Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Simple--maybe too simple--And Obvious--maybe too obvious--Solution

The old saw states that every cloud has a silver lining  When terrible things happen, the natural thing to do is to seek out the possible good that can be gained from it.  The depressing rains bring life to the earth below, a bitter break-up can lead a person to finding their soulmate, filing taxes leads to refunds, etc.

When it comes to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the struggle has been made to find an upside to this year's class.  For what it's worth, though, the cloud hasn't been too terrible overall.  As many have mentioned, this class knocks out at least two acts whose omissions many rock devotees have called criminal, plus a rap act that shouldn't have needed more than two nominations to get in (not getting in the first time is understandable, as Public Enemy was also on the ballot that year).  However, the recurring opinion is that while this year's class is good, it fell incredibly short of its potential.  So people have been looking for a silver lining to this year's class.  One sentiment has been that at least a huge dent has been made in the classic rock backlog, a nice sentiment but ultimately false.  When the list of classic rock acts that are considered criminally snubbed is tallied, these four are but drops in the bucket.  Significant drops, maybe even splashes, but it is a mere morsel of meat to placate the rockist crowd.

The bigger silver lining to the cloud of this class's limited diversity is the conversation that it has sparked in the wake of its announcement.  Not just a sparked conversation, it has been something that seems to have lit fires under the derrieres of people who follow the Rock Hall.  The conversation has been about how to go about ensuring greater diversity in the Rock Hall's classes.  The biggest point of contention was that there were no women inducted, not even in the other three categories.  However, this is not the only time the Rock Hall has done this.  The Classes of 1986, 1992, 2001, 2003, and 2004 have all been bereft of people with two X-Chromosomes.  It's infrequent, though three occurrences during the last decade could be viewed as alarming, and it's the first time it's happened in over a decade, so people who are crying misogyny seem to have some credence to their complaint.  However, as has been pointed out, there is also a lack of diversity, though not as stunning, in race, musical styles, and even decades of prominence, N.W.A. being essentially the only inductee that represents diversity in any of those three categories.  This year's class has been the epicenter for this perfect storm of missing diversity, that came from a fairly diverse ballot, and removed from that context, is actually a pretty decent class.

Of course, "pretty decent" is only an acceptable standard for university cafeterias.  What is expected from Halls Of Fame is a lot greater than that.  Therefore, the issue now becomes how to improve from merely "pretty decent."  What can be done to assure diversity in future classes of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?  To answer that question, another question must be answered first: is diversity actually a desired goal?  The word and idea of "diversity" has been elevated in our modern Western societies to a level that is tantamount to "Sacred Cow."  The mere thought of challenging the need for diversity can trigger any number of kneejerk reactions from any number of people, but sometimes it's necessary to ask that question, even if for no other reason than to have the answer when it is asked.  Such is the case here.  With the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the answer is unequivocally yes, diversity is absolutely warranted with their classes because rock and roll itself is a diaspora of a musical style, from its roots in various musical styles to its evolution which has branched out in a multitude of sub-genres.

With the need for diversity and variety confirmed, the next step is to find where the attempt to achieve diversity breaks down.  While the Nominating Committee are certainly responsible for putting those four classic rock acts on the ballot, as well as two more for a total of six, they also put nine very commendable names on the ballot that dealt with sub-genres ranging from disco, to industrial, to post-punk, dance music, roots music, and so on.  So while they could have restricted the number of classic rock acts nominated, the fault really doesn't lie too deeply with the NomCom.  Does it lie with the voting bloc?  Possibly, but this too is too easy a scapegoat.  While heads have been scratched as to why people like Baba Booey get a vote, or why they kowtowed to Eddie Trunk, who is now without a platform since as a member of the bloc, he pretty much forfeits his right to gripe about it--the fact is that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of seven hundred voting members, all with an individual voice, and there are probably enough permutations to select five names from fifteen and theoretically get seven hundred unique votes.  The voting bloc may be a part of it, but the odds and laws of chance are such that it wouldn't stick very well.

As cliche as it may sound, perhaps the blame lies mainly with the system itself, because again, the class that emerged out of the ballot is still a pretty decent class.  Perhaps the real tragedy was more the fact that voters could only vote for five artists, and that the Foundation was resolved to have only five Performer inductees this year.  Perhaps the best way to ensure diversity in future classes would be to have bigger classes.  More than five inductees.  This is a conclusion that more and more Rock Hall enthusiasts are coming to, and while there is not unanimity how to alter procedures to make this a reality, there is a general consensus that this may be the best approach toward having a stronger Hall and representing the rock and roll diaspora better.  Even NomCom members are starting to see it that way, or at least one of them is.  In an interview during this last voting cycle, member Dave Marsh talked about the correlation between the small classes and the annual televised broadcast of the ceremonies, stating that "that tail wags the dog every year."  As an insider, Marsh seems to confirm the suspicion that the small classes are primarily because of the impetus to have a program whose broadcast is marketable, which includes not having an excessive broadcast running time.  Even so, the restlessness grows with the frustration of these small classes.

But even while the consensus grows that classes should be larger, how to make classes larger isn't so agreed upon.  Some would prefer using a veterans' committee, akin to the practice of the Baseball Hall Of Fame, which would essentially create different strata of Performer inductees.  The Hall has already given the public a taste of what that might be like--in 2012, when they inducted the six groups that should've been inducted with their front men in 1986, 1987, 1990, and 1998.  Admittedly, the overall opinion was congratulatory on fixing those particular glaring oversights, but there has nevertheless been a feeling of an asterisk next to those six groups' names because they were chosen by special committee, possibly because special committees are how inductees in the other categories, that is inductees that are NOT Performer inductees, are selected.  So, maybe the idea of a veterans' committee isn't the best, but if it works for Cooperstown, maybe it's something keep on the back burner.

Another possibility is the quota system.  Divide the nominees into categories or sections, and instruct voters to vote for no more than a certain number of choices from each category.  In this case, maybe separate them into guitar-rock bands, R&B acts, female acts, or by whatever categorization is desired.  This was the model that was employed by the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame: they broke down their nominees list by decades of prominence, and limited the number of votes that could be cast for nominees in each decade.  Unfortunately, this is really only feasible in the short term.  By 2005, the quality of inductees slipped pretty steeply, and in that Hall's last three years, acts like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Capris, and the Duprees got in while much more noteworthy and popular acts like the Crew Cuts, the Dramatics, and Sonny And Cher never got in.  The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame is now defunct, and while its voting system is far down on the list of things that caused its downfall, following the model of a failed system is probably also not the strongest idea.

A simpler and more obvious solution is to simply allow voters to vote for more nominees and to promise a minimum of more inductees.  The Nominating Committee has been pretty reliable in delivering diversity on their ballots, though possibly they could draft up bigger and broader ballots as well, but that's a bridge to cross after more inductees start pouring through each year.  Simply allowing voters to vote for more nominees not only promises greater diversity in their classes, but also slowly helps clear up the logjam of worthy candidates that gets ever bigger every year, all without creating strata, different tiers of Performer inductees.

This idea is not without its roadblocks of course.  The biggest one is that there are many people who want to keep the Hall small.  These are people who like to tout "This ain't the Hall Of Pretty Good," and some such people are well-connected to the powers-that-be.  Some of them used to be among them, most famously Robert Hilburn.  Hilburn has tweeted over the past several years that he seldom even sees five names on the ballot worth voting for.  When attitudes like that are attached to voices that potentially powerful, it can persuade others who also wield voting power.  However, attitudes like this are exactly what caused the logjam in the first place.  Additionally, the main criterion, that is beyond the twenty-five year rule, is "unquestionable musical excellence."  That is indeed a lofty goal, but it is an intangible one, one that is not defined easily, and is highly subjective.  Pick any act; it's a safe bet that there is a loyal fan base that firmly believes that act easily clears the hurdle of "unquestionable musical excellence."  On top of that, a "Small Hall" viewpoint practically saws at a couple legs that the Foundation stands on.  Not only does a Small Hall almost by definition work against the push for greater diversity, it also dissuades the public from visiting the museum as certain acts remain not enshrined.  Keeping the Hall small torpedoes its own vision.

The other major obstacle is what Dave Marsh referred to when he said the tail wags the dog every year.  The ceremony that's held every year is a bit of an obstacle, but only because the Foundation makes it one.  The choice of venue, the starting time, the impetus to have a product that can be televised, and all the other factors that go into making the induction ceremony happen all currently work against having bigger classes.  However, a lot of this is quite easily remedied.  For starters, get a venue that is a bit more accommodating.  Obviously, all facilities that specialize in special events want to turn a profit, and thus want to run a tight ship, which means keeping the leash on booked events tight, but the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, with all the money behind it from folks like Jann S. Wenner, can most likely afford to be a bit choosier, and can hold out for places that will let them have the time they need, and if even that fails, hold the ceremony on their own property in Cleveland.  Meanwhile, it would also well-behoove the Foundation to learn to run a tighter ship themselves in the operation of their ceremonies.  In his review of this year's event Jimmy Pardo noted that the gala began a half hour later than indicated.  Also, the event was supposed to start at 7 P.M.  Why not 5?  Furthermore, Joel Peresman, in his rebuttal to Steve Miller's recent, viral comments said nobody would want to be there for six hours.  Given how much mingling there was before and the after-party following the ceremonies, it's a safe bet that there are quite a few people who would probably call Joel Pereseman a liar to his own face.

It probably also doesn't help that the inductees themselves are playing a hand in making the ceremonies a shambles in one capacity or another.  Between Danny Seraphine of Chicago, Steve Miller, and the Black Keys, turning this year's event into a marketable program for HBO is bound to keep the crew at Tenth Planet occupied and antacid manufacturers in the black.  Of course, the Hall seems to thrive on controversy, but half-booked venues with tickets going for fifteen dollars up until showtime indicates that they won't be able to subsist on that kind of controversy for too much longer.

With all that in mind, what could be possibly gained from actually expanding the classes to a larger size?  The first two benefits have already been mentioned, but should be fleshed out further.

1. Greater diversity.  First and foremost, diversity will be gained.  The Nominating Committee has been giving no worse than okay ballots to vote from over the past several years.  They could keep the ballots the same size, but induct more artists from those ballots and get more well-rounded classes.  It would be diverse on multiple fronts:

     a. Racial diversity.  Every year, it's mathematically possible to have an all-White class, and with six acts that still get love and airplay on classic rock stations in the U.S., it was a chilling possibility that might have become reality this year, if not for the momentum that the Straight Outta Compton movie gave N.W.A.  Simply put, a bigger class that eliminates that mathematical possibility would be a boon for racial diversity.

     b. Greater strides toward gender equality.  True gender equality will probably never be achieved in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, partially because the histories of the music industry and the invisible hand of the marketplace have both skewed favorably toward men, but bigger class sizes in general will help diminish the disparity without having to resort to a quota system that would probably see the Pixies Three get enshrined before Emerson, Lake, And Palmer.

     c. Stylistic diversity.  To their own credit, there's usually a good balance of stylistic diversity in each class, but lately, to find that diversity, sub-genres have had to be split into smaller sub-sub-genres.  The fact that this year's Performer inductees were eighty percent identifiable as "classic rock" has really been the wake up call in the musical community, even though most people still agree that this was a pretty good class.

     d. Geographical diversity.  A growing  complaint against the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame has been that it has been too "Americentric," meaning that an act could have worldwide acclaim, but if they weren't also a big deal in the United States Of America, they have no chance of ever being enshrined.  The Hall certainly puts no such requirement in place, as acts like AC/DC, ABBA, Bob Marley, and Jimmy Cliff have all made it in, but with the possible quasi-exception of Jimmy Cliff, all of those examples were also at one point in time a big deal in the U.S.A.  It certainly doesn't help that "national diversity" in the Foundation's ranks means having Paul Schaeffer among the powers-that-be.  As of late, every few years or so, the Nominating Committee tries to use Kraftwerk as a battering ram against that brick wall, and simply having bigger classes could help make that breakthrough a reality, and lead the way for other deserving acts such as Fela Kuti, Status Quo, and Cliff Richard.

     e. Chronological diversity.  There are those who say it's time to shut the door on the '50's, and some of them even want to close the door on the '60's as well.  Larger classes would mean the ability to keep open doors to the first two decades while not ignoring modern acts.

     f. Musical excellence diversity.  "Unquestionable musical excellence."  The elephant in the room: just how is it defined and who gets to shape that definition?  Another common complaint levied at the Rock Hall is that it's a "private club," with other modifiers for "club" including "exclusive," "members only," "country," and "gentlemen's," all of which evoke images of the bourgeois class sitting together and dining on crab bisque that is seasoned with the saline tears of the downtrodden who have finally accepted their lowly lot in the natural order of things.  These accusations are no doubt fueled when someone like Dave Marsh says that while the ballot goes out to roughly seven hundred people, there are not seven hundred people on the face of the earth who truly know the history of rock and roll music.  What fuels it even more however, is when the ballots and classes feature artists whose primary qualifications are that they were a critics' darling, while scores of artists deemed excellent by the music-buying public continue to be omitted, even perhaps for the very reason that the public liked them despite critical scorn.  Luckily, there is a certain awareness of this perception, especially of late with more populist acts finally breaking their way through.  The Hall is trying to find that balance, and bigger class sizes would make it much easier to recognize and even celebrate the differences in definitions of "unquestionable musical excellence."

     g. Political diversity.  No, not actual politics.  But for want of a better term, "political" is the term used to describe a situation that is "all about connections" or "who you know and who knows you."  This tends to go hand-in-hand with the previous point, as critics associate with the bands they like and thus know them better.  But familiarity no doubt helps committee members choose names when the annual ballots are drafted.  And sometimes, actual politics can help an act rise to the top of the queue, or land another act in the "Stygian snowflakes sightings" stack.  Bigger classes will help with this too, partially because all these types of diversity have various levels and layers of overlap, to where a larger class will make a cut into each of these layers.

2. Break up the logjam.  Chic has been nominated ten times and is not in.  It took the Paul Butterfield Blues Band four tries to get in.  Black Sabbath, eight.  Electric Light Orchestra, never nominated.  Chicago, eligible for twenty-five years before they finally got nominated.  The list of eligible artists grows every year, and by sheer swing-a-dead-cat reality, so does the number of worthy artists.  With small classes, so does the number of snubbed artists every year.  By many metrics, Mariah Carey should have been a no-brainer, at least for nomination this past year, but anyone with even an ounce of savvy or familiarity with how the Rock Hall operates knew there was no chance of her nomination this time around.  The list of past nominees who have still not been inducted is now at forty (even higher if you include those who were inducted in other categories).  With the bottleneck this bad, it'll take years to properly rectify this problem, but the longer the Hall waits, the worse it'll become.

3. Beat the Death Fairy.  Neil Diamond said it's much more fun to be inducted while you're still alive.  Chubby Checker has said he wants his flowers while he's still alive.  Dave Marsh attempted to justify the joint nomination of the Small Faces and the Faces as actually one band by asking that if nominated separately, what were the odds that either act would get in while members were still alive.  There is indeed some sense of necessity to enshrine artists while they're still alive.  Some of it may be to have a better program to televise, but part of it is also a sense of waste when an induction needlessly winds up being posthumous.  By simply inducting more acts per year, the Hall can celebrate more artists while they're still around to vote on the next ballot.

4. Further defeat the Death Fairy.  The thing about an artist's death is that if they're already eligible for induction when they die, their odds of induction are best the following year or two.  After that, the chances drop significantly.  Ben E. King, Lesley Gore, Joe Cocker, and Johnny Winter may all have one more year where their odds are decent.  After that, their chances will sink to nearly zero.  Bigger classes simply improves the chances of those deceased artists, and as has been written about before, loading up on deceased artists would be a pretty shrewd move for the Nominating Committee, as acceptance speeches from loved ones are always shorter than if they came from the inductees themselves, and tribute performances would be more luxury and less necessary, since a tribute performance is almost never as good as having the genuine article around.  The downside to this, however, is that the NomCom may simply wish to wait until an artist is dead before enshrining them for one reason or another, to become the Death Fairy, so to speak.  In the case of Chubby Checker, for instance, they may wait until he's dead simply so they don't have to listen to an acceptance speech where he goes off on the Hall for overlooking him for so long.

5. Better ceremonies.  "Bigger classes" can also refer to inducting more members of a band, and this year's shenanigans have accentuated that point quite heavily.  Simply put, be more inclusive, get less drama.  Where drama refuses to go away, edit that much more of it down and use more of the harmonious segments.  Ultimately, it's better to have too much usable footage than to have too little, because there was too much pettiness at the party.  Having bigger classes means having more footage to potentially use.

6. End of side-door inductions.  Wanda Jackson, Freddie King, the "5" Royales, and Ringo Starr could all have been inducted in the Performer category where they would have more rightfully belonged.  Having bigger classes eliminates any excuses for this kind of systemic abuse.

7. Restored credibility.  The intentional limitation of inductees per year has caused many to cry foul, and has only served as additional character witness in the case of lack of transparency with the Foundation.  Because bigger class sizes will accomplish the other six things, it will eventually translate to better credibility that the Foundation means what it says when it claims to be about honoring rock and roll music.

8. More money for the Museum.  As the Righteous Brothers sang, "If you give it to the people like the people want it, they'll give it, they'll give it, they'll give it right back to you."  While speculation already abounds that this is the key motivation to the induction of more populist acts, a good reputation and having something for everybody will naturally attract more visitors to Cleveland.

The best thing about this whole concept of making the induction classes bigger is that it really requires minimal effort.  In his lambasting speech after his induction, Steve Miller said the whole process needs to be overhauled, from the top to the bottom.  As an inductee who went through the rigmarole of the induction process, he may have additional insights; however, to simply make classes bigger, to make them more inclusive really doesn't require a huge overhaul.  Adding more diversity to Nominating Committee could help, but as the Committee already puts out a consistent quality of ballots, it isn't necessary.  The only people it may be necessary to remove are the Small Hall thinkers who would dig their heels and fight against that progress.  Maybe those people are peppered throughout the levels of power in the Foundation and that's why Miller calls for the overhaul, but it could actually be accomplished pretty quietly.  Ultimately though, there are some things that Steve Miller has said since his induction that are debatable, but the foundation of his outrage is unquestionably solid: it shouldn't be this difficult.