How Linda Chorney Scored a Grammy Nom Without Registering a Single Album Sale (Video)

At 51 years old, this singer-songwriter paid her dues, campaigned for a Grammy and nabbed a nomination for best Americana album -- so why is the music industry up in arms?

A lot has been written about Linda Chorney since she became a first-time Grammy nominee at 51 years old. They say that the Sea Bright, New Jersey native never registered a single album sale. Some contend she doesn’t deserve a best Americana album nomination because her music isn’t twangy enough to go up against the likes of Lucinda Williams and Ry Cooder (both nominated in the same category). And perhaps most notoriously, people claim she gamed the system, by signing up for Grammy365, a $100 per year social networking service that allows independent artists to actively campaign for their albums to be considered.

All of these assertions are true to a certain extent. Nielsen SoundScan, which monitors retailers’ music sales, both physical and digital, hadn’t seen a single official purchase for any of her 10 albums in its database tracking albums back to 1991, as reported by Billboard. And her music wasn’t the sort of Americana you might expect from an Alison Kraus or an old Whiskeytown record -- by Chorney’s own admission, she didn’t limit herself to traditional song structure; instead, for her latest album Emotional Jukebox, she took liberties with melody and even let her guitar solos go extra long. As for whether she gamed the system? A better description might be that she worked it.

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Chorney honed in on the Recording Academy members who voted in the Americana category and pitched herself. Her methods involved everything from subtle self-promotion (so long as the word “vote,” wasn’t used) to cheap ploys at the expense of her sex life (“I asked my husband to consider having sex with me,” she wrote in one such blast), and the strategy worked. People clicked, they listened, they wrote to Chorney and described how much her music had inspired and they voted. Later, they bitched, moaned and bullied.

As the clock counts down to this Sunday’s Grammy Awards, the naysayers have gotten progressively louder, with some calling for Chorney to withdraw from the competition and others accusing her of cheating or having connections to Central Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen (beyond the Stone Pony cap she wore to THR's interview and an opening slot at a recent Light Of Day charity concert). Controversial music blogger Bob Lefsetz even weighed in with this thought: “Linda Chorney may have gamed the Grammy system, may have even gotten a bit of mainstream publicity, but is anybody listening to her music, has she gained any real fans? No.” (Chorney responded here.)

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In truth, Chorney has gained fans, especially in the industry. Radio programmers are adding her songs to the rotation, big-time producers are looking to get in the studio with her and maybe, after so many rejections and deals that have fallen through, labels may soon be knocking on her door.

Still, Chorney isn’t easily seduced by a music company, no matter how credible or major or just plain cool. She’d rather go at it alone, where she’s always managed to make money selling her music outside of the brick-and-mortar system -- primarily at gigs, from resort shows to bars, and online. In fact, she may have sold more like 10,000 albums, if you factor in that all 10 1,000-CD pressings from her career have nearly sold out. And it was all profitable until the Grammy nomination came along. After sending $80,000 making the album (financed by a friend, local doctor Jonathan Schneider), she had to cough up an additional $20,000 for publicity, proper radio promotion and additional pressings. It seems her biggest success after 30 years on the circuit comes with a price tag.

So was it worth it? Hear Chorney tell her story and behold the fascinating case study of how chutzpah beat the establishment in the video above. 

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin