This piece is part of Rolling Stone‘s second annual Grammy special issue, released ahead of the start of first-round voting on October 22nd. For the issue, we spoke to some of the year’s biggest artists about the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come January, delved into the challenges facing the Recording Academy, and more, providing a 360-degree view of what to watch for in the lead-up to the 2022 awards.
On a September Zoom call with Rolling Stone, Harvey Mason Jr., the Recording Academy’s new CEO, sounds calm and collected. He has exactly 30 minutes to chat before he’s pulled into another meeting, but he still makes time to laugh heartily at dumb jokes about him losing his hair as a result of the Grammys. His composure is striking given all he’s up against: maybe the most critical moment yet in the history of the awards.
Everything about his demeanor echoes that famous Friday Night Lights quote (“clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”). He sits in an upright and attentive fashion, but he’s not rigid like a politician. When asked if the organization is prioritizing a more collaborative and modern approach than ever before, he replies with authority: “Oh, 100 percent.”
More than two years ago, the Recording Academy’s integrity went up in a blaze of sexist rhetoric and administrative shake-ups. But, from any pile of ashes, a phoenix can rise if the right people can figure out how to summon it. Facing the weight of scandals past, as well as dwindling TV ratings and the expectations of an ever-younger audience, the Academy has an imperative duty now to make the January 2022 awards show markedly different from anything it’s ever put on. It’s doing this in part by nixing its controversial nominations-review committees — groups of anonymous “experts” who picked the final nominees in a variety of key categories before voters would get to decide the winners, and who sometimes had write-in power — while also making the awards process more transparent overall, ushering in new voters with diverse backgrounds and filling the C-suite with fresh blood.
These are changes for which music-industry insiders have spent years begging. Many believed, for example, that the nominations-review committees — nicknamed “secret committees” by skeptics — had far more influence than the Academy would ever care to admit. When the Weeknd, who had the biggest album of 2020, was shut out of nominations for this year’s awards, he told The New York Times, “Because of the secret committees, I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys.”
Artists weren’t the only ones frustrated by whispers of smoke-filled rooms and foul play in this realm. As one prominent record executive, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Rolling Stone, the Grammys are supposed to represent “the ultimate recognition of your musical accomplishments from your peers — but those committees were not our peers.” He continues: “It seemed that they had their own agendas, so the recognition didn’t actually feel valid,” adding that he’s heard of out-of-touch engineers serving on such committees despite not working on anything relevant for years. “I felt like my vote didn’t matter — because I knew that, at the end of the day, the secret committees would make the decision. I absolutely think that they dictated the winners,” says the executive.
The Academy is more than aware of the public dissonance. “When members say, ‘Hey, I think we should do this differently,’ we investigate it and vote on it,” says Mason, who officially became CEO this June.
He admits there’s a “lot of room” for improvement. “We are now positioned with a new leadership team — and new initiatives in place — to be able to move at the speed of culture and art,” he says, referring to his own elevation from chairman, along with his recently appointed co-presidents, Valeisha Butterfield Jones and Panos A. Panay, who are also on the call. But all three have their work cut out for them.
I. Years of scandal
The Academy’s PR troubles started with a fumble. In 2018, then-CEO Neil Portnow offended a whole lot of people at the worst possible time. After that year’s Grammys, Variety asked about the winners’ gender imbalance, and Portnow replied with a message about how women need to “step up.” To his mind, he was welcoming women into the fold — but the words sounded to many like victim-blaming, and onlookers shamed the Academy for its out-of-touch messaging.
And the comment came at the height of #MeToo — just months after the Weinsten Company fired Harvey Weinstein and Roy Price left his position as head of Amazon Studios after being suspended for sexual harassment accusations, five women accused Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct, and NBC fired Today Show host Matt Lauer for similar allegations; and mere days after five women accused James Franco of inappropriate behavior. Multiple female music executives wrote an open letter calling for Portnow to resign. After he did, the Academy announced that philanthropist and former record executive Deborah Dugan would become the first woman in charge of the Grammys.
Dugan officially started in August 2019. But a few months into her job, she sent an email to the Academy’s human-resources department saying she’d uncovered unacceptable patterns of malpractice. Weeks later, Dugan filed a 46-page Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, in which she called the voting process “ripe with corruption”; cited an overall “boy’s club” problem; detailed improper spending of “exorbitant” amounts; and leveled accusations of sexual harassment and shady dealings against Portnow, longtime Grammy telecast executive producer Ken Ehrlich (who stepped down in 2020 following 40 years in charge), and the Academy’s general counsel Joel Katz. The accused men denied their respective allegations, a third-party-run investigation began, Dugan was eventually fired, and Mason — a chairman up until this point — took on the duties of an interim CEO.
Slowly, the alarms quieted, the pitchforks dropped, and the angry mobs of exhausted gossipers shuffled on home — which is where they would be forced to stay, as a global pandemic arrived. Covid-19 made people slow down and reevaluate their surroundings, which is exactly what the Academy needed. Due to the more urgent news cycles dominating the world, the organization was given an opportunity to lick its wounds, heal, and find new footing.
By April, Mason was welcoming in the Academy’s first chief diversity officer, Butterfield Jones — whose career includes a long run at HBO, a stint as the national youth-vote director for the Obama for America campaign, and more recently, the role of Google’s global head of inclusion. But as the Academy was working on its very-real diversity problem, it also had a show to put on.
In March, Ben Winston — the youngest producer of a late-night show in America, The Late Late Show With James Corden — got the chance to executive-produce the Grammys, taking over from Ehrlich. Despite a variety of virus-related restrictions, he dazzled in the role. The 2021 show felt younger than anything that immediately came before it. It reflected the year in music — with relevant artists designing invigorating performances to highlight their own songs, pulling away from stereotypical “Grammy moments” wherein veteran artists are paired with modern stars for mashups. This was less about the general power of music, and more about celebrating 12 specific months of creative triumph under severe stress.
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion performed “WAP,” their massive — and quite profane — hit, and Lil Baby to make an impassioned statement on police brutality during “The Bigger Picture.” Beyoncé, who hadn’t attended the Grammys since the 2018 show, returned — and became the most Grammy-winning female artist in history. Reggaeton finally had a centerstage moment, as did the K-Pop kings of BTS. Megan Thee Stallion won four awards, including Best New Artist. Artists, seemingly high on creative freedom, watched each other’s performances closely.
From young fans’ perspective, the 2021 Grammys were a good harbinger. But the low cable TV ratings of the show seemed to tell another story. Winston, though, points out that “the viewing habits of our nation are changing — and the pandemic has accentuated it,” as he told Rolling Stone a few days after the big gig: “Something I believe would’ve happened over 10 years happened in 12 months. You can see that with everything from the Super Bowl to the Golden Globes being down, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t watching the content.”
Going forward, Mason says his team will prioritize a balance that caters to both pop culturists and the over-50 demo that makes up a big chunk of CBS’ viewership. While he won’t confirm if Winston would executive produce the 2022 show, Mason says “Ben will absolutely be involved; we’re just working on what that looks like.”
II. The Grammys’ new groove
Right after the 2021 Grammys, the Academy announced a huge change: It would abolish the detested nominations-review committees.
“They did a lot of important work,” Mason says. “But, ultimately, our membership, our elected leadership, and our staff leadership found that those committees were no longer needed. People decided they wanted a pure, ‘general voting population’ vote.” The groups served more of a purpose in decades past, when voters needed guidance from niche specialists. Nowadays, information is immediately accessible, and most of the world’s music is available through streaming platforms. (They also, in a way, set the Academy up for diversity issues: In tapping people who were celebrated as “experts” in the music industry — a part of corporate America long coated in a wash of systemic sexism and racism that’s only now beginning to dissolve — the organization automatically shut out many women and people of color who weren’t even getting “specialist” jobs for reasons unrelated to skill and knowledge.)
The Academy then announced a slew of other new rules, including a biggie: All involved producers, songwriters, engineers, and featured artists can now earn Album of the Year nominations. Before, songwriters or producers would need to be credited with at least 33 percent or more playing time to be eligible. To understand the significance of the change, imagine this: A producer creates the beat that makes a song go viral on TikTok, the artist then gets discovered and signed, and that song then goes on the album that wins the big award. Doesn’t that producer deserve recognition?
The Academy also lessened the number of categories that a voter can vote in, with the intention of making sure people stick to what they know. Now, once a voter finishes contributing to the general field, they can pick 10 categories from three fields of expertise — as opposed to 15 categories from any field. “We’re getting all the people who [for example] make R&B, love R&B, or are working in that field, voting specifically in those categories,” Mason says. But this plan of attack only works if the Academy brings in a wide array of members. The organization’s reputation for being old school and hard to navigate has previously deterred young professionals busy trying to make names for themselves.
“We have embraced that we have to represent the diverse music community that we represent — full stop,” says Butterfield Jones. “We looked at our membership demographics and recognized that only 26 percent were women, and 27 percent were from underrepresented groups. We knew that we needed to do something now.”
Butterfield Jones says the past two membership classes are the most well-balanced in the history of the organization. This year, the Academy invited 2,044 more people into the voting membership. Of these invitees, 48 percent are women, while more than half are under the age of 40. Black and African American individuals make up 32 percent of this group; 13 percent and four percent come from Latinx and Asian/Pacific Islander communities, respectively. Though the final response rates weren’t available at press time, Butterfield Jones insists they are “the healthiest and most vibrant that we’ve seen.”
Butterfield Jones claims her team is working on diversity issues as they pertain to the membership “every single day. She’s also hyper-focused on turnout and encouraging “every single member” to participate in the process, as well as expanding membership offerings so that the Academy can be seen as a safe, protective space for artists — instead of a daunting monolith. “We’re working really hard,” she says.
According to the aforementioned record-executive source, the Academy’s work on behalf of diversity hasn’t gone unnoticed. “They’re taking the right steps — but they have to continue to do so,” he says. He also hopes this means the Academy will do a better job of putting works in the correct genre categories. (In 2020, Tyler, the Creator said that winning best rap album for Igor, a genre-bending set that has little rapping on it, felt like a “backhanded compliment.”)
Rolling Stone also discussed these matters with an indie-music expert who hopes the recent changes will benefit the independent community, too. She works with one artist who she’s felt will “always be too indie for pop, and too pop for alternative,” despite garnering critical acclaim and streaming success. She says this is a recurring problem, and the lack of representation led to her ignoring the show altogether in 2021: “Honestly, I didn’t watch it.”
The record executive, who works with top-streaming artists, says he feels more compelled to vote now. And he believes the reorganization will motivate younger people, especially if followed by technological updates that make the voting and nominating processes less complex. The latter is “very tedious,” he says. “The interface is complicated. There’s lots and lots of steps. You have to format and upload documents. They want every single credit and liner note.”
Both Butterfield Jones and Panay, who was hired with the Academy’s dual title of co-president and chief revenue officer in June, have backgrounds in tech. (Panay previously led innovation and strategy initiatives at Berklee College of Music, and he still serves as a strategic advisor to Reinvent VC — a Tel Aviv-based, early-stage fund focused on new media and technologies — and as a fellow at MIT Connection Science.) The pair are looking at tech that can streamline the Academy’s systems. “We’re assessing every part of the organization to figure out how to refine it as we move forward,” Butterfield Jones says. “We’re going to make things more convenient,” adds Mason. “We want to be technologically ahead of the curve.”
Their goal is to meet music creators where they’re at — on their smartphones in the studio. “Nobody is in the studio more than I am, and I’m running the Academy,” says Mason, who is himself a record producer and songwriter. A decades-younger Mason worked with Rodney Jerkins on “Say My Name” for Destiny’s Child — well before he was ushering Beyoncé back to the Grammy stage. “I’m still making records, I’m working with every artist, I deal with labels. These are the people we want involved to make sure the credibility of the award stays intact,” he says.
This is why he ran for chair, he emphasizes: “I thought the Academy could do more. I thought it could be better. I think it could be in even more service to the community — so I ran. And, somehow, through all these events, I became CEO.”
But Mason also recognizes the importance of looking at the broader picture that has nothing to do with the show or awards. He wants to give back to suffering music-driven communities — like post-hurricane New Orleans — and to make sure elementary-school art programs are stocked with instruments. And he wants to fight for new legislation on songwriter and producer rights, arguing that hitmakers need to be able to make a living off hitmaking before they can carve out time for voting. “I don’t want to sound shallow, but the TV show, the awards, and our partnership with CBS funds all that,” he says. “It allows us to give back.”
Now, he says, he wants to educate people on what the Academy actually does, prioritize a collaborative approach within the building, and speed up the time between feedback and change. He believes an improved Academy will take “the most creative ideas, mash them all together, and come out with the right answers — and do it in a way that’s not taking years and years.”
“We’re going to be thoughtful, but we’re going to make these decisions quickly,” he says. “This was our hope in doing this restructure, reorganization, whatever you want to call it.”
This August, another three high-level executives left the Academy, including Bill Freimuth, chief awards officer, who was responsible for overseeing the nomination and voting process and had been with the organization since 2004. Mason says, going forward, the Academy will take a more collaborative approach, leaning more on various departments as well as Butterfield Jones and Panay. “There are so many people involved,” he says, adding that the awards department will still get a new head this fall.
So far, the new regime’s choices seem to be working. In March, multiplatinum songwriter Ross Golan penned an op-ed for Variety called “It’s Time for the Grammys to Abolish the 33 Percent Rule.” Two months later, the Academy did just that. “I’m proud to say that this year will be the first time songwriters are truly considered equal participants in the album of the year,” Golan tells Rolling Stone, explaining that he sees it as a step towards upholding “quality and excellence” over quantitative rules. “I think Harvey is a great leader.”
Golan is also excited about the Songwriters & Composers Wing, which debuted this spring to mirror the Producers & Engineers Wing, an arm that has been around for 20 years. There’s “so much” that will “no longer be antiquated,” he says.
He’s not alone in thinking that the Grammys felt more relevant back when gramophones were. But the 2020 Album of the Year award went to a teenage woman making music in her bedroom, and the nominees for the 2021 Album of the Year involved an average of 15.75 songwriters. The Academy’s internal structure, voting process, and show have a responsibility to honor this new normal with more than just a few trophies — and it’s finally starting to do so.