A Conversation with Recording Academy Board Chairman Harvey Mason Jr.

Interview by Simon Glickman

Harvey Mason Jr. is a record guy. The onetime Arizona Wildcat hoopster—who co-wrote the school’s fight song “Wild About the Cats” while still on the team—began his distinguished career as a producer, writer and musician after a knee injury ended his dreams of playing in the NBA. He’s worked on projects for Beyoncé, Whitney Houston, Justin Timberlake, Ice Cube, Mary J. Blige and countless other stars. He’s been a mentor on American Idol and The X Factor. He spends marathon stretches behind a mixing board. But he’s also part of the new power at the Grammys, proving an effective partner for chief Deborah Dugan as they plan a soup-to-nuts realignment of the Recording Academy. As Board Chairman, Mason has been an outspoken—and, we might add, incredibly charming—voice for inclusion, diversity and overall modernization. And he used that voice to speak very slowly to us, so we’d understand.

Say a little bit about what happens in an average day for you, if there is such a thing.
I would definitely say that every day is drastically different, because I’m not only the Chairman but obviously also a working musician, music creator and producer. So I’m doing a little bit of everything. I’m in the studio, pretty much every day, recording vocals or writing music. I’m on the phone a few hours a day, doing Academy business. I’m interacting with trustees or my executive committee, making decisions. I spend quite a bit of time with Deborah Dugan—either in person, driving down to Santa Monica, or on the phone—going through budgets or staff or the next trustee meeting. And now, with Grammy season and the nominations out, we’re obviously very busy prepping for the show. So my day is hectic. but it’s great, because I get a chance to represent all these music creators who are just like me.

I thought running for the Chair was important, because I am the membership. I am a producer, songwriter, publisher, record company. I’ve worn all those hats. So I really thought it was important to have somebody who was busy, somebody who was in the music community and making contemporary music, to also be a person who represents, works with and relates to other music creators. So when you ask what my day consists of, I’m excited to say that I’m still in the studio, still meeting with artists, record executives and film studios. But I’m also meeting with our trustees and CEO. If you want something done, hire someone who’s busy.

What’s your sense of the Grammys’ place right now in music and in the larger culture?
I think the Academy is at a really important place in music culture, because we bring a lot of people together. We did it last year on Capitol Hill with the Music Modernization Act, where we worked really hard with a lot of different constituencies to pass some great legislation. We’re now doing it with our membership, working to pull together a truly representative membership that is diverse and inclusive.

We’re also trying to set a standard for the music community as to how we conduct ourselves, how we reward excellence, how we build our organization through diversity and inclusion, how we do our outreach. And also, how we give back to the music community. We aspire to be leaders in the industry.

What was your feeling about the Grammys when you were young and first getting into music? Were they a pinnacle to you?

Yes, for me the Grammy is the championship trophy—the World Series or the Super Bowl of music. That was my only concern when I was coming up: How do I get a Grammy? How do I win the trophy? There are other things you set as goals, but the Grammy is the ultimate. I think it’s important because it’s really the only award you can get that’s voted on by your peers. That’s the ultimate sign of respect in the industry. I wanted all people—but especially other music makers—to say, “Man, that Harvey Mason Jr. makes good music.” Especially people I looked up to and who won Grammys before me. Those are the people voting on the award. For me that was beyond exciting.

What are your thoughts now that the nominations are out?
I’m excited and proud of this year’s nominated class and the impact their music has had on our culture and industry in the past year. They’re not only a reflection of the influence of a younger generation of artists, but also of the meaningful changes made to the Recording Academy’s membership process, which works to empower artists to champion each other. Music lovers and creators around the world are inspired by acts like these, which are pulling down barriers with brilliant bodies of work. We can’t wait to bring that expression of creativity and authenticity to the Grammys stage.

It’s challenging to create a show that will be a ratings bonanza for an audience that maybe isn’t up to speed on what’s current. That can be a difficult balancing act.
That is the tightrope we walk, putting the show together while also honoring music from different genres. And I think we’ve done a good job in the past, and we continue to try to make a great show. But we also have an agenda at the Academy: We want to expose the world to different music. Maybe there’s something amazing, incredible and culturally impactful that everybody doesn’t know yet. It’s a fun challenge to see how we can interject interesting music into the mix. Of course, we have incredible, iconic artists and great performances from contemporary people as well. As you said, it’s a balancing act between putting together a really entertaining show, honoring the excellence in music for the last year, and also exposing people to what we believe is the best and brightest music being made that year.

It used to be entirely about whether or not people would tune in to the live telecast. But now, of course, there’s that aspect of people consuming the content online, and there’s a whole second life to the show.
Yes, and that takes us in a different direction of this conversation—what is the future of the show? What does that look like, and how do we program a show for what’s coming around the corner with different platforms and secondary views?

I’m sure you know this, but our show drives everything we do. The income that we derive from the show allows us to do our programs and education in the schools; it goes to the Grammy Museum; and it goes to making sure we have advocacy in D.C., fighting for the rights of music creators, making sure we legislate the ways for music creators to be paid fairly. It goes to MusiCares, which helps all the musicians in need. All these people who need help—whether it’s drug abuse or they’ve lost an instrument, or they have health issues—that’s paid for directly from the money we get from the show. So how do we program, and what’s the future of it? We have to be hyper-careful that the show remains relevant and entertaining, so that we can continue to do all the great things that we do at the Academy for music creators.

Tell us about your team and especially your experience with Deborah, about her leadership style and how you guys work together—what sort of professional chemistry is there?
Well, first of all, I love the way you said team, because I come from a team background and that’s the way I’ve tried to approach this whole thing—as a team. My executive committee is an incredible team. The trustees are an incredible team, and Deb and I have worked together really closely as a team. She is incredibly thoughtful. She’s purpose-driven. She really knows what she wants to do and how to get it accomplished. It’s been exciting and very challenging as well. I’m learning a lot from Deb, and I hope she’s learning something from me.

“We’re getting into the community. We’re not sitting here behind the gates saying, ‘You need to come join us. You should be dying to be a member.’ We’re reaching out to people.”

I think we’re a really good pair. We’re both looking forward, trying to see around corners. We’re trying to see what’s next for the Academy. We’re trying to make sure we’re adaptable and pliable with the industry as it’s changing so quickly. We’re going through every aspect and saying, how can we be better? How can we do more? How can we be more engaging and more relevant and more successful with everything we do?

We’ve been around for 62 years as an Academy, and we’ve done absolutely amazing, groundbreaking, mind-bending work. For me, it’s the ultimate challenge: How we can be even better? There are things we do really, really well, and things that I think we can improve. I’ve found in working with Deb that we’ve had a very similar mindset: We’re excited about what’s been accomplished, but we’re really passionate about what’s coming next.

One issue that comes up often is the question of transparency, and that’s clearly a priority for you. How are you approaching it?
Transparency is super-important to us. I do feel like we are very transparent as we stand now. I just don’t think we’ve done 100% to message it. We don’t hide anything. We don’t keep anything behind the curtain. It’s all there, but we don’t talk about it enough. I’m working to make sure people understand everything that we are—our voting process, who does what, what happens when. I’m very open and trying to communicate that, but I’m also really cognizant of the fact that things are changing quickly and that we need to adapt. And that includes how the voting process works or how our committee structure works or what we’re going to do from this election to the next election differently. We’re looking at all that, but the business is moving quickly, and I’m trying to make sure that the Academy is positioned to move as quickly as the industry. And that goes to everything you’re talking about, the transparency on how we do things.

Do you want to say anything about the whole secret nominating committee question that’s been bandied about so much, in terms of how it works or how it might change?
I think “secret committee” is probably the wrong terminology for it. There is a committee of people that reviews certain aspects of the nominations. But what I’m most proud of is that, again, we are completely peer-driven. No committee has ever decided a winner of any award. No committee decides who the members vote on. We have over 12,000 voters voting on who wins every single award. That’s being 100% transparent. The voters vote on who wins our awards.

Going forward, we will be looking at when the voters vote and how many times the voters vote and what the process is for narrowing down what I believe is around 25,000 people submitted for an award down to who gets nominated—and ultimately down to who wins the award. We’ll be addressing that and seeing what’s the best process; I don’t have an answer as to what is or isn’t going to change, but I promise you we’re looking at it, just as we’re looking at everything in the Academy in terms of how we can make it better.

I know another issue that has been a big priority for your administration--and something that you’ve already made strides in—is expanding and substantially diversifying the membership. Can you say a bit about that?
Let me start with my excitement over the membership and what we’re doing. A big focus for us is: How do we improve our membership? We’ve got to be super-relevant; we’ve got to be super-representative. I want everybody who makes music to see themselves in the Academy. I want them to feel wanted and included, to have a place where they can express themselves and be active. So this has been our first peer-invited membership class. I’m super-excited because the people coming through the door now are amazing. We’re getting some incredible musicians and artists and craftspeople who are now a part of our organization, and that’s going to trickle down to everything we do, from our voting to our trustees to our leadership. The membership that comes in now is what’s going to drive our organization.

Tammy Hurt, who is also my vice-chair, but has been one of the co-chairs of membership, has done some incredible work. She’s gone out and made sure that this membership class that comes in is top-notch. I’m also pleased that I’ve just nominated and recommended my first member; it’s been exciting for me to be able to do that.

What have you done that’s worked so well?
The way that we’re reaching out and getting into the community. I think that’s what’s going to make this class really thrive. We’re not sitting here behind the gates saying, “You need to come join us. You should be dying to be a member.” We’re reaching out to people. We’re in the studios; we’re in communities; I’m going to shows and festivals. I’m talking to people. When I see people who are doing cool things, I tell them, we really want you in the Academy. Can you help us? Can you be a part of what we’re doing?

We’re trying to be a place where everyone can be heard, where all people are represented. I think that will encourage people to be more active. We’re also trying to make sure that our membership is voting, and that we have programs and other initiatives that encourage members to be active and want to be a part of the Academy beyond just voting. When I joined, it was because I wanted to vote in the elections. I wanted to win a Grammy. I think there’s still an element of that. But if we can message what we do and how we’re getting back to the community, I think people will want to be members and will be excited to be a part of the Recording Academy.

It sounds like a more organic approach than might have existed in the past.
Right. We want to make sure that people understand that it’s not just an elitist organization for the top tier of musicians. We want to make sure that we represent everybody. We’re out talking to the up-and-coming musician, to the professional musician, to the people who are thinking about being artists or in the music business.

What about people in the music industry, at labels, publishers, management companies and so on? What’s the role for them?
There is definitely a place in the organization for those people, and we’re looking at it and asking what their role is going to be in the Academy going forward. As you know, we’ve always placed a premium on making sure that our membership is made up of music creators. We’ve drawn a distinction between creators and professionals who work in the industry but aren’t actually creators. We’re going to look at that and seriously consider: Is that the best model, the best way to utilize everyone who cares about the music business? I don’t have an answer yet, but it’s definitely something we’re exploring. But let me say that we completely appreciate and are thankful for our relationship with the professional members as well as the traditional membership.

Anything else you’d like to mention?
I was recently sitting in a board meeting and looked around at the people in that room. And I noticed that we’re really well-balanced at this point. We’ve worked really hard to make sure our leadership is diverse and representative. And right now, our leadership team is 50% female to male, which to me is amazing. That’s not how it’s always been.

I think we’ve also done a better job at making sure that we’re representing more than a couple of genres, and that’s done through really specific and targeted recruiting of board members and making sure we get the right people in the room. I wanted to make sure we talked about that because we’re so serious about really supporting diversity—women, men, people of color, making sure that different genres are represented. In the past, we’ve been accused of not looking after that. That’s something that I want to talk about and make sure people understand about the Recording Academy.

It’s not that idea of, “Oh, we have to be diverse because it’s what we’re supposed to do.” It’s because it works, and it benefits us in our decision making. It makes the most sense for me as a chairperson to have perspectives from different people in different groups and different races. Because of this we have such a cool and diverse group of people offering their opinions to me, and I’m not the type of chair who thinks he knows everything, and I don’t pretend that I do. But what I do know is that I have a really great, diverse group of people around me. They’re helping me and the Academy to move forward.

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