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PORTNOW, EHRLICH & SUSSMAN: GRAMMY POWER TRIO TUNES UP FOR THE BIG SHOW

The three veterans who collaboratively create the Grammy Awards attack the task of planning and mounting the show from distinct perspectives reflective of their skillsets. Shortly after the close of the eligibility year on 9/30, HITSPhil Gallo grilled them about the makeup of the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, scheduled for 2/12, and sought their insights about how changes in the music biz are impacting their process in an effort to get a comprehensive understanding of how they’re approaching the 2017 edition of Music’s Biggest Night. More on the Grammy troika here.


There’s no December Grammy-related show this year. Is that a CBS decision?
SUSSMAN: Throughout the year, we look at various ideas and the timing of them in conjunction with the Recording Academy. Some years we have big events [in December], and other times we move them. We have a big commitment to the Recording Academy, and when we find the next great idea and time period, it’s going to be on CBS.

With no show in December, how do you intend to announce the nominations? Last year, the first outlet to have the nominations in print was the Los Angeles Times. Would you repeat that exercise?
PORTNOW: Yes, they were. It was an embargo situation. We’re looking at a multi-tiered approach. [Last year] we had some online parts, certain artists tweeting out to reach communities rather than think about one mass appeal shot. We look also to the Latin Academy, which had a virtual-reality promotion of the rollout, where major artists had PR messages reaching out to their fans. In December, we’ll roll out the nominations through a combination of social media and using the CBS platform, whether it’s morning shows or late-night shows. It’s all being finalized now.

Did CBS decide the nominations concert show had run its course?
SUSSMAN: No. I think that some years are stronger than others, and we looked at some ideas to follow the show in the first or second quarter, so that’s what we’ll be focusing on.

Neil, what was the tenor of the screening committees this year?
PORTNOW: I think they went extremely well. We had 22,000 recordings submitted this year—the highest number of entries we’ve ever had—and the makeup of the folks in the rooms was quite strong. One thing I consistently say at the top of those meetings is that this is challenging because, essentially, they’re asked to create objectivity out of something that is inherently subjective: art. It amazes me—and it’s gratifying—that there’s a level of passion in the discussions that ensue when the music isn’t clear-cut in terms of where it belongs in our categories.

I’ve learned over 14 years here that it’s hard to predict how our voters will feel about certain things. I think it’s safe to say certain major artists will be nominated, but what we don’t know are the categories. The stories behind what’s happening and the story of what happened in music over the course of the year and how we tell that story are a very big part of the allure of the Grammys, and what makes people want to be there. There are a lot of great artists on television, a lot of opportunities on television, so we really have to work super-hard to stand out from the pack. This year in particular, it would seem there are a lot of stories to tell.

Ken, late in the process last year, you told me you had meetings throughout the year with The Weeknd, how he was someone you had your eye on for a while. Are there artists like that this year?
EHRLICH: I have a little list I don’t share. Actually, last year, I think we took some broad steps, particularly in the duets with, for instance, Ellie Goulding and Andra Day and James Bay and Tori Kelly. This year I think it’s been a really interesting year for young artists, especially in the hip-hop world and in pop and to some extent in the country world. Because of the ABC show we did this summer [Greatest Hits], I wound up spending a lot of time with younger artists, pairing them up with older artists. Ariana Grande is one; Alessia Cara has a great voice; I was really taken by Chance the Rapper. Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato— they’re both interesting artists beyond their appeal to a specific young audience. They’ve all got great range. 

From CBS’s perspective, should there be a balance of younger and more established acts, or are stars the best way to go?
SUSSMAN: No matter how you look at it, this show, like any other legitimate awards show, is accountable to the year. It needs to reflect it in as big and broad a way as possible. You do what you need to do to legitimately celebrate that year in music with people you believe are legitimately celebrating this year in music.

Beyond the youth movement, what other takeaways do you have from the last show?
EHRLICH: I still haven’t figured out how to make EDM work. When I did the show in New York, we had Major Lazer, and I spent a little time with Diplo, an interesting artist who seems, at this point, to have the broadest sense of how to translate [for the masses] what is essentially an immersive experience. It’s about making something as observational as it is participatory.  It’s been a couple of years, but I went to a few EDM festivals because I wanted to know: What was the appeal? Interestingly enough, [the artists] get the fact that they want to broaden their audience. I’ll look at it again this year, but it’s hard to do with proscenium. And when I look at other shows, I’m reminded that it doesn’t matter how you fill the stage, and it doesn’t matter how much time they spend onstage.  It still has to start with the music—impactful performances. 

With so many stars moving between genres—pop and rock stars venture into country and country stars do pop and dance—how is that affecting where music gets placed? How much change do you see in the definition of a genre over the course of several years?
PORTNOW: For us, it’s like the exercise that DownBeat magazine did with their “Blindfold Test.” They’ll take a major jazz artist and play music, and they have to figure out what they’re listening to. Our instruction [to screening committees] is that this is a listening exercise. It doesn’t matter who the artist is, what records they may have made in the past; it’s where does the record we have today belong? It’s head-scratching at times. Many of the core definitions of a genre change. We try to stay ahead of that. 

In the same way you have traditional and contemporary pop and R&B, is there any sense those distinctions might be needed in country?
PORTNOW: I don’t recall anyone requesting that one in particular. The one that did pass this year was in the blues area. It was felt there was enough critical mass and the folks who brought that idea forward did a great job with their homework and really were able to make a case. Whenever we do something like that we have to wait and see if the theory works in practice.

If we look at the way we’re defining stars today in music, there’s one set that is high on streaming charts; another set is high on the sales chart. If it comes down to having to pick one or the other, do people who sell music have the upper hand?
SUSSMAN: I think the Grammys is big enough that you can afford to take creative risks with the artists. You’re asking about a toss-up, so I say go with the artist who is going to give you a moment on television that is legitimate, credible and unique. Make that moment pay off for the broadcast. At the end of the day, we’re creating an event for television on the year in music. Go in thinking that way and you’ll succeed. We’re not a radio show, not an event for 18,000 people in an arena. We’re an event for television, and when you go through the filter of the credibility of the Grammys, you’ve got a chance for music and television success. If you don’t go through the filter, you’ll fail.

Does the shift in the marketplace toward streaming and singles have any effect on the Academy or how the membership looks at music?
PORTNOW: In my personal opinion, our role or mission is to reward and award excellence in any given year and, through special-merit awards, for a lifetime or body of work. That the distribution model might be different shouldn’t have much impact on the voter. Whether it would or would not is hard to say. Certainly, people have opinions about how things should be done, maybe even a certain elitism about how things were done in the good old days. Again, it’s the blindfold test—close your eyes and open your ears. We’re not going to provide you with sales figure or chart positions or the method of distribution. To that point, we created an opportunity for streaming-only pieces to be in the mix. 


The one category in which you have to consider elements beyond the music is Best New Artist. Have the rules been adjusted sufficiently
PORTNOW: We ask how tightly can you write up a list of criteria and how closely can you stick to that and make sure you are including those people who are eligible? We adjust this all the time. It’s a difficult one, because we talk about achieving prominence, and today there are a lot of ways to do that that are quite different from five years ago. We have to keep making those adjustments. We think we’re at a good place at this point. The interesting thing is that no matter how well you think you have covered all of the angles, all of the what-ifs, invariably in a given year there’s an anomaly you couldn’t have predicted. We don’t have the opportunity to bend rules on the spot. Right now, based on how the screening meetings went, there wasn’t anything in those conversations that was contentious or problematic. The vast majority of the room was happy with the decisions that were made.

Did having the show play live on the West Coast have any effect?
EHRLICH: I’m not sure. I think the verdict is still out. I was not a big proponent of having it play live on the West Coast. We had an advantage when it wasn’t live; people [on Pacific Time] were getting excited because of social media. Am I right about that? I don’t know. Maybe I still think there’s an advantage to holding it so word of mouth has a chance to drive the audience. Then again, I do understand the advantage of the immediacy of it. 

PORTNOW:
It was interesting [in February], because we were on a Monday. Not because we think Monday is the greatest day to be on, but Sunday was Valentine’s Day, not a good day for people to be home watching television. It was also Presidents Day, so you had Monday as a holiday. We had a really good year in ratings and viewership—flat is the new up. But being on a Monday gave us a license to experiment on a few things. One was the fact that we got to a do full-blown red-carpet show on CBS, produced by the network; we’d never done that before. Why? Sunday at 7 o’clock is CBS’ tentpole franchise 60 Minutes. They are always reluctant to pre-empt. It’s difficult to move that out of the way. This year we’re back to Sunday night. So the questions that come up are, what would happen with 60 Minutes? What happens with the red-carpet show? What happens with live on both coasts? It’s deeply discussed and analyzed.

Would you like to see the show air live again across the country
PORTNOW: We haven’t announced what will happen, but I have a sense that it’s very likely that we would do what we did last year—live/live—and on the West Coast, a repeat at 8:30 of the Grammy telecast. You get two broadcasts out here, and that’s a positive thing for us too. Frankly, not everybody will want to tune in on a Sunday afternoon instead of a Sunday night. We kind of had the best of both worlds and if we do that this year it would be the same plan.

The broadcast had a slight dip in the ratings, but the interest online goes up year after year. If the show is airing at the same time in all time zones, what is social media’s role?
PORTNOW: The [Academy’s] social-media team is really at the forefront of using the tools and technology—there were a number of years where we outpaced the Super Bowl in terms of social-media activity. The team is working on additional ways to maximize the experience. In the past year, we’ve created a whole department, a full-blown digital-media department headed by our first Chief Digital Officer. We’re plotting out how we can take advantage of live/live-plus-social. 

Does the online and social-media element play a role in how you do the show?
EHRLICH: It does. On a deeper level, it makes us much more aware that we are in the business of aggregating eyeballs and getting the largest audience possible to watch the show. What social media has done is given us a much better platform to reach out to people in advance. I always complained that, because of the nature of our show—and not that other shows don’t have this issue—is that there is never a way to promote the musical surprises. Because of blogging and people sneaking into rehearsals and taping 45 seconds of a performance—something that 20 years ago I would put somebody in jail for—that now can work in our favor. It generates interest. 

The role that network TV has played for music traditionally is spreading out, and we’re seeing things like AT&T’s shows with Garth Brooks and Spotify creating programming. What’s CBS’ role in making sure it isn’t airing something people have seen online or elsewhere? And how does CBS view online platforms—are they strictly promotional tools?
SUSSMAN: Our job in partnership with the Recording Academy is on television. The other platforms we use to help support that and bring more people to the party. Our job, our mission, is to create the biggest night celebrating music. These other platforms are great, but there’s nowhere you can get that result of a moment on primetime network television where millions of people are engaging you in real time, celebrating via social media with their friends. People say there are issues with that audience declining. There might be, but we’re picking it up in other places. Nothing in cable television or digital platforms comes close to what you can do on a primetime network television show.

Obviously you don’t know what’s going to be in the show, but you have multiple superstars who have had great years—Adele, Drake, Beyoncé. Is it too early to start thinking about how you might want to use them, or do you need those nominations first?
EHRLICH: There’s no question this year is going to be about Adele and Beyoncé and Drake. I think there is some really interesting new blood, and I’m looking at ways of putting them on the show.

This year’s awards show had the tributes to David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Maurice White outside the In Memoriam segment. And we know a lot of major artists and people in the industry have died this year. Where do you draw the line that says how much time should be devoted to the recently deceased?
EHRLICH: Honestly, last year was an anomaly. Because of the proximity of those particular people who passed, so close to the show, we felt it was really important to respond to that. I’m glad we did. But my feeling is that you try to honor people when they’re alive. This year, I think you could overdo it. I think we have to be careful about what we do and how much we do because inevitably, there will be a lot of people you don’t do. In a way, we’re playing God. We got some criticism last year— it was slight— from Natalie Cole’s family. It was justified. Did we do her justice? I’m not sure. I would hate to think the show turns into a mausoleum. It’s a mandate from the Grammys as an institution of record, but there is a line you have to be careful about.

PORTNOW:
There isn’t a right or wrong answer; in my mind, it has a lot to do with balance. The heart of the telecast is about honoring the past year. Last year was extraordinary; all of those artists passed within a short window of time close to our show. Then it becomes even more of a dilemma. Is it appropriate? What have others done? By the time it’s Feb. 12, you’ve seen all the other awards shows, so we ask what can we do that’s special and unique? It’s going to continue to be a factor. Given that we have other opportunities, as we did with Whitney Houston, where months [after her death], we did a special around her. We don’t have to feel that every single thing has to be jammed into those three and a half hours on that one night.

So you could do a two-hour tribute to Prince for a 2017 broadcast.
PORTNOW: Yes, we could.

In terms of honoring the living, Tom Petty is this year’s MusiCares Person of the Year, and you’ll have the Clive party and Producers & Engineers’ Wing honors. Any new events you’re considering? 
PORTNOW: The calendar gets pretty crazy, with the official Academy events and many other events around us. Given the roster of events—the Entertainment Law Initiative luncheon, MusiCares Person of the Year, pre-Grammy gala with Clive, merit awards, etc.—we always want to be careful about what else we might introduce. There are a couple of things being kicked around for the beginning of the week. There are some bigger ideas being discussed that would not be ready for this year, but possibly the following year, which would involve creating a bit more public-facing activities. So many of the events are VIP or private, so we’re interested in taking the Grammys to the people. The Latin Grammys have done a good job with that. 

      Portnow with HITS Editor in Chief Lenny Beer

Has CBS considered getting involved in any of these Grammy week events?
SUSSMAN: We’ve talked about that. Our focus is the awards show, and you never want to mess with your core product because your core product drives everything else around that brand. Right now, in that week in February, our focus is on success with the Grammy Awards telecast. If another idea comes up from an event during Grammy week or based on who’s in town, we will jump on it. Is it going to be fun the next day? Doubt it. There might be an opportunity to create something around that week to tape and air afterward—and we’ve done that before.

Do you know yet what you’ll talk about on the show, Neil?
PORTNOW: Frankly I do not. I term it “the Academy message,” and in that two and half, three minutes, there are so many things that could be on the plate. I’m always interested in talking about music education. We’ve got some things happening within the Academy, particularly an initiative that we’re working on, but that isn’t ready to be discussed in a public forum. I don’t jot down any ideas until after the holidays, early in the following year.

How do they decide where you go in the program and how much time you get?
PORTNOW: We want to be realistic. We want this to be an entertainment program, so it works better later in the night. That also gives us an opportunity to see how we’re doing time-wise. If we’re behind, I do a little editing, or if in a crunch we could forgo it, which we have never done. I’m always coached by everybody to talk faster.

How much sleep do you typically get the week before the show, Ken?
EHRLICH: I sleep less during those two weeks because things aren’t finished until the last four or five days. After 36 years of this, there is still a tremendous amount of adrenaline that flows that keeps you from sleeping too much.


**PHOTOS BY CHAPMAN BAEHLER

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Tails are wagging at the news. (4/8a)
A MESSAGE FROM
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MAYBE, JUST MAYBE, PART 5: EVERYBODY’S WORKING FOR
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SOCIAL DISTANCING
We turn out to be pioneers.
STREAMING STORIES
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ELECTION 2020
Not postponed yet.
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