“We’ve had some hosts that weren’t music fans and
you could tell.”
——Michael Greene


An Exclusive Dialogue With NARAS President/CEO Michael Greene

Michael Greene, the controversial, opinionated and combative head of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences for the past 14 years, is on a mission from God—to deliver the message of music to the masses.

Under Greene’s watch, the Michael Greene have grown in stature to become the world’s premier music event. He has led the growth of the Academy’s membership from 3,200 to more than 20,000 music industry professionals. In addition, he’s expanded the Academy into 12 regional offices. The Latin Recording Academy, with its own awards ceremony, currently has an office in Miami and will soon be expanding into Europe.

Along the way, however, Greene has come under frequent attack. A hot-button target of criticism, the embattled NARAS honcho has had to defend his business practices, his salary, harassment charges, threats of lawsuits and allegations of self-righteousness, only to emerge unscathed. Of course, he emerged far from unscathed after this conversation with HITS’ resident gadfly Marc "Chuck Philips Couldn’t Wear His Jock Strap" Pollack.

Since you’ve taken charge at NARAS, it’s reasonable to say that you have put the Grammy Awards on a par with the Academy Awards in terms of universal appeal.
We had five employees when I came in 1987, and we have significantly grown since then. The Awards structure is something that is now at least reflective of what’s going on. I was on the phone with [Island Def Jam CEO] Lyor Cohen yesterday and I said, "Do you remember years ago, you and I were talking about how there’s no way that DMX was going to get a nomination?" Today, we’re sitting here with OutKast scoring two major nominations, DMX is in, Jay-Z is in. We had 3,000 members then and now we have 20,000. We have to do a better job at being the destination for people to come to with their issues. I don’t care if it’s advocacy, seven-year personal services rules, work for hire or intellectual property protection. People need to feel like they can come to this organization and have a voice.

How relevant are the Grammys?
I think they’re relevant, but my three sons—22, 18 and 16—who are all musicians, think they’re stupid. I did an Access Hollywood interview last week, and they asked me, "What is the one recording you thought should have been nominated this year, but wasn’t?" And I said the new Rufus Wainwright album. It’s a great record by a young kid, ahead of the pack. But it’s tough for a smaller artist or a smaller record company to squirrel their way into prominence within the Awards structure. We still need to work on that. Two years ago, we went to online balloting. Next year, we’re going to go to online voting. If you’re a voting member, I want you to be able to get on the web, click on every recording and hear it with decent audio quality; something that’s better than an MP3.

The truth is, a lot of people don’t even listen to the nominated songs, but vote for the names they recognize.
It happens, especially in the big four categories. I introduced the national nominating committee meeting structures four years ago and I’ll tell you the best example of how this thing works. I chair the committee which oversees the Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and New Artist categories. We take the 20 top vote-getters from membership and by God, they’re going to listen to all of them! This year, a lot of people asked, "How did India.Arie get four nominations?" Well, it’s simple: She came out very high up with the membership. In our group, it’s shut up and sit back because we’re going to play Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Alicia Keys and all the rest. And having the opportunity to hear these things in their totality—you hear the production, the songs, the performances and the other qualities that push these records to the forefront of the nomination process.

Are you always completely comfortable with the decisions that the nominating committee makes?
No, God no. It’s a contentious bunch of people. I would have it no other way. I’ll get 10 calls from label people today and they’ll all be pissed. If I’m an artist, I want my label person—whether it’s an A&R director or chairman or whatever—to have that passion. That is something that the nominating committee needs. They need to have different points of view, to bring different experiences to the table. I basically sit up there as a kind of traffic cop. And we don’t take the final votes publicly. What happens is, we narrow a few things down, but we end up with like eight, nine or 10 nominees and then everybody has their individual ballots and votes.

So you have nothing to do with the final selections.
I know people think that I sit there with this long cat o’ nine tails, but it’s not true. I come from a rock background, so I love Bob Dylan’s record. A lot of people in that room did not like that record. I love the organic nature of it. A lot of people in that room were saying, "That is the biggest piece of...." You know they discount a lot of the things I say totally out of hand.

Do you feel that you have to top yourself every year in terms of the show?
It is very important that the public have a unique opportunity to see the big acts, like the U2s. In the midst of that, probably more important to me, is that we create opportunities for discovery. Our viewing public continues to get younger. We’ve quadrupled our 1834 marketshare over the last six years. The public tunes in and they trust us. You don’t see wild ratings swings in our show. You know, during my speech, there is a drop in viewership, but you really do see it building throughout the show. They want to see Shakira, Ricky Martin, Sinead O’Connor, Seal…but they also want to see brand-new artists that have never been anywhere else. One of the things I’m working on with Westwood One is the very first Grammy radio series. It’s going to be a syndicated show. We have a working title, The Grammy Discovery Series. For example, Peter Gabriel will do an hour and play the seven most important new recordings that he has found. Or Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bono... The idea is to have a celebrity shepherd the listeners through some new music. Because whether new music is on the Grammy Awards, or whether it’s on the cesspool of radio that’s out there now, there are very few ways to break new talent. When I was on the road, and afterwards, when I became a producer, I realized that a great song with a great performance and a great production, somehow or another, would always find a way for the public to access it. I don’t think that’s true anymore, and that is a terrible thing. It’s part of the Academy’s job, through the Internet, the Grammy show itself or a radio series, to work with the labels to get new music heard.

Will this be a banner year for the Grammys?
When I look at any year’s nominations, I either get a sinking feeling or a wow feeling. There have been years in the past where I have had that sinking feeling. I’m a musician. I wake up as a songwriter, horn player, piano player, singer and I go to sleep that way. God put me in a spot to try to make things better for Mike the musician. This is a mission. When a songwriter or musician reads off what’s in those envelopes, it’s the scariest moment for me. When Jethro Tull won the best hard rock/metal Grammy, that was probably the low point in my career. I looked up and said, "Is flute metal?" This year, I won’t have to bullshit myself. The nominees this year, like India.Arie, Alicia Keys, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan—these are songwriters. And a singer-songwriter, as long as they’re true to themselves, can retain their fans for 50 years. Bob Dylan will have his fans for a lifetime.

Let’s talk about Alicia Keys not getting a nomination in the Album category.
You know, it’s hard. She was on the final ballot and you never really know what goes through people’s minds. Most in the industry would say that she should have been there instead of India.Arie. Sit down with the two records and forget the hype, the numbers and the rest of it and just listen to the songs. Our folks are producers, engineers, songwriters and musicians; they don’t care about the hype. They listen to the record. From an industry perception—certainly from Clive Davis’ point of view, Alicia Keys should be in the Album of the Year category instead of India.Arie. From the committee’s perspective, they listened to two albums back-to-back and made their choice. That’s the way it works. What the industry responds to is often quite different from what a musician responds to.

You brought back Jon Stewart as Grammy host. Were there any other candidates considered?
We screwed Jon last year. Whoopie was down. She was in the Green Room and had a medical issue about two weeks before the show and we called Jon and said, "We need you to do this." And he came in and proved such a damn trouper! He was wonderful on the show, but he can be spectacular. We wanted to show him a vote of confidence by giving him time to prepare. We had Billy Crystal for three years. He’s great, but he graduated to the Oscars. I truly believe Jon has the same capacity and the same reverence for the music. He’s a fan. We’ve had some hosts that weren’t music fans and you could tell. I’m optimistic that Jon might be around for awhile.

Do you think the Dick Clark lawsuit was a publicity stunt for the AMAs?
Why would he sue me personally? He didn’t want to piss off Michael Jackson. He didn’t want to piss off CBS. He didn’t want to piss off the Academy, so, in order to try to get AMA ratings up, he figured he’d sue me personally. There’s no question I have been very specific over the years about how our industry needs a November show to drive sales towards the holidays. We’ve been trying to get him out of our face for years. The fact is, when I came in, the AMAs were cleaning the Grammys’ clock, and now we’re cleaning theirs. His ratings weren’t even as good this year as they were last year. We will work this out because I’m a fan of anything that puts music on television for the public. My job, and it’s very clearly delineated in our agreement with CBS, is to deliver a unique television special. This year, we have 987 individual nominees and I have less than 20 performance slots. Why would you present anything that was on TV a few weeks before with that kind of selection? It doesn’t make sense. But you know, it’s not just the AMAs, it’s the People’s Choice, it’s anything that’s on that month before the show. We have to be very, very circumspect and we are.

There has been some criticism that there are too many categories.
I don’t think you can ever get it completely right in music. God didn’t intend to have artists compete; it’s a pretty silly concept. But since we do, we have an Awards nominations committee, which meets in April. The dance community lobbied this organization for five years back in the early ’90s. It’s our job to decide, how do you delineate a dance recording from a pop recording? Once we get to that point, we have a screening committee and then the membership votes on whether to add the category. You have to be open to new trends; once they stabilize, they need to be looked at. The biggest mistake the Academy ever made occurred before I was President. I told them, "We have to recognize hard rock and metal." So we added the category. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a corresponding membership in that community. Which is how Jethro Tull ended up winning. And that turned out to be a great wake-up call for us.

With all the media attention you’ve received, how do you stay focused on the job?
Well, you have to know the truth about yourself, which changes everyday. As a leader, my obligation is not only to the 150 people that work for me, but also to the entire membership. They look into my eyes. I mean, I’m a hood ornament and I don’t care if it’s a Bentley hood ornament, it’s going to have bugs on it, because it’s out in front. And there’s nothing you can do about that. There’s a book I’ve read, Lincoln On Leadership. Lincoln had a very interesting way of dealing. Imagine his position during the Civil War. He had people shooting at him! But he had a great cautionary policy, which was, never read your good press or your bad press. I haven’t read any of Chuck Philips’ articles. I don’t read the good articles, either. I have a communications department that points out, with our legal counsel, anything in the press they think I need to deal with. And I look at it in the same way that I would look at a lawsuit with a Taiwanese company using the Grammy name, or whatever. And you have to realize that there are people who don’t like you and never will. But the people who like you, the ones who are your friends, already know the truth about you. It’s really the folks in the middle who aren’t quite sure—and with me, there’s nobody in the middle. The people who love me will burn down a city for me. The people who hate me would love to see me in a major car accident. This company has had one lawsuit in the 13 years I’ve been here, and that didn’t have anything to do with me. The difference is, anytime I jaywalk, I’ve got a guy at the L.A. Times on a vendetta, who wants to turn it into, "And while jaywalking, sources say, Michael Greene threw down four school children!" And the fact is, that can’t influence the mission. The mission is either burning inside of you everyday, or the outside noise distracts you to the point that you lose focus. And our mission is a lot louder than the noise.

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