A Grammys Overview From the Recording Academy Chief

Our Grammy whisperer interviewed Grammy chief Neil Portnow in December (you can read highlights of that conversation here), but much has changed since then. Several A-list music stars died. The #Oscarsowhite controversy rocked the Oscars. The Grammys announced that they will finally go live in all time zones. (Thank you, CBS.) So we asked Paul to check back in with Neil for an update.

What led to the about-face on broadcasting live in all time zones? I know this has been an ongoing conversation with CBS, but who brought it up this time and said maybe it’s time?
CBS, being in the business of TV, is constantly evaluating what works and what doesn’t. They came back fairly recently with the latest analytics, and they came to the conclusion that this would be a good year to try this. It made sense to me that we go ahead and give it a shot—so that’s exactly what we’re doing. I was not unhappy with where we were at. It has worked quite well for us, but I’m always up for trying things. This will probably tell us quite a bit.

Will the Latin Grammys also be broadcast live in all time zones?
That’s a wholly separate organization. And that’s Univision, not CBS. They would take their own view on what makes sense in terms of their viewership and their marketplace.

Several A-list stars died in the space of five weeks. How do you deal with that?
It’s a very challenging proposition. We had over 500 folks in our community pass this year. That’s quite a bit more than we’ve had in years past. We don’t, from a TV standpoint, have the ability to effectively or elegantly include even 10% of those people in the In Memoriam sequence. So we have a longer list in our program book and online, which includes everybody.

It’s sort of a ghoulish task, but we keep a running list of obituaries all year round. When we get close to telecast time, we have a process by which we review those names and make a decision about which ones will go in the telecast portion. All of that gets thrown a bit upside down when you have the kind of a year that we’ve had this year, when you have so many losses, and so close to the broadcast. It’s a fluid process. We have to evaluate each one as it happens and try not to have a knee-jerk reaction, because things tend to take a little time to settle.

Figuring out who is going to be a stand-alone tribute or part of a compilation tribute or part of the In Memoriam sequence has a lot to do with who those people were, what did they represent and who do we have that we think would be appropriate to salute them. So it winds up, if not thought through properly, to be kind of contrived or opportunistic. We’re looking for authenticity and to have people involved who are appropriate and heartfelt and genuine.

You can see why Lady Gaga is a logical way to go for David Bowie. She was a huge fan and part of her career had certain parallels. As for B.B. King, our conversations with Chris Stapleton about how much the blues have influenced him turned into a conversation about how that’s what he wanted to do with his performance.

“Our conversations with Chris Stapleton about how much the blues have influenced him turned into a conversation about [honoring B.B. King] with his performance.”

Do you always try to leave one or two performance slots open until close to the show so you have some flexibility to react to late-breaking events?
Sometimes things present themselves that are interesting that you might not be contemplating in December, when we first get the nominations, so we always make it a point to not completely book and lock up the show too early, because we want to have some flexibility. That said, there’s a certain point in terms of the physics of laying out a show that you have to lock it in. You just can’t at the whim of any individual turn all that upside down, so by this point we’re pretty close to being locked on what we can and can’t do.

I’d like to talk about the #Oscarssowhite controversy. What message do you take from it as far as the Grammys are concerned? I assume you look at it and say, “Are we at all vulnerable here? Should we try and learn from what they’ve gone through?”
I wouldn’t wait to see what happens with another organization to be self-monitoring and to be reviewing and evaluating our own circumstances when it comes to membership, qualifications, diversity, etc. We have for many years reviewed and implemented programs to ensure that we don’t have that particular kind of issue. I’m grateful that we don’t, but it’s not an accident.

Also, I have to say that I think that our industry is quite a bit different from the motion picture industry in terms of how we operate and who is in decision-making positions. And also, at a grass-roots level, the collaborative process that goes on in music is by nature very diverse; the cross-bending and influence of genres on each other is very significant, probably more so today than ever.

The other thing that’s very different between us and the Motion Picture Academy is that their membership is by invitation. In our case it’s by qualification. Anybody who meets the level of qualification can join.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences recently announced that it is limiting membership to a 10-year term, which is renewable under various scenarios, but is no longer guaranteed for life. Are you looking at an idea like that?
We’ve done in this past year a requalification piece, so if you’re a member and you’re about to renew, you will have to go through a requalification submission of the application. To the extent that you meet those requirements and you’re current and actually a practicing member of the industry, you can continue to have the ability to be a voting member. If not, you can continue as an associate member, but not voting, so that’s a big step in keeping the current membership relevant.

The Recording Academy recently undertook a comprehensive survey of its members. Can you remember the last time the academy did that?
It’s within my tenure—about five to seven years ago. This latest one was probably an even deeper dive. This was not only a member survey; it was also non-member survey. We also want to know from people in the industry who are not members what they’re thinking and perhaps why they’re not members. And from people who are outside of the scope of members what their perception is of our membership. So it’s a pretty broad, far-reaching survey. In a time when analytics and data have become so important, rather than sit and guess what we think people’s opinions are, we’d rather be scientific and analytic.

One of the questions on the survey was: “Who, in your opinion, should be able to vote on the Grammy Awards?” Among the possibilities listed was “general public music fans.” Is that being considered?
It’s not my choice to make on my own, but my sense is it would be a pretty unlikely scenario to have fans weighing in on this process. The actual process seems to me to be reserved for members who have to qualify to have that vote. It’s that peer vote that makes us who we are and what we’re all about.

Another possibility listed on the survey was “music professionals whose primary role is in a business capacity e.g. manager, publicist, label executive.” That, too, would mark a change from the status quo. Is that being considered?
That’s a little different. There has been a pretty consistent resistance to executives and the people you have referenced having a vote. That being said, it’s not always black and white. For the executive who has a title at a label, publishing company or management company, but also is very involved in the development of a career, the selection of material or the hiring of producers or studios, determining mixes, the order of releases of recordings, at some point some of that potentially crosses the line into the expertise and the contribution that artists and the pure creatives make. Maybe some of those folks ought to be considered. It’s something that we continue to look at on a regular basis. Time will tell what the temperature is of our organization as to what if any of that they’d be willing to consider in the future.

“It’s that peer vote that makes us who we are and what we’re all about.”

You’re moving the Special Merit Awards [Lifetime Achievement Awards, Trustees Awards and Technical Grammy Awards] away from Grammy week. What led to that decision?
The idea is to elevate the notoriety and the stature and respect for those awards. Within Grammy week, I think it gets a little bit lost in the shuffle of the more of-the-moment headlines.

Also, we’ve had it over at the Wilshire Ebell Theater for a long time. That’s a pretty small theater. Less than 2,000 people get to go. That’s a pretty small audience when you think about the stature of the honor. To me, that was never enough. So my dream for my entire tenure here has been to find an opportunity to take that to the next level. The idea is to take it out of Grammy week because we can focus a lot more attention when it is out of that week. We’ll move it to later in the year and have a public vehicle where millions of people can see this and all around the world.

So it will be televised, I take it.
You might be on to something there. I’m going to have to save that for the actual announcement, but it’s really innovative, interesting way to do this. In the past, it’s been all ceremony, and hasn’t had any music performances associated with it. In many cases, it might make great sense to be able to do that.

Celebrity faceoff (6/27a)
Artists and companies unite. (6/27a)
Singers voice their dismay over the Supreme Court's latest decision. (6/27a)
See ya later, alligator. (6/23a)
I.B. Bad surveys the landscape. (6/22a)
Who's next?
It's Comic-Con for numbers geeks.
Theories of evolution from 30,000 feet.
A&R in overdrive.

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