Interview by Simon Glickman

Recording Academy Interim CEO and Board Chairman (and acclaimed producer/songwriter) Harvey Mason Jr. has his hands full, navigating issues of representation within the organization, the evolving awards process, the mounting of a Grammy telecast amid the pandemic and mobilizing philanthropic outreach in a time of great need. So a conversation with us is a trophy he definitely didn’t ask for.

Well, it’s certainly been a rollercoaster lately.
Crazy, crazy days. Now we’ve got the friggin’ fires. I’m looking outside the studio—it’s, like, orange.

How are you otherwise?
I’m fine, actually. I come to the studio around midday and work here. There are only the three people on my staff, and we’ve all been super-quarantined. So I’m here until I get tired and fall asleep, then I drive home. I wake up and do the same thing the next day.

At least your daily routine involves making music.
That’s a saving grace for sure, and I hadn’t been getting to do enough of it. I’m definitely happier being in the studio than sitting at my house all day.

What can you say about the current moment, both with respect to the Grammys and the Academy itself?
There’s a lot to talk about.

You know my history. I come from this space; Black music is where I built my business. This is what I write, what I create, so I’m very much in tune and aware of what the history is. And I realize that we’re at a tipping point; this is an opportunity for us as a community to make a change.

Black music drives so much of the industry, as well as the culture. It’s critical that we get involved to make sure things are as diverse and inclusive as possible, that there’s real equity. The academy can play a role in that. The platform we have—not just with our show, but with the programs that reach into the music community, our advocacy—we can use it as part of the larger effort.

We’ve also developed programs like the new Black Music Collective, which is a group of creators and professionals collaborating to amplify Black voices. They advise and guide us with our other programs, too, everything from how we’re doing our awards, how we’re voting, to how we’re constituting our trustee room, leadership and staff and what we’re putting on the show.

As far as the Collective goes, what are your takeaways from its initial efforts?
We’re having conversations with the honorary Co-Chairs around format and procedures and assembling our leadership council. Underneath the Co-Chairs will be roughly 30 leaders in the Black music space. We’ll then extend what they develop across the country. Their work will be integrated into everything we do.

I don’t think there have been this many organizations started, executive councils nominated and meetings called in this context since about 1968.
There is definitely momentum, and we have to take advantage of it. A lot of people were already intent on doing some of these things, but what’s happening now is a real ratcheting up. It feels like the energy—and synergy—is driving something really significant.

And it’s happening in the context of this pandemic that’s forced everyone to reassess how we communicate and organize and function.
Right, we’re not able to gather, just like we’re not able to make the music that we normally make, to collaborate, perform.

The Academy is supporting the larger music community in as many ways as we can. We’re not solving the world’s problems by any means, but we’re trying to be as helpful as possible to the people who need us. MusiCares has donated over $20 million to music people who need help with food, rent, medical bills, the essentials. We’ve been in D.C. screaming at the top of our lungs to make sure our community is protected, included in stimulus packages and other federal proposals.

The fact is, people don’t think of artists as among those needing help right now. I’m not making light of anyone else’s problems. The airline and hospitality industries and the mom-and-pop shop on the corner—everyone needs help. But musicians have been uniquely affected by the pandemic because, whether we’re playing in a hotel lobby or a stadium, we’re so much about bringing people together and doing shows. We were some of the first people to be affected negatively by COVID—every tour, every show, was canceled. And I think we’ll be one of the last sectors to come back. I don’t see us really coming back until there’s a vaccine. So the Academy is working hard to provide support.

How will the pandemic shape the Grammy Awards?
It will have a tremendous impact, of course. We’re consulting with medical professionals, politicians and state and local governments, as well as our music constituents, communities and artists to determine what we can do.

The way it’s looking, we won’t be able to do a show in the traditional sense; we won’t have 15,000 screaming fans at the Staples Center. We’ve been working on this for a few months now, trying to land on a course of action for the show—having it at Staples with a small or limited audience or no audience or having it in different venues across the country and doing it virtually, some of it pre-taped.

We’re also watching the other shows. There have been some great moments on those shows that we’ve learned a lot from. Talking to people from different organizations, I’m seeing some things we might want to do differently, learning some lessons from the way they did it. So we’re watching and learning and planning a couple of different, parallel tracks for the show.

How has the transition to new Grammy Awards producer Ben Winston altered things?
Ben has been great. We’re still early in the pre-production stage, but he’s got an energy and fresh ideas and such passion for the music. He’s trying to make the most relevant show possible, the most reflective of where we are right now, and that inspires all of us.

His arrival aligns nicely with how the Academy has been evolving over the last eight months. We’ve made some transformational changes, so Ben’s new approach to the show is perfect timing.

Aside from the logistics, what will be different?
This has been such a difficult year, so I think there will be a greater emphasis on people coming together, even virtually, to heal. There’s not a lot to celebrate right now. And because of the pandemic restrictions, we’re not even used to celebrating anymore, at least not how we used to. But with the Grammy Awards, we’re going to celebrate something deeply meaningful; music is something that unites and entertains—and provides comfort.

In the last couple of years we’ve seen an enormous influx of young, untested artists on the charts. How is this affecting the nominating process and, ultimately, how do you think it will affect the awards?
In my conversations with the streaming platforms, labels and distribution entities, they’re all telling me that they haven’t seen this many releases ever. We’re seeing an explosion of creativity and art.

Singers, writers, producers, musicians—we’re all extremely emotional right now. When you break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend, you write a breakup song; when there’s a pandemic and you’re under quarantine for seven months and there are protests in the streets, you’re going to write something different, whether that reflects a change in your own personal energy or the mood of the nation or you’re making a statement. People have so much to express, so we’re seeing a lot of music. And because of the pandemic, people can’t go to the studio to record and they don’t really have to; they’re creating incredible work on their laptops. So you’re seeing a lot more activity and a lot more creativity.

Records are breaking off TikTok, many by young artists who were complete unknowns before their meteoric appearance on the streaming charts. How does the Recording Academy view artists whose profile amounts to a single song?
We’re honoring the music, no matter where it comes from. We just want to see quality, excellence. As long as it meets the release criteria, which is evolving in part to address these very issues, the song will be under consideration. It really is all about the song.

The Best New Artist category seems to be a perennial source of debate. How have the criteria for that category evolved?
We’ve had input that the traditional limit of 30 songs or three albums released was preventing some artists who could be construed as new from being eligible. And we understand the reasoning in light of how music is being released now, whether that’s through SoundCloud or TikTok or whatever. The way music is being used to market artists has absolutely changed, especially in certain genres; in some genres, more music is released than in others before the artist ever puts out an album. So we agree that you shouldn’t be ineligible simply because you were marketing yourself early in your career.

The interpretation of “new” to mean when an artist first comes to prominence makes it tricky.
Yes, it’s more subjective. That’s why we’re trying to be as thoughtful as we can be with the categories and the qualifications. That’s why we’re listening to the various communities releasing music and saying, “What is important to you? How can we update the rules to make sure we’re accurately reflecting your community?”

We haven’t gotten it right every time; we’re not infallible. But we’re committed to listening and learning and being open to what people feel needs to be changed and adjusting accordingly. We haven’t always done that, but we are doing that now.

What about the way the committees function? Is that evolving too?
We look at The Nomination Review Committees every year and ask ourselves, “How are they working? Are they serving their purpose? How do we make them more effective?” We look at who’s in the room, what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

Last year, we changed the way the rules are formulated. And we removed people if there was any possibility of conflict of interest. We don’t want there to be any impropriety or even a perception of impropriety. It’s gone from “Let’s have this person with a potential conflict step out of the room” to “Let’s not have this person in the room in the first place.”

So much care is taken listening to and discussing every song, every beat—the writing, the performance, the artistry, the artist’s creative growth…everything is put under the microscope. We don’t want that process, which we view as a sacred responsibility and privilege, to be compromised in any way.

So you feel there’s been progress on some of the thornier issues the Academy has faced.
100%. I’d particularly like to emphasize the transparency around everything we’re doing now—pulling things out and saying, “Would you like to know this? Great. Let me see how I can inform you.” We put our rulebook online, for example, which was a very important step. There is not only a sincere desire for improvement but the will to improve. We’re servants to the music community. Part of that mission is functioning with as much transparency as possible.

Besides you, who’s driving the charge?
I’m very excited about our new Chief Diversity Inclusion Officer, Valeisha Butterfield Jones. She’s been working on our Color of Change partnership, among other efforts. We’re very proud of the inclusion rider we’re creating and the opportunities for young, up-and-coming music people we’re providing. We’re taking the steps necessary to ensure that our organization is diverse, particularly our leadership.

And of course we’re improving the mix of our membership to make sure it’s truly representative—over 2,300 invitations went out for our new membership class. We’ve got a ways to go, but in the last class, we did reach racial and gender parity.

Any parting words?
Just to reiterate that the changes at the Academy and the Grammy Awards have been a long time coming, but we’re rising to the challenges. And we want to lead by example, especially at this moment; what we’re doing to get our house in order is a microcosm of what needs to happen across society. We want to make a contribution to the world beyond the music industry, Again, we have a platform; we’re going to use it.

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