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Music Award Madness

Beyoncé Knowles, multiplatinum sweetheart of the music award show circuit this year, was exhausted. She’d just appeared on the Vibe Awards and breathlessly arrived across town just in time to change clothes and take bows at the VH1 Awards. “Too many,” she said as she leaned against a wall backstage.

Bad planning by VH1 and Vibe? Not really, there were four award shows that week including the American Music Awards and they were bound to butt heads somewhere. With television networks relentlessly reaching for younger viewers, an unprecedented 26 music award shows are now on cable and network TV.

“There’s 25 too many,” said Kid Rock backstage at the AMAs. The exception apparently being whatever award show he was on that week, as he appeared on a number of them. Members of Linkin Park said they finally had to split up so they could represent at everything required of them.

Well-founded fear of overexposure and subsequent backlash means the biggest acts must nix most appearances for varying reasons. “I don’t want to play for no dead penguins,” Eminem reportedly said when he turned down the Oscars, AMAs and nearly the Grammys last year. Like many artists, he prefers playing to frenzied fans rather than tuxedoed VIPs. 50 Cent, also sensitive to street cred, skipped most kudos last year besides the World Music Awards.

As the Music Award Show Season closes out with the Grammy Awards on Sunday, we look back on a year that saw new highs and lows in the Awards Wars, where more and more shows competed for a small pool of top talent. This year marked the AMA’s move to a ratings-losing November time slot after being bullied by the Grammys for years for the biggest performers. Previously, performers who played on the Dick Clark-produced AMAs were less than welcome on the Grammys, though new Recording Academy head Neil Portnow says they have kissed and made up.

The Radio Music Awards returned with a new network, NBC, after years at ABC. Of course, the honor didn’t exist in 2002 when there wasn’t a TV network to air it. It did well in the ratings, though many industry people grumbled that it was too closely aligned with one group, radio and concert giant Clear Channel, at the expense of other radio stations. NBC countered by noting the nominees were unbiased and chosen by a radio-tracking service, Mediabase…which is owned by Clear Channel.

Notably absent from even the RMA finalists in country categories were the Dixie Chicks, blackballed by Clear Channel stations after making anti-Bush statements, though the Chicks won the AMAs and other country prizes last year.

Nonetheless the show had the clout to pull in biggies like Michael Jackson, though he now has a history of attending anything where he is named something like Lifetime King of the Century, as well as Justin Timberlake, Tom Petty, Avril Lavigne and, of course, Beyoncé.

More competition for acts comes from overseas, where French radio network NRJ’s recent music awards in Cannes has the kind of clout that angers managers trying not to burn out their meal ticket. Present was Madonna, Britney Spears andBeyoncé.

Show producers don’t have much of a show without the year’s top stars, and especially coveted for ratings purposes are “nominate-able” acts that can mount a big production number à la Madonna and Spears. And Beyoncé. So what’s an It Girl to do? In many cases they use the awardcasts like a promotional tour, which critics claim devalues the merit of all the awards.

“As the frequency of these awards increase, their value and importance decrease,” said Darryl Hall of Hall & Oates, who took a special AMA award this past year.

But with the twin demons of backlash and overexposure threatening to bring it all down, stars, managers, publicists and labels find themselves in a tizzy with an embarrassment of riches-and big problems.

“It’s just an outrage,” said one prominent manager who asked not to be named. “You might not be as welcome in the future if you turn them down. And they usually represent magazines or radio stations or some other body you can’t risk offending. There should be an immediate moratorium on all the award shows. It’s just gotten out of hand.”

Some acts are less concerned with too many awards as with someplace to put them. Greg Fowler, a member of Alabama’s management team, said, “We got 55 awards, the most of any act ever, and we didn’t know what do with them. That’s when we built the Alabama Museum.”

Where will it all end? Expect more shows, not less as unscripted TV mavens continue to view them as American Bandstand meets American Idol with little meaning in the award beyond an excuse to roll out the bands. As awardcasts become the variety programming of the future, acts someday may all have eponymous museums cluttered with statuettes that are covered more by dust than merit.

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