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“We are very bullish on an administration whose leader is clearly a music fan, and seemingly in a very broad way, from classics to more contemporary.”
THE NEIL PORTNOW GRAMMY Q&A
HITS’ Annual Conversation With the Recording Academy Chief by Roy Trakin
Let me ask the Passover question: How is this year different from all other years?
Every year is different. Last year was unique in that we had the writers’ strike. Whenever I’m having a rough patch, compared to last year, it’s a lot less difficult, stressful, trying and challenging, especially all the elements we wanted to incorporate for the 50th. The nominations are so terrific this year; we have a great canvas to paint on. In terms of the logistics, the inauguration in Washington set us back a bit. Given the embrace of the artistic community for Obama, it breaks the flow a little.

You had to be impressed with the role of music in the inauguration, and how much it obviously means to the President.
The whole course of the campaign was filled with music for spirit, for making points, for creating an environment of inspiration… We are very bullish on an administration whose leader is clearly a music fan, and seemingly in a very broad way, from classics to more contemporary. Plus, he has two young children, which exposes him to pretty much the full spectrum. We expect to work closely with him through our “Grammy on the Hill” initiatives, our new partnership with the Recording Artists Coalition and the ongoing advocacy work. We want to re-cement the relationships we already have in Congress and make sure we educate some of the newcomers who may not be as familiar with the issues that are important to us.

Were you satisfied with the performance of the primetime special announcing the nominations?
We were very pleased with the results and the reaction, especially from an industry standpoint. Everybody thought it was a great idea, that it was something we should’ve done years ago. From a talent standpoint, people that were involved had a great time. The audience seemed to enjoy themselves, and the network seemed pleased. It all depends on timing and what’s going on—both in the world and on television—during any given year.

Has any kind of theme emerged for this year's ceremony?
[Laughs] Well, the theme is, this is the 51st. We like what we call our “Grammy Moments,” performances that are once-in-a-lifetime events. Either doing something of their own in a way that reaches new heights, a unique pairing, a generational thing, something with an educational or historical value to it, where you can connect the dots to learn. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I think others try to do the same thing, but maybe don’t have the A&R or musical background to pull it off. Our batting average is pretty extraordinary in having those events come off the way they should.

How is the current economic crisis affecting your outlook for the show?
Music always is a great source of inspiration and hope. The last example of when the Grammys provided a very important moment like that was post-9/11, when we put on the ceremony in New York the following February. It was the first time people had even allowed themselves to think about doing something that had other than a downbeat or very serious nature to it. There’s no doubt that the Grammys offer three-and-a-half hours of what I believe is what we call “the greatest live concert of the year,” and it’s something you can enjoy in the comfort of your living room at no expense, without worrying about buying tickets or hiring a baby-sitter. It serves a great purpose.

With the Grammy Museum and your presence at L.A. Live, you have really branded The Recording Academy in that downtown area.
We’re very proud of that. There is a climate-controlled Plexiglas container in the museum specifically for you to be installed, Roy. I’m personally thrilled to have this happen on my watch. It’s just the coolest place. It’s not your father’s museum. It has all this great interactivity, but it’s packed with information and knowledge from an educational and scholarly point of view. Anything you want to learn or know, you can find and enjoy the experience at the same time.

The Recording Academy is sponsoring Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party for the first time.
Having worked for Clive, I was involved in producing it. I know it intimately. What we’re buying into is his party. It’s a fantastic event, one of the most pre-eminent of Grammy week. We just felt, since it occurs the Saturday night before the show, it should be something under the auspices of the Academy, I certainly didn’t want to compete with it, so we collaborated on it. The time, the place and the stars just aligned, and he’s thrilled about it. Our intention is that this is something we’d like to continue to do in the future.

Has the demise of the major-label system affected the Grammys?
Not really. We represent excellence in music; we don’t necessarily represent sales or charts. Over the years, we’ve had great relationships with the major labels. They’ve been very helpful in facilitating the logistics of getting the artists. This is arguably the best promotion that anyone could ever achieve for a live performance on television that reaches 170 countries. Any investment they care to make on behalf of their acts is useful to us. Certainly they are a source for ticket purchases to the show, which is helpful, but we don’t depend on that. If there is a trail-off in some of those kinds of contributions, it will be replaced by others. The overall independent nominations went from 194 in 74 categories last year to 251 in 85 categories. The bookings on the show aren’t necessarily, and never have been, label-sensitive. It’s hard and painful to watch what’s going on out there. We’re not immune from it, but we’re doing better than most.


 

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