When the Sex Pistols were announced as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum inductee in 2006, singer Johnny Rotten posted a scathing letter to the Rock Hall on the band's website. He called the museum "a piss stain." "Your [sic] anonymous as judges but your [sic] still music industry people." His criticisms probably wouldn't have been any less harsh if the names of the voters were public, but it does raise questions about just who decides who gets inducted and why.
The Rock Hall's voting system has been in place since the start (the first class was inducted in 1986, even before I.M. Pei's iconic glass house opened on the shores of Lake Erie), and it isn't about to change. And though this year's list of nominees isn't as controversial as that of past years, the system still has its share of critics.
How it Works
Each year in September, a group of rock critics, scholars and musicians gathers at the Rolling Stone magazine offices in New York to choose the bands that end up on the nomination ballot. It's a confidential process. Whatever is said in the room where the various critics, musicians and industry types have gathered isn't supposed to leave the room where they've gathered. It's like Vegas except with heavy doses of tweed. No one is supposed to know the names of the members on the committee (though that information manages to leak out every year, because journalists are the worst at keeping secrets).
In addition to the select group of about 40 people that serve on the nominating committee, several outside committees devoted to different genres (hip-hop, early rock pioneers, progressive rock, etc.) submit the names of acts to be considered for nomination. The only criteria: The artist must have put out its first release at least 25 years ago. In the end, the 15 acts with the most votes make it onto the ballot and then the top vote getters on the ballot that's voted upon by a much larger pool of people — about 600 — finally get the honor of officially being named inductees. Seems simple enough. But when you start asking questions, you realize that the process isn't as transparent as it might appear.
"I'll talk to you [about the process], but I'm uncomfortable about it because it's supposed to be confidential," says one nominating committee member who wished to remain anonymous. "It's a physical meeting. Not everyone on the committee is at the meeting, but the bulk of them are. Folks are asked to suggest three names of artists who should be considered to be on the ballot and make whatever remarks they want to make about the merits of the folks they're suggesting, and it goes around the table. There are also committees that meet earlier and come up with suggestions of different nominees, but it's not a given that they'll get on the ballot."
Rock Hall president and CEO Greg Harris agrees there's a certain subjectivity to the process. Harris, who spent 14 years at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum where he "advanced from curating the Hall of Fame Library and Archives broadcast collection to serving as vice president of development," according to his Rock Hall bio, explains why the process is much different than that of sports hall of fames.
"It's not based on record sales," he says from his office at the Rock Hall one recent afternoon. "If you think about it, if it were based on record sales, the Velvet Underground and the Stooges would not be here, but clearly they belong here. You could say that for other bands as well."
After the nominating committee settles on its choices, a "book" is put together and ballots are mailed out to hundreds of voters. The "book" includes blurbs about each of the nominated artists and links to websites where voters can listen to their music, (because getting to know an artist for the first time is a damn fine way to decide their historical relevance). Voters get to select up to five of the nominated artists and then must physically mail ballots back to New York.
"The cool thing about the ballot is that it goes out to all the living inductees," says Harris. "They're the largest single voting body. When you think about it that way, people like Bono get a vote. If they made their living in this art form, they should be able to judge the merits of others. It's very different than the process of other halls of fame."
Each year, the nominations receive a certain amount of criticism. Some years are more contentious than others, and as with any Hall of Fame, there's bound to be disagreements on the subjective process. Fans have bitched and moaned that acts like Big Star, Cheap Trick, Chicago, Electric Light Orchestra, Jethro Tull and the Moody Blues have never been nominated even though they've been eligible for years. And acts like Rush and KISS have only recently been nominated after years of never making the ballot. Harris admits that not everyone is going to agree that the bands on the ballot are deserving of a nomination.
"There are people on the ballot who have been impactful and influential and did a lot and quite frankly you might not be a big fan of them," he says. "But you have to recognize what they've done. On the public side, everyone has their favorite artists. There's the album that got you through something and that type of thing. What's neat about the process is that people actually care. If they didn't care, that would be a statement that we're not relevant. The volume and mail of other stuff that comes through is really terrific. We love it and embrace it. I think it's great that people are online talking about their favorites. Stevie Ray Vaughan has a very passionate fan base and it's a great thing that he got in this year."
Year after year, acts that should be inducted don't get inducted. The website futurerocklegends.com even has a section devoted to "The Biggest Rock Hall Snubs." It's a long list of bands that includes acts ranging from the influential New York post-punk act Television to classic rock acts such as War and the Zombies, both of whom have been nominated but not inducted.
"A lot of people talk about missing artists," says a voter who wished to remain anonymous. "There are major ones. They're pretty cult oriented. Roxy Music should be in and if they made it to a ballot, they would definitely get in. They're influential and popular but not as popular as Green Day. And they haven't made as much money for the industry as Stevie Ray Vaughan. You have no idea how the nominating committee goes in. Some acts show up year after year. Chic keeps showing up and there's a contingent that supports them. Yes has shown up once. I have strong feelings about who could make it onto a ballot as does everyone else, but we have no say."
Another controversy centers on how all-encompassing the Rock Hall should be. A few country acts (Johnny Cash, Hank Williams) are in, as are a few hip-hop acts (Public Enemy, Beastie Boys). Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis is in but John Coltrane and Charlie Parker aren't. Harris says that the diverse nature of rock 'n' roll makes it important to induct acts that aren't strictly rock, whatever that designation has come to mean.
"I believe that rock 'n' roll isn't solely four skinny guys with long hair and guitars," he says. "It's always been diverse. When we talk about the roots, it's gospel, blues, country and R&B. From the beginning, Chuck Berry's 'Maybellene' charted on the country charts, the R&B charts and I think the pop charts. This is an art form in the '60s that included Jimi Hendrix and Simon and Garfunkel and Leslie Gore and Janis Joplin and the MC5. Because of that definition, it includes metal, hip-hop and dance. It's more an attitude and spirit than it is guitar-driven music."
A Kinder, Gentler Nominating Committee
According to one long-time nominating committee member, the nomination process has become more cordial in recent years.
"It's very civil," he says. "At one time, it wasn't. I don't know how the makeup of the nominating committee comes to be. I'm happy I'm on it. But there are people who were on it years ago but are no longer on it. I don't know why. There's definitely diversity. When it started, it was, for the most part, record business functionaries. Now, it's a little more diverse with journalists and scholars."
Harris, who just participated in the voting process for the first time in 2013, can't speak to nominating committees of the past, but he says he found the discussions to be rather amicable.
"It was definitely lots of open communication," he says. "It was invigorating. Everyone was advocating for the acts they care about. It was exciting to see how seriously everyone took the process and how much dialogue was involved. The process has been handled this way for close to 30 years."
The nominating committee, which recently added Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello and Roots drummer Questlove to the fold, has diversified too. It's not just a group of old white dudes.
Harris says the nominating committee does change membership from year to year. And it has started to include younger members. One particularly vocal critic of that shift is Joel Selvin. A long-time rock critic, he was dismissed from the committee in 2007 and didn't receive a ballot that year either.
"I was on the nominating committee but was thrown off in a discriminatory purge of older members," he says. "They said so in dismissing me. They were looking for younger members. If they ever covered a dime of my expenses, they would have been in violation of anti-discriminatory legislation. That was the specific directions of [Rolling Stone publisher] Jann Wenner, who has been singled out for manipulating the process That's how Grandmaster Flash got in. This year he did that with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The system is corrupt. It's an elitist group of critics that represent the viewpoint of that group. After they're done with the elitist section, they send it to a non-elitist voting body that elects people like Eric Clapton for his solo career. It's worse than the Republican nomination process."
Selvin maintains the Rock Hall Inductions don't have the same "level of integrity" as something like the Oscars.
"A couple of inductions have been highly suspect," he says. "My least favorite is Miles Davis. I know he got in by a high-pressure telegram campaign by Quincy Jones and Diana Ross and highly placed African American musicians. Not only does Miles for all his artistry not belong, but he would have laughed and been scornful of such an induction. Once I saw that happen, I figured this is an institution that cares nothing about integrity. It's strictly political."
This Year's Class
When the inductions were in Cleveland three years ago, Guns N Roses frontman Axl Rose stirred up a shit storm of drama by refusing to attend. GNR still performed but with a replacement singer. Rose's stunt came in a long line of no-shows. Even Paul McCartney, a presenter at this year's ceremony, was a no-show when the Beatles were inducted. Harris says the absence of any drama concerning this year's class (the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the "5" Royales, Green Day, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Lou Reed, Ringo Starr, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Bill Withers) suggests the extent to which the inductions are merited.
"How do you argue with Bill Withers and Lou Reed and Paul Butterfield Blues Band?" he says. "It's an incredible class. This year, in the absence of drama, I've seen a ton of coverage on who these people are."
In the end, it's hard to say if troublemaking Johnny Rotten was on point with his tirade about the Rock Hall. But Harris points out that the Rock Hall embraced his criticism, which he said is "true to form." That fact suggests the powers that be at the Rock Hall have a good grasp of the volatility that usually surrounds the artists who make rock 'n' roll.
"We exhibit that Sex Pistols letter," he says. "[Rotten] stood by his guns."