The announcement of Tina Tchen as head of the Grammy task force opens a new chapter for Neil Portnow’s Recording Academy. Tchen, an attorney who served as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff and who played a key role in advancing women’s issues during that tenure, is a professional known for her intelligence and integrity—but she has only slight familiarity with the music business. Is her mandate to create meaningful change? Her appointment is being viewed by some as an attempt to appease the dozens of execs who expressed anger and frustration at the Grammys’ not being reflective of current music culture and at Portnow’s ill-chosen comments afterward.

Insofar as the task force’s brief is to address gender and other diversity issues, her qualifications are indisputable, and there’s no reason the music biz, as a creative field, can’t lead on this front. But these questions are a separate matter from the other problems afflicting the Grammys. Can she navigate the very specific political currents of the organization and get at the dysfunction surrounding the nominations process, the voting and the awards telecast? Portnow has touted her “objectivity” as a big plus in effecting change. Will Tchen be running an independent and autonomous task force? Will she be able to operate outside of Grammy politics? Will she be able to bring about greater transparency about the org’s operations?

What’s not being voiced in the wide-ranging criticisms of the Academy is that rights holders and artists want a seat at the table. Their interests are not being represented either by the secret nominating committee or the secret voters. What are the demographics of the latter? Why is the committee a secret? What are the checks and balances on all these secret doings? There’s no transparency—a chronic problem for the org; what is clear is that rights holders are not being given a role. The Motion Picture Academy, by contrast, enables executives to become voting members.

The Academy, a nonprofit, saw revenues of about $80m, according to its Federal Form 990 nonprofit filing. But it faces a Catch-22 in that it relies on a large check from CBS (reportedly 
$600m through 2026). That money depends on producing a show, and that show serves, at least in theory, to help the network reach a younger viewership. CBS’ median viewer age is 59. Which means a Grammy show that’s truly reflective of the streaming-driven youthquake shaping the current biz would be a shock to the net’s core viewers. As a result, Ken Ehrlich (producer since 1980) and team face the nearly impossible task of trying to balance relevance and familiarity—ultimately erring on the side of the latter and giving us generous helpings of such revered stars as Sting, Elton John, U2 and Patti LuPone—as the show continues to decline in the ratings.

It’s certainly conceivable that Tchen’s status as an outsider could give her a more impartial perspective, and if she sits down with rights holders and artists she’ll likely get an earful about Grammy issues. Can she help broker solutions to the Grammys’ alienation of top artists? After their major snubs, Ed Sheeran and Justin Timberlake may steer clear of the show indefinitely. They sat Jay-Z in the front row so he could watch himself go 0-8. Beyoncé was deprived of the recognition she deserved for the groundbreaking Lemonade. Lorde was the only Album nominee kept off the performance slate. Are these and other dissed artists now done with Grammy? What happens next time, when the committee assesses Taylor Swift’s reputation? Will Tchen have an action plan to rescue the show’s ratings? We shall see.

It’s likely that people have been disinclined to confront Portnow and team about these concerns, for fear of punitive action—not because he’s known for such responses but because of the “gatekeeper mentality,” which tends to make people reluctant to speak up for fear of losing access or advantage for their artists. Would Julie Greenwald and Craig Kallman, for example, want to call out the Grammys’ shabby treatment of Sheeran, given that Bruno Mars swept the awards and got multiple large TV platforms, and Cardi B got a huge look on the show?

Portnow, who has been chief for 16 years, pulls down $1.6m yearly in salary and bonuses, according to the recent filing. Will he hook up another multi-year deal, as some insiders say he hopes to do? Most biz watchers think not. His fate could be determined when the Recording Academy board of trustees holds its semi-annual meeting in May. Will the board members put a succession plan in place to take effect when Portnow’s contract is up in 2019, and will they begin looking for candidates qualified to be the next head of the Academy? Will this process be part of Tchen’s mandate? Where does Board Chairman John Poppo, who has publicly voiced his support for Portnow, stand on the matter?

NAMES IN THE RUMOR MILL: Michele Anthony, Jody Gerson, Julie Greenwald, Desiree Perez, Sylvia Rhone, Julie Swidler.

...Read part two of the column,"Pump and Circumstance," here

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