Me & Grammys Pt I

Hate me, but I’m of he very few Malaysians who have attended and be part of the Grammy Awards experience. This was what I wrote while I was lepaking at Hollywood & Highliands’ Coffee Bean

NOVEMBER 2003: “You’re going to next year’s Grammys,” my editor said.
Yeah right!
February 2004: “Damn, he wasn’t joking! I’m actually on my way to the most prestigious event in the popular music calendar held at the most glam-ridden place in the world, Los Angeles.” That was the first thing that came to my mind when I set my foot on the Los Angeles International Airport.

I was heading to the 47th Annual Grammy Awards. Too good to be true?
Well, hell yeah!

I was not the only one excited (although I have to admit that I did my best to keep my cool) when I was told that I was going to the Grammys.
Friends, colleagues, friends of colleagues, well, practically anyone who knew me personally, were all excited, happy and, well, envious, I might say.
The funny thing was, some were more excited about the prospect of yours truly rubbing shoulders with the stars!
The more envious ones even made a bet that if I got to meet certain stars of their choices, they’d lick both my feet.
Well, I won’t blame them for being cynical. From our experiences, these`stars’ would hardly make the effort to entertain just any journalist, let alone from Malaysia.

Well, my detractors were right. I didn’t meet anyone famous. Well, at least from their perspective.
Seriously, to go head over heels over the `stars’ was the last thing on my mind. I was looking forward to other things. For instance, the whole Grammys experience itself – the preparation for the event, how things were conducted and so on; is something I’d like to see.

I’d like to feel what it’s like to be backstage at the Grammys alongside hundreds of other renowned music writers, television and radio journalists from renowned publications like Billboard, VH1 and MTV. (And yes, perhaps blow my money in LA on CDs and books that would never reach our shores).

Backstage at The Grammys: This is where the PC would be held. Gambar Curi

Backstage? Yes, I was there. Well, at the Media Centre to be exact, which was located behind the stage, where the performers, winners and presenters would go to for a short Press conference.

The day before the event, we – the three Malaysian media representatives were Saharudin Mustafa from Kosmo, Suzan Ahmad from Berita Harian and I – were required to go to Los Angeles Convention Centre (located exactly behind the Staples Centre, where the Grammys was held) to pick up our media credentials.

Personally, I was expecting to go through a long queue and a lot of questioning from the Recording Academy reps but, surprisingly, it turned out to be a quick and smooth process. No bull, just straight down to business.

Unlike getting any media credentials in any of our entertainment events here – irritatingly painful, that is – what we had to do was just give our names, fill up a short form and get our mug shot taken. In less than five minutes, I was granted one of any music writers’ prized possessions – the Grammys’ media credential.

We were then introduced to our contact in LA, Richard L. Mann, from Alfred Harber Distribution, Inc.
Always with a smile on his face, Mann, accompanied by his musician nephew, Ira Dechter, took us around for a mini tour around the Staples Centre.
“You guys are really lucky to be chosen to be here,” he said as we walked through the red carpet.
“Look at this small box; this is where the carefully picked media representatives would be seated. To be seated in that small box would be the cameraman and host. This is where they’d pull the stars aside for a quick Q&A as they walk through the red carpet,” he added.
The small box was a very small box indeed. Around 3′ x 4′ square feet to be precise.
And we are not talking about small-time media people here, but giants like VH1 and Billboard! Mann was also kind enough to try to smuggle us into the venue.
“I don’t know whether you guys could go in…, but unless we try, we wouldn’t know right?” he said with a big smile.
Our first attempt failed due to extremely tight security and so did our second try. We were third time lucky, though, when one of the high rank officials from Cossette Productions, the production house for the Grammys, was kind enough to give us a restricted day pass.
Mann told us that once an artiste received a Grammy, he, she (or they) would first go to the photo room and have their pictures taken. The winner would then adjourn to the print media room where they’d hold a Press conference.

Inside the print media room were a lot of tables lined up complete with all the required facilities like Internet and phone connections. On each table was this small placard indicating who’d get seated where.
Mann also showed us the TV room, before we were brought where we would be seated – the radio room.
“Tomorrow, people from various radio stations will be broadcasting the Grammys live from here. Just for your info, this not only serves as the radio room, but also as additional room for print media as well,” Mann said.
Done with the media centre, Mann decided that it was time to be more adventurous.
“Hey, let’s have a look on what’s going on stage. I think some of the artistes are doing sound checks now,” he said excitedly.
“You know, this is definitely one of the best perks of my job, to wander around like a kid before the day of the event. On that very day, I’d have to be in my trailer to make sure that all the 69 countries that broadcast the event live, would receive the feeds without any problem,” he added.
“So, while I could, let’s walk around.”
As we walked, we could hear loud music coming out from one of the walkways. At the end of the walkway, was the stage. The tech people were fine tuning the screens, the sound systems and whatever that needs to be fine-tuned.
Amazing it certainly was.
Richard then informed us that due to the big number of performers, some of the artistes had to do their rehearsals at other places. They’d only come to Staples Centre to do their sound checks. Speaking of that, we were also told that the day before, Jennifer Lopez pulled one of her Diva stunts by asking the Los Angeles Police Department to close the roads from
Los Angeles International Airport up to the Staples Centre! Her reason: She needed privacy and to ensure her security. Duh!
We finally left Staples Centre around 2pm (LA time). Next on my itinerary, to go hunting for my books and CDs.

It’s the Grammys day. Being holders of media credentials, we were required to be at Staples Centre by 12pm.
The show itself would only start at 5pm (9am Malaysian time) but the event itself would actually start at 1.30pm (5.30am Malaysian time) with the pre-telecast show. This was where 96 out of the 107 awards would be presented.
Instead of taking a cab there, we decided to take a slow morning walk from our hotel, Marriott Downtown, two miles away from the venue. As we walked, we bumped into a very familiar looking face from the opposite direction.
Was that Jamie Cullum? Yup, it was him.
We reached Staples Centre around 11am, and there were already quite a number of people there in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of outfits and style making their way into the venue. Some were seen in their evening dress and tuxedo, and it was only 11am!
At the security check point, we were told that no recording devices and cameras were allowed in (and when they said it, they really meant it).
Some media goons were unlucky to have their cameras confiscated. For the three of us, we were blessed to live in a country where fancy camera phones are trendy! Hah!
Inside the media centre, all the radio representatives were busy setting up their mobile studios, journalists from wire agencies like Reuters and Associated Press were seen setting up their laptops and other hi-tech gadgets.
Seriously, looking at how these people work, made me realise how Malaysian entertainment Press are light years behind. Or, maybe we (me included of course) didn’t really take our jobs that seriously.
Exactly at 1.30pm, the first award for the day, Best Engineered Album: Classical went to the deserving winner – engineer Jack Renner for his work on Higdon: City Scape; Concerto for Orchestra.
As he made his way into our room, we waited anxiously. Ten minutes… 20 minutes, and he was nowhere to be seen. He only appeared around 40 minutes later.
“Well, he had to do his rounds at the three other rooms first,” answered a lady who had somehow noticed our curiosity.
Her name was Gayl Murphy, a BBC correspondent in LA and an author.
“Your first time here? Well, it would normally take ages for them [the artistes] to reach this room. This is my 15th Grammys, so, I should know,” she said.
“Where are you guys from by the way?” she asked the three of us. When we told her that we were from Malaysia, her reply was: “Kuala Lumpur. See, I’m not one of those stupid Americans who think that they’re so superior (laughs).”
The ice broken, Murphy took the liberty to tell us where to go and what to do in LA. She filled us on her Grammy experiences and of course, shared some latest gossips on the artistes she had encountered.
“Some of them think that they don’t need us. A couple of years back…, who was this girl who won a lot of Grammys, by the way?” Err, Lauryn Hill?
Yeah! She was such a snob. She didn’t want to entertain the media back then. Look at where she is right now? Even I couldn’t remember her name,” she smirked.
My first `star-struck’ experience came only after the winner of the 15th award of the day for Best Contemporary Folk Album, Steve Earle walked in.
Being only like two metres away from him was a bit too much for a fan to handle.
Well, being only like two metres away from him and not able to take pictures was even more disappointing. Well, at least, I survived to tell the tale.
From Earle, we saw the likes of Latin alternative rock combo Ozomatli, Basement Jaxx, Jil Scott, Motorhead, Black Eyed Peas, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Ben Harper, The Blind Boys of Alabama, John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, Jack White, Loretta Lynn, Maroon 5, Franz Ferdinand, Velvet Revolver, John Mayer, Mavis Staple and more.
As for the actual show, all of us in the media centre didn’t really know what was going on. Though we were equipped with infra-red headphones to listen to the whole event, we could not really make out what happened as the traffic of winners, performers and presenters in the Press room was just too heavy. We didn’t have the luxury to actually see what went on.
Well, except for Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s `soap opera’, which made most of us in the media centre pretty, er, sick, that is.
By the time the show ended around 8.30pm (12.30 Malaysian time), most of the media gang in our room were grumbling and complaining.
“See, where are the big winners? Where’s Alicia Keys? Usher? Kanye West? Norah Jones? They think that they’re really big eh?” said a clearly unhappy media rep. We waited until one of the Recording Academy reps came into the room and apologised on their behalf.
“I’m so sorry to keep you guys waiting. I was told that Kanye West and Alicia Keys are on their way here. So, I would like to thank you for your patience,” she said.
Thirty minutes later, none of them appeared and we had our deadlines to meet. So, we decided to make our way back to the hotel.

So, what was it like being at the Grammys? Frankly, my Grammy experience was limited to only two days – a day before the event and the day of the event itself – but I have to say it was definitely an eye-opener.
One thing that really struck me was the warmth and humility shown by the American and European entertainment journalists, which was totally unexpected.
I have to admit that initially, I felt a bit awkward. Hey, coming from a country they might not have even heard of, would they take us seriously?
Murphy and most of the international media reps in the room proved me wrong.
In fact, the Asian media gang appeared to be more snooty than the bigger names from all the big publications.
Still, when it came to the quality of questions during the Press Conference, well, with questions like `So, how does it feel to win this award?’; or `what does the award mean to you?’ I have to say that we are not that far off.

As for the organising of the event itself, well, you have seen it on TV. The glitches would only be from the performers, presenters and winners themselves.
It’s way from being perfect but based on what I’ve experienced myself, the Recording Academy and Cossette Productions have put a lot of serious thought into the whole show.

“Now really, how could we compare the Grammys with our Anugerah Industri Muzik (AIM)?” a colleague mused.
Maybe it’s a bit unfair to compare an awards show of that magnitude, that has been staged 47 times, to one that’s only 11 years old.
Still, if our people could be more innovative and creative, learn to take criticism, and listen to suggestions, we could be as good. Maybe one day…

* The trip to the Grammys in LA was made possible thanks to StarTV Pte Ltd.

* Originally published in The Malay Mail on March 8, 2005