like, Wow, finally, I get to hopefully be recognized for the years that I’ve been working. But the bitter part was, like, Man, if only we had this four years ago. I remember my first year coming in the game, I was on two Grammy Award–winning albums, and one was nominated for Album of the Year. But now it creates even more motivation. It definitely gets the brain pumping, and it makes me more eager to go be a go-getter: go get more records, collaborate more, go make more music for the world.
Sometimes people and even artists don’t know about other artists who end up winning Grammys, but because they won and it’s on TV, it puts more eyes on them and more people will listen to their music. I feel like it’s the same thing with songwriters, like, Oh, wait, this person did this record and this record and this record? I gotta call them up for next year so I can have them work on my album. So it’s a win-win for everybody.
Songs you know: “Girl Crush” (Little Big Town), “Humble and Kind” (Tim McGraw), “I Bet You Think About Me” (Taylor Swift featuring Chris Stapleton)
Past Grammys: Best Country Song for “Girl Crush,” Best Country Song for “Humble and Kind,” Best Country Song for “Crowded Table” (the Highwomen)
Past Grammy nominations: Song of the Year for “Girl Crush,” Best Country Song for “When Someone Stops Loving You” (Little Big Town), Song of the Year for “Always Remember Us This Way” (Lady Gaga), Song of the Year for “A Beautiful Noise” (Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile)
Other honors: 2017 ACM Songwriter of the Year
Submitted for Songwriter of the Year: No
As someone who’s been part of the Nashville community, I’ve gotten to know and write with so many people who, this is their craft. It’s really amazing that the Academy is shining a light on that. Especially now, with streaming and all the talk about, “How do we get paid? How do we make a living?,” with album sales not being what they were. Us songwriters have buckled down together a little bit. And what I know more than anything about songwriters is we work together so well. It makes sense that when the business side clicks in, we start thinking, We have to band together. To have a little recognition in the songwriter department helps, just so people know what songwriters are. Music listeners that don’t know that song was written by these people; they sat in the room for days and picked this thing apart and put it back together and then started over again. It’s really cool to have somebody pay a little extra attention. It seems like a little part, but it’s the damn song. [Laughs.]
The ACM Award, I was sort of shocked by that. That was a fairly new award. It’s such a blessing when those things happen. You have conversations like it’s not a big deal, but it is a big deal, or it doesn’t make a difference in your career, but it does open doors.
For the Songwriters & Composers Wing to be so new and to have something like this that they worked so hard on and can celebrate with all the songwriters is amazing. I was on the outside of it, just recently paying attention to it. But those are tricky things they had to figure out, the best way to shine a light on the craft songwriter. I think they were really careful about making the qualifications.
When I first heard the qualifications, I looked at who among my peers would fall into this category this year, just out of sheer wondering, Is this gonna work for everybody? From my understanding of my little bubble of friends, the ones that are really finding success would qualify in this category. I think it’s great that it’s not genre based — it’s all of us, because a songwriter’s a songwriter at the end of the day. I feel like the people who are gonna be nominated for this award are really people who are gonna be at the top of their game. They’re songwriting hearts off.
Songs you know: “Havana” (Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug), “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” (Kelly Clarkson), “Midnight Sky” (Miley Cyrus)
Past Grammy nominations: Song of the Year for “Stronger,” Album of the Year for Justice (Justin Bieber)
Other honors: 2019 BMI Pop Songwriter of the Year, two Hot 100 No. 1s
Submitted for Songwriter of the Year: Yes
I’d always hoped for it. Naturally, songwriters fall under the radar — they’re in the background, so they miss the spotlight. Over the last five years, there’s been a real surge in awareness for what the role of a songwriter is in the industry, and I think that has to do with the community coming together and advocating for songwriter rights. So this is, in a way, a response to that. The recognition definitely feels long overdue, but I feel very fortunate to be a songwriter during this time. The industry is starting to take us seriously.
The community has expanded, and I think that is because there’s been focus on what the role of the songwriter is. When I started in the industry, I had no idea this was a career path to take. I was an aspiring artist. So I learned the hard way, by only being able to get into the studio as a songwriter, there were more opportunities for me that way than there were for me to get in to work on my artist project. That was about 12 years ago when I started on this journey. The more we can encourage young songwriters, the better. Right now, there isn’t really a set path for how to break in this industry. It’s unconventional — with the force of TikTok, there aren’t exactly a known set of hoops you have to jump through. I think it’ll help encourage aspiring songwriters of future generations, especially those who weren’t aware of what the role of a songwriter is.
Look at Andrew Watt, for example, when he won Producer of the Year. He’s somebody I collaborate with on a regular basis. The options were completely open. He was getting calls from his idols, and I think he’ll say the same. The Academy is very powerful. People are watching, artists are watching, and it’s a great way to be on the right people’s radars. I think it’s going to make waves for our community.
And it’s just fun to have something to strive for. It gives you a little bit more incentive to want to do your best work. I think the competitiveness is really healthy. I was reading through the list of 62 songwriters, and I have a personal relationship and deep connection with so many people in this who’ve submitted. We’ve had to support each other, because there has been a lack of that throughout the industry. Now I feel like we’re on the cusp of something really awesome.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B, which won Best Rap Album and was nominated for Album of the Year, and Everything Is Love by the Carters, which won Best Urban Contemporary Album.McKenna names Hillary Lindsey and Ashley Gorley as examples — both of whom submitted for the award.In 2021, after producing for Dua Lipa, Miley Cyrus, and Post Malone.