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THE HITS INTERVIEW: NEIL PORTNOW

With the Grammys less than two weeks away, this is crunch time for Neil Portnow, the President/CEO of the Recording Academy. Paul Grein, who has covered the Grammys since the days when Christine Farnon was in charge, recently sat down with Portnow in his office at Academy headquarters in Santa Monica. “How many cases of Purell do you go through in a typical Grammy season,” Grein asked at the outset, as a way of breaking the ice. Portnow reached into his desk drawer and fished out a pocket-size cylinder of hand sanitizer, which he gave his visitor. With his stash of hand sanitizer, Portnow may avoid catching a cold on the eve of Music’s Biggest Night, but there was no avoiding this HITS interview.

This is your 13th Grammy season as President/CEO of the Academy. Does that seem possible?
It’s pretty staggering to think it’s been that length of time. And actually now is the point where I’m going to eclipse any other job I’ve ever had in terms of duration. I was at Zomba just about 13 years. 

Will there be a host this year?
We’re really thrilled with the way that it has been working with LL [Cool J]. When I started, we had this conversation about hosts and it would come down to the same thing: Most of the people that you would want really aren’t that excited about it. And the people that you weren’t that excited about were the most interested. Not getting the people that we wanted was taking up time that we could use for something else. So we did without. We used to call it the no-host Grammys. I was very pleased with that and I thought that worked.

But then LL’s name came up and we thought he was a unique possibility. He has this combined pedigree of coming from music and being very credible in that world and also being a major star and an actor and icon. And he wanted to do it. I don’t know what we would have done in the year that Whitney passed away if we hadn’t had a host—and LL in particular. He was instrumental in deciding how to handle that. He’s not just a hired gun to us. He’s part of the family. 

How do you book the show? In the old days, an artist had to be a current nominee performing their nominated song. Then, they had to be a current nominee, but they could perform a non-nominated song. Now, it’s anything.
It isn’t anything, but we’ve expanded our thinking in terms of what it might be. We certainly start with the premise of let’s see what the nominees are. That’s where you build the bulk of the show. However, there are certain other elements that you have to factor in from a practical standpoint, and that is that, at the end of the day, we are a television show. So with all the process that we have (in awards and nominations), if all that process detracts from the viewing experience for people who are watching the Grammys, then you have to think about that. We want to have the largest audience; we want the most people on the planet to come and see what we do for many reasons.

The other thing is we come at the end of the cycle of music shows on television. So by the time we’re on in February, and we’re looking at the body of work of our eligibility period, a lot of that has been performed on television, whether it’s the late-night shows or some of the other award shows. It’s sometimes a dilemma getting to February and saying ‘What are we going to do that’s different? How are we going to differentiate a little bit?’ In that case, we want to maybe expand the parameters a little bit. So sometimes you might have to step a little outside the nominated songs.

The other thing is that we factor in our other awards, whether it be Lifetime Achievement Awards, Trustees Awards, the Grammy Hall of Fame or MusiCares Person of the Year. Those are all within the scope and the parameters of the Academy’s process. Sometimes a good idea comes out of that and helps to round out the show. The year we had Melissa Etheridge and Joss Stone on the show, that came out of Janis Joplin receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, which gave us a vehicle to play with.

Sometimes there’s what I call an event; something’s going to happen that’s big and new and significant. I don’t think we should restrict ourselves and not allow that to happen on the Grammy stage just because it may be out of the realm of something nominated. We don’t do that that often, but from time to time there’s an opportunity like that and it should be on our stage, because it’s the greatest stage on the planet. 

This year, stepping outside of the current nominations allowed you to book AC/DC and Madonna, as well as Tom Jones, who will team with Jessie J. Last year, it brought in Beyoncé & Jay Z and also Katy Perry & Juicy J, even though those were new songs and not yet eligible.
Frankly, the artist is more motivated and wants to do it with us (at the beginning of their album’s cycle than they are at the end). 

What’s the Grammys’ current position on artists appearing on other awards shows? It used to be, in the Chris Farnon years, “you can do the American Music Awards, but save your Grammy song for us.” Then in the Mike Greene years, it was “if you do the American Music Awards, you can forget about doing the Grammys.” What is it now?
The AMA/Grammy situation previously had a little bit to do with timing, because the shows were close (on the calendar). From a practical standpoint, if you’re going to do something on a show and then do the same thing four or five weeks later, the second performance really doesn’t have the same cache that the first one does. [But since the AMAs moved to November, they’re not so close anymore.] 

Music on television, in my opinion, is good for everybody, particularly with the industry having its trials and tribulations in terms of sales. Every artist wants to have every opportunity to promote what they’re doing. I’m sensitive to that. I would never want to get in the way of that. That being said, there’s a practical reality about what I said earlier, which is where we are in the sequence of things. We don’t want to have three and a half hours of performances of the same things in the same way that everybody has seen before. We really do look for something that’s unique and different.

I think the artist really knows that at this point. I think they know they need to have an idea on their own or at least listen to ones that we might have that are going to differentiate their Grammy performance from anything else. So in the natural scheme of things, an artist might say to themselves, “I really do want to do this on the Grammys, so I’m going to wait for that to happen before doing this and I’ll do other things before I get there,” but we don’t have a policy that’s hard and fast whatsoever. 

I imagine you chair the blue-ribbon committee that selects the nominees in the top four categories.
Yes. Technically, I co-chair it with the chairman of the board of the Academy. 

What direction do you give the committee members at the outset? What’s their mandate? What’s their mission?
My feeling about what we’re here to do starts with the premise that our voters are smart and they’re savvy. And to the extent that what they have delivered feels right, feels appropriate, then that’s where we want to wind up. This is not a group that is there to rewrite history or to turn things upside down. It rarely happens that we do. It’s really more of an overlay on the process. We’ve seen over the years things that happened on their own that didn’t turn out exactly the way that made us proud or were quite appropriate. 

So what do you tell them to do? Are they charged with picking the recordings that they think are the best of the year or representing the full scope and diversity of music, or reflecting well on the industry or the Academy, or what exactly?
Certainly to the extent that you can have diversity, a mix that is inclusive rather than exclusive, that’s a goal. But you can’t artificially create that. So the top-line message is about excellence. It’s got to be, in your opinion, you’re an expert, you’re a peer; does this really represent the best of what was important in this year?

I imagine one of your most pleasant duties is calling the Special Merit Award recipients to tell them that they are going to be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award, a Trustees Award or a Technical Grammy Award.
Prior to my being here, the MO of notification was a really nice letter from the president of the Academy saying we are bestowing this award. I thought about it and decided, it really is the highest honor that we bestow. A Grammy is for a particular piece of work within a year. This is for somebody’s lifetime of work. I thought it warranted something beyond that somewhat generic notification. So I decided I wanted to make those phone calls. 

How do those calls generally go?
I don’t come right to the point. I do a whole lead-up. I’ll start by saying “You’re probably wondering why I’m calling.” Usually they have no idea why I’m calling. Then I get down to the point. The span of the reactions is so interesting. It’s everything from complete silence and shock to shrieking to the nervous kind of laughter that you sometimes get to immediate bursting out into tears. Those are the moments I think, “Am I really getting paid to do this? This is so special.” 


Has anybody ever said “It’s about time?”
Yes. Not in an angry way or a negative way. They’ve said it tongue-in-cheek—but not really.

In a few cases, they were probably right.
I would agree with that comment. 

Christine Farnon built this academy and nurtured it and protected it. Mike Greene took it to the next level, made it grow beyond anything Chris or the founders could have imagined. That’s how I would nutshell their legacies. How do you see your own legacy? How would you like to be remembered 30 years from now when some other interviewer is interviewing some other Academy president and asks what you did?
It’s a little soon for me to answer that. I’m not trying to be clever or coy, but I think we’re in such a transitional point in the industry right now that what happens to the industry in the next five years is likely to have a great impact on what we should be doing in the Academy.

I would say in this past decade what I’m proud of is, I think we have a stellar reputation. If you don’t have that, you have nothing. Respect for the organization and what we do is at an all-time high. We go beyond the awards and the telecast and the sexy part of the organization. I think we’re firing on pretty strong cylinders here and doing a lot about our missions, whether it’s helping musicians during times of crisis or music education work or preservation. I’m very proud of getting the Grammy Museum, which we’d been talking about for 30 years, off the ground and doing well. It’s one thing to open it; it’s another thing to have it do so well. We’re in our sixth year and we’re really hitting our stride. We’re opening a second one in Mississippi, which is exciting. 

Where?
At Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. 

Why there?
They put their hand up and said “We want one,” and they raised the money. From a cultural standpoint, it’s a statement about the music of the South. It will be everything that’s here [at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles], but there will be a focus on the music that has come from that part of the country. 

The building of the brand is very important. It’s not about building the brand so that the shareholders benefit. It’s about creating a brand so that, in addition to telecast revenue, the academy has other vibrant sources of revenue to help with all the programs that we do. Our corporate-sponsor roster has never been remotely close to what we have now. 

And then there’s the international growth. The show is in 190 territories. We just finished a joint-venture company in China. As I’ve said to my board, “The Grammys will be in China. The only question is whether we have anything to do with it. So let’s be proactive and have some control over what happens to it.” 

When you talk about the next five years, there’s a lot that our industry is going to have to figure out and pull together on. We like being the United Nations for that. We don’t really have a stake in those issues, and we’re not going to pick and choose. We’re the prefect conduit for people to come together and figure that out.

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