Ken Ehrlich, the showrunner of the Grammy Awards for the last 40 years, just wrapped up the awards broadcast and is running off four hours of sleep when he sits down with Rolling Stone in Los Angeles. “I have gotten all these emails saying I have changed the face of music, and I don’t believe that for a minute,” he says between rehearsals for the Grammys’ Prince tribute.
While Ehrlich has witnessed countless spats and scandals between artists, executives, and other industry figures behind the scenes, it’s rare that he’s been at the center of the drama himself. But with the Recording Academy experiencing a tumultuous past few weeks, the longtime executive producer, whose show on Sunday was his final year running the Grammys, reflected on his epoch-spanning career and the tempest within the industry’s governing body.
How are you feeling?
It hasn’t hit me yet in terms of the finality of it. I’m so pleased with the show the other night. I think we did so much under rather trying circumstances.
Was it difficult to work in the show’s opening Kobe Bryant tribute at the last minute? How often have you had to do that?
The most simplistic explanation is that we took the opening act of the show — Alicia at the piano, Blake and Gwen, all that — we took all that out, put the Kobe piece in its place, and then restarted that original show at the top of Act Two. I don’t think I’ve ever had to do something exactly like that. It was a similar circumstance that occurred a few years ago when Chris Brown and Rihanna got into a fight; we went to Justin Timberlake and asked him if he could help us, then asked Boyz II Men, ironically [the group that performed Kobe’s tribute Sunday night], and then asked Keith Urban, and we did “Let’s Stay Together.” It was pretty cool. But no, each show is always totally different.
Tyler, the Creator and Lil Nas X both stood out as highlights. How did those come together?
Tyler is a good story. I’d seen videos; never seen him live, but really liked the videos. I set up a call with his managers — he’s managed by the same people who manage Frank Ocean, by the way, who I had not had a good experience with — but we agreed to meet. Tyler and I got in his car and started driving around. It was great. He told me about his life, I told him about mine; there’s about a 45-year difference but the commonality was music. We went for donuts, and I just liked the guy. We came up with this kind of blend for the two songs, a blend between a ballad and Tyler deconstructing the world.
Before or after donuts?
Oh, after donuts. Once we had a roadmap, he took the lead and worked with our guys to build the fire and the falling back into the hole and all that. During the whole process we’d text back and forth and he’d inexplicably text and say, “How are you doing, my little lady?” I love him. It was easy, because we were on the same track and we wanted to break the mold and he’s definitely a free thinker.
And that crazy spinning multiverse set for Lil Nas X?
One of my guys came up with the idea of a moving set. We knew we wanted BTS, we knew we wanted Mason Ramsey, we had Billy Ray Cyrus; Nas — big Nas — came in later and it was perfect. It was definitely a lot of ideas.
What would you say to complaints that the show didn’t feel cohesive because of the swings in genre and style?
I don’t believe the show needs to be cohesive. The world we live in is deconstructed in a lot of ways. Having the element of surprise in the show was very purposeful. I wanted to go from Lizzo to Blake to the Jonas Brothers to Tyler to Ariana to Billie to Aerosmith. It was the greatest joy for me that we upped the ante a little bit and made things more innovative.
“I don’t believe the show needs to be cohesive. The world we live in is deconstructed in a lot of ways.”
When you and I talked last year around the Grammys, Ariana Grande had said she dropped out of the show because of you. So did you guys patch things up?
She might differ, but I’ll tell you: We got together, and she wanted to perform this year, so we had a great time. It was very collaborative. When she first came in with it, she was on a lift going up in the air with the orchestra below and actually said, “Ken, what do you think?” I said, “You got this great orchestra there, and I think you should be singing in front of that.” She said “I absolutely agree,” and we re-blocked it, re-lit it, took some extra time, and then it was perfect. I loved working with her. I think it was really good.
There was also a rumor that Taylor Swift had canceled her performance of her song “The Man” because of the bad press surrounding the Recording Academy. Did it really happen that way?
No. She was never confirmed to perform. I saw her in early January at Billboard’s Women in Music event and I said, “Do you want to perform?” She said “I don’t think so, I don’t know. Let me think about it.” Probably 10 days before the show, one of her representatives called me and said “Taylor’s thought about it and she wants to be there for your last show.” I said “I’d love her to be there. Let’s figure it out.” I did put her in one rundown meeting that we had as a TBD. As it turned out, I don’t remember the date, but she declined. She had not been confirmed, so the headlines that said “Taylor pulls out of Grammys” — that’s not true.
We had gotten to the point of talking about staging; she wanted to do something on the satellite stage with a guitar and a stool, simple, so I fit that into the show. But a week before, she declined. They said “She’s just decided she can’t do it.”
Did all the news around the Recording Academy affect your approach to this year’s show?
It was hard to avoid, but I had a meeting with our staff and said, “We need to be focused on what the show is. It’s not related to other things. Let the show speak for itself.”
I do have an obligation to the Academy to present a show that shows what the Academy stands for. The mission; the goal. But the Academy is called the Recording Academy. The show should be called the Performing Academy. The show has had contentious relationships with the Academy in the past — in 1988, when Mike Greene was the head, my relationship was rough with him — but when Neil Portnow came in in 2001, things actually got better because he let us have a freer attitude toward the show.
So now, cut to this year, and all of a sudden Deborah [Dugan] comes in and, well, we didn’t know who Deborah was. I didn’t meet her until three weeks after she got there. I thought we had a lovely meeting and everything seemed good. I’m not sure at what point I began to understand that there was… whatever that was. I didn’t want to get involved in it. This year’s show: Maybe because things were starting to heat up between everyone over there, but I was actually able to do a few more things I wanted in the show than in years past — like all the ballads they were worried were sleepy — probably because they were preoccupied.
Deborah named you in her allegations about misconduct at the Academy, claiming that you sometimes get to pick nominees based on your show preferences.
That is totally untrue. I haven’t said this to anybody, but if that were true, then Ed Sheeran would’ve been nominated this year and every year because I love Ed Sheeran. Beyoncé certainly would’ve had more nominations than I could deal with. Taylor would’ve been in those big categories. I have nothing to do with the nominations. Nothing. No one calls me. I don’t talk to anybody. Once the nominations are decided, I am given a list. I have the list. Okay. Then I make the show.
I get upset sometimes because I may have laid out in advance some things I thought were great for the show but they don’t get nominated. For example, I think Brandi Carlile released one of the greatest pop records ever, eight or nine years ago, and if I could’ve, I would’ve pushed the button and jump-started her career 10 years ago.
You said earlier that you didn’t want to talk to media for two weeks. Why was that?
Well, I felt the safest thing to do was to separate what’s going on over there from what’s going on here next door. That was important to me. I’m here to elevate the artists. The Recording Academy and the Grammy Awards show — I have an incredible relationship with Beyoncé and Jay-Z and if they’re not going to separate what’s going on at the Academy from the Grammys TV show in their minds, then that hurts.
“I felt the safest thing to do was to separate what’s going on over there from what’s going on here next door. That was important to me. I’m here to elevate the artists.”
How do you view your legacy on the Grammy Awards?
I am reasonably proud of my run. I have gotten all these emails saying I have changed the face of music, and I don’t believe that for a minute. But I think I have changed how music goes on television and been contributory to the careers of artists. If you told me a number of years ago that Paul McCartney was going to take out ads in magazines thanking me, I would’ve — I never imagined it’d ever be like that. Just before you got here today, I got a call from Scooter Weintraub, who manages Gary Clark Jr., and he said, “You changed Gary Clark Jr.’s life.” So I’m okay with that, you know? Better than destroying somebody’s career.
Do you have any plans to write up all the behind-the-scenes stories about artists that you couldn’t tell when you were the Grammys boss?
I definitely have certain feelings I’ve worked with that are … no, no, I’m going to stop there, so that you can’t destroy me. I’ve worked closely with so many artists and I got the goods, but I mean. No one here gets out alive, as the quote goes.