We’re stuck at home, making our own entertainment, so now seems like as good a time as any to tell you the story of the closest I ever came to winning a Grammy.
In 2007, I had a ridiculous job at iTunes, as part of the team putting together promotions for the store. Most of my job was meeting with labels and listening to new releases, but I also worked on our annual Grammy promotion.
There were something like 117 Grammy award categories, and for each of these there were normally five nominees. Somebody had to look up >500 songs and albums, and check we were linking to the right ones.
You start off at the beginning with the big ones – Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and then things get steadily more obscure. This was how I discovered there was an award for Best Polka Album.
This award has been given 24 times, 18 of them to the same person. That person is Jimmy Sturr. Here he is. It may provide valuable context to tell you this video is not from the late 70s or early 80s, but from 2010.
Now, Best Polka is not Album of the Year, but a Grammy is a Grammy, and it started to dawn on me that if I wanted one, the lowest hanging fruit, as it were, might be in the field of Polka music.
Jimmy Sturr is an experienced and successful recording artist with at least 40 albums to his name, but the Grammys are voted on by a committee of other recording artists. Polka is a relatively small field. Classical music is huge. What was needed, I reasoned, was a crossover album.
I joked about doing this with friends for a year or so, and people mostly smiled and nodded politely and said, “yes, Andy, *you* should do that”, but it takes a village to make a Polka album, and I can’t play the accordion, so nothing much happened.
Until I mentioned it to Lara St John. Now, Lara is a successful violin soloist, she lives in New York, and she has her own label. She knows lots of people who play different types of music and, most importantly, she’s the kind of person who doesn’t just talk about things, she actually does them.
These are my favourite kinds of people. When I mentioned it to Lara, she said “let’s do it”. And so our classical/polka crossover project was born.
An ensemble was formed, incorporating a Klezmer band with which Lara played some gigs, and the contra-bassoonist from the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. Lara’s friend and fellow fiddler Daniel Lapp rounded up some suitable folk melodies for us to arrange.
Polka-related puns loom large in the American polka canon, so we aimed high, hoping for something that said “this is classical”, “this is polka” and “this is not entirely serious”.
You don’t get a Grammy statue unless you do something, so my French horn got dusted off and I became the most out-of-practice member of what was otherwise shaping up to be a band of very fine musicians. We had fun.
We rehearsed and recorded, we mixed and mastered, and a release date was set. A marketing plan was made. We googled “Polka DJs” and somehow found a list of radio stations who were, amazingly, pleased to hear from us.
We even booked a NY launch gig at a Le Poisson Rouge. There wasn’t much on that week – the NY Phil was opening its season with a new music director, and nobody was going up against that. We got listed in the NY Times.
They even sent Allan Kozinn to to review it. He seemed to have a good time. To give you some idea of what you missed, here’s Clarinet Polka, played on a bassoon.
And when it came to releasing the record, we had some good luck and some bad luck. You may recall I was working on the iTunes store. At the time, our biggest promotions involved free downloads. We’d give away a track each week, and people would buy the album.
Each week, we’d have to get a label to sign a contract to let us give away their track. If they didn’t send in the contract as the deadline approached, the promotion would go to somebody who could get the contract signed quickly. You can guess what’s coming.
So a contract was late, and as the clock ticked down, I was the only person in the room able to sign the contract myself, our track went out to hundreds of thousands of people.
This prompted some interesting reviews.
But at least one person was touched by our record.
And in the end, two things happened.
The first is that we had the #1 World Music album.
The second is they dropped the Best Polka category from the Grammys.
The band went on to do a tour and a second album. I left the US for a label job in England. I never did win a Grammy, but I haven’t completely given up hope. When I quit my job at Apple, I had to exercise my stock options, and, with only one child and a fancy job ahead, we spent a chunk of the money on a holiday in Hawaii. It was a nice resort, by the beach, with a bar by the pool. Next to the cash register in the bar was a small statue of a golden gramophone, awarded to one of the bartenders in the category of “Best Hawaiian Album”.