Both Bon Iver and Nicki Minaj have been releasing music for a few years now, so how can they be Best New Artist nominees? Why did the Grammys drop 31 categories this year? And what’s the difference between Record and Song of the Year? The rules that govern the Grammys can be complicated, but we’ve got the answers.

Minaj began releasing mixtapes in 2007 and was a featured artist on several other artists’ singles before dropping ‘Pink Friday’ last year. Likewise, though they’re largely unknown to Top 40 music fans, Justin Vernon’s indie folk group Bon Iver released ‘For Emma, Forever Ago,’ an acclaimed effort that ended up on many critics’ year-end lists, back in 2008.

Fortunately, the Grammys have a very liberal definition of what is considered a “new artist.” Individuals or groups can be considered for Best New Artist if they have three or fewer albums under their belt and if they release during the eligibility period “the first recording which establishes the public identity of that artist.”

Minaj was even nominated for a Grammy last year for a Ludacris collaboration, but that didn’t disqualify her from being eligible for Best New Artist this time around, thanks to a rules change instituted after Lady Gaga was declared ineligible for Best New Artist at the 2010 Grammys because of a minor nomination the year before.

As for the difference between Record and Song of the Year, Song of the Year is awarded to the writer who composed the song, while Record of the Year goes to the artist, producers, engineers and mixers who put together the finished recording. Often, like last year with Lady Antebellum‘s ‘Need You Now,’ the same track wins both awards.

The eligibility period for the 2012 Grammys is Oct. 1, 2010 through Sept. 30, 2011, so any albums released over the past two months are not eligible, while late-2010 releases like Taylor Swift‘s ‘Speak Now’ and Kanye West‘s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ are allowed to compete.

The Grammys now feature 78 categories, down from 109 last year. As we reported back in April, the Recording Academy restructured the awards to ensure that winning a Grammy “remains a rare and distinct honor,” in the words of Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow.

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