What is the path to a Grammy? It’s supposed to go this way: The Recording Academy, the Grammy Awards’ parent organization, receives an avalanche of submissions, organizes them by category, and sends them to its 12,000 eligible voting members, who select around 20 contenders per category by popular vote. That shortlist then goes to Academy-organized review committees, which whittle it down to a slate of nominees to be sent back for a final popular vote that chooses the winner.
But those review committees often engage in corrupt practices that include booting names on the list for their own favorite songs and artists, former CEO Deborah Dugan has alleged in a fiery and drawn-out legal battle that started four weeks ago when the Academy placed her on administrative leave. In a 45-page complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission six days before this year’s Grammys, Dugan, who was removed from her post after only five months on the job, claimed that these review committees — which she refers to as “secret committees” because the members’ identities are kept hidden from the public — bypass a democratic voting structure and that she was fired, in part, for attempting to raise these issues with the organization’s board.
“The Grammy voting process is ripe with corruption,” Dugan wrote in her EEOC complaint, pointing particularly to instances in which “members of the board [of trustees] and the secret committees chose artists with whom they have personal or business relationships.”
In the time since Dugan’s ousting, the rapid-fire back-and-forth between her allegations and the Academy’s staunch rebuttals has left the music industry frustrated and confused, unsure of which side to believe. While a number of industry figures are criticizing the organization for alleged misconduct, the Academy contends that its voting process is purposely opaque in order to prevent fraud. Both sides are fighting over one particular question: The Grammy Awards’ inner workings have long been shrouded in secrecy — but should they continue to be?
Multiple sources close to the situation tell Rolling Stone that they know of members of the review committees who’ve advocated for certain artists due to personal or professional bias — and that the machinations of the “secret committees,” as Dugan calls them, are well-known to certain industry insiders. The review committees regularly shoehorn in artists who are not in the initial top 20 selected by the voting membership, according to several current and former Academy members. (The Academy says the process is complex by necessity, to ensure that all artists have a fair shot.) One industry insider says they have engaged in financial lobbying for votes during the nomination process. “It’s like baseball and steroids — if other people are taking them, I’m going to have to as well,” the insider says.
“I don’t know if corrupt is the right word, but it’s an insidious organization that’s never been open or transparent and run for the guys that run it, not for everyone else,” one prominent music attorney tells Rolling Stone. “All that stuff, they should’ve realized was going to come to an end and exited [it] gracefully instead of blowing this whole thing up.”
Dugan’s EEOC complaint says the Academy’s board this year, in an “outrageous conflict of interest,” allowed an artist who ranked 18 out of 20 in the Song of the Year category to sit on the nomination committee reviewing their own song. She also alleges that the review committees wrote in 30 artists, in total, who weren’t initially selected by voters. While neither Dugan nor any other industry figure has released the names of those artists, sources say her allegations are in line with what they have witnessed in the past.
The music industry has long raised questions of misconduct in the voting process for years — if not about the so-called secret committees, then about flaws in the process elsewhere. “I saw how the whole thing works: It’s kind of based on the honor system of who wants to vote for whatever categories,” says Rob Kenner, a former Academy member who says he sat on a screening committee for Best Reggae Album, published a critique of the voting process in 2014, and was not invited back into the committee the following year. “From the outside looking in, we assume it’s very knowledgable experts picking the best songs and artists. We assume the people making the choices have listened to everything and made very informed decisions, when in fact you just log on the website and you click what you want to click. You might be doing that based on your personal agenda. The industry has a lot of built-in commercial conflicts of interest.”
“People want to believe there is a credible mechanism for recognizing the best music. But the public’s faith has been shaken.”
— Rob Kenner, former Academy voting member
Kenner adds, “People want to believe there is a credible mechanism for recognizing the best music. But the public’s faith has been shaken.…The other thing is, who’s actually in the Recording Academy? It’s full of older white men. Their trophy is literally a gramophone — a 19th-century recording device.” In 2018, after CEO Neil Portnow called for women to “step up” in the music industry, the Recording Academy put together a task force to promote diversity and inclusion; the fallout over Portnow’s comments continues on, however, and Dugan said in her complaint that a toxic “boys’ club” environment persists at the organization.
Some in the music industry, like Friends at Work CEO Ty Stiklorius, who manages John Legend and serves on the task force, have directed their frustration toward the Academy’s lack of consistent, transparent communication. “I won’t stay quiet on this,” Stiklorius tweeted last month. “As an Academy Inclusivity Task Force member, I saw the inner workings [and] lack of transparency. The board voted down our recommendation of Ranked Choice Voting. They have not implemented our recommendations but used us as a pawn.”
Artists have largely stayed silent on the Dugan-Academy dispute. (No presenter or performer raised the issue at the awards ceremony.) But many are angry about the lack of transparency. “There’s something I need to say to the Grammys. Y’all be killing us, man,” Diddy said onstage at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy gala, where he received the Grammys’ Salute to Industry Icons Award. “I’m talking about the pain, speaking for the artists, producers, executives. The amount of time it takes to make these records, pour your heart into it — and we just want an even playing field. For most of us, this is all we got. This is our only hope.”
And many see the voting controversy relating to broader issues of racial bias and favoritism within the industry. “The folks who control [the Grammys] are mostly old, rich, white, male executives with corporate agendas who look at these awards like toys and trinkets,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D tells Rolling Stone, adding that they need “to represent their members and all the creative minds that fuel the art form of music and not just those from the past, but those from the present and future, too. They can’t just talk about diversity — be it racial, gender, genre, and everything in between — or post a few words about it on social media or a website and call it a day. Say what you want, they simply don’t care. They need to live it, act on it, and embody it, and it needs to be done in the light, not in the shadow meetings and boardrooms with the doors locked up tight.”
For its part, the Recording Academy says it upholds a fair voting process, free of undue manipulation. The Academy’s longtime awards chief Bill Freimuth tells Rolling Stone that the review committees — established decades ago as a way to actually safeguard the process — are “a crucial part” of Grammy nominations and that the Academy does not condone any tampering from committee members. While a clause in the voting rules does allow write-ins, that only applies to certain categories, he says.
Freimuth says that for some smaller-category committees, like the one for dance music, members can amend the list of nominees for review with up to two names from the initial ballot, in order to “put out a list that is as current and relevant as we possibly can.” But general-field categories like Album of the Year allow “absolutely no write-ins or additions,” Freimuth says. Explaining the dance-music case, he says, “It’s really music that is intended to be played by DJs in dance clubs. The feeling is that there’s a relatively specialized subset of our voters who aren’t even that aware of everything that’s happening in the clubs, what’s current, and what’s working on the dance floor. So, they’re given a list of 15 — not 20 — and they are allowed to add up to two selections from the first ballot.” These hand-picked selections may be considered by the review committee “so long that they have a two-thirds super-majority vote in the room that these would be egregious omissions to the process.”
Freimuth says he finds it “heartbreaking” that the Grammy voting process, developed over 60 years, is being “trampled” by an “individual in the service of a personal agenda.” Dugan likely didn’t fully understand the complexities of voting rules in her “brief tenure” helming the Academy, he says. He denies that it’s possible for a committee member to pluck a submission from the bottom of a ranked Top 20 and move it up. Only the CEO and chair of the Academy are aware of the rank order, according to a source within the Academy.
Committee members “are instructed to listen to these 20,” Freimuth says. “We make sure that conversation is strictly about the quality of what’s happening on the record — whatever they want to say, as long as it’s about the performance or the production or the songwriting.” Committees are presented with lists of the top 20 vote-getters in alphabetical order, he says.
“The Recording Academy’s voting and solicitation guidelines explicitly instruct voting members to make their choices based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible recordings.”
— Rep for the Recording Academy
“The Recording Academy’s voting and solicitation guidelines explicitly instruct voting members to make their choices based solely on the artistic and technical merits of the eligible recordings,” the Academy tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “Additionally, there are layers of safeguards put in place by our auditors at Deloitte to combat any kind of potential voter misconduct such as paying for votes and vote trading. Any voter misconduct that has been discovered or reported has been met with swift corrective actions by the Academy including vote dismissal, submission disqualification, and termination of membership.
Dugan’s EEOC complaint also named Ken Ehrlich, the Grammys Awards’ executive producer for the past 40 years, as someone she claims is allowed to manipulate the nominations slate in favor of his preferred artists. But insiders say they’ve never seen Ehrlich take part in the process, and Ehrlich himself flatly denies the allegation, telling Rolling Stone: “No one calls me. I don’t talk to anybody. Once the nominations are decided, I am given a list. I have the list. OK. Then I make the show.” Ehrlich says he feels it is important to “separate what’s going on over there from what’s going on here next door” and understand that the awards show itself — a four-hour broadcast performance on national television — has no input in the months-beforehand voting process.
Ehrlich starts reaching out to artists for potential bookings months before the Academy announces nominations, sources confirm, and the show sometimes involves artists who aren’t selected by the voting process: For example, Demi Lovato performed this year without a nomination or new album out. If he were really allowed to throw the nominations, “then Ed Sheeran would’ve been nominated this year and every year because I love Ed Sheeran,” Ehrlich says.
Several insiders stand against Dugan’s complaint and defend the Academy’s processes. Liz Rose, a songwriter who has worked with Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert and also serves as one of the governors of the Recording Academy’s Nashville chapter, speaks in favor of the existing voting process. “What? You want record-label executives calling the shots?” she says, when asked about the idea of eliminating committees and putting responsibility in the hands of the voting members.
“I’m insulted, I’m pissed, and I’m sad,” Rose says about Dugan’s allegations. “Do not attack everyone who’s ever had a Grammy nomination or a Grammy win. Do not attack my friends. I am passionate, and I am pissed off. Now, everyone who didn’t get a nomination in their career can say, ‘I knew it! It’s rigged.’ Stop. It’s peer voted. These are our peers, who get on planes to go home and fight for the music, fight for the creators. They’re sitting in these rooms all day for the love of their peers. They’re not getting paid. Think about what this does to the creators and everyone who receives a nomination. This is our career and our heart and soul.”
She argues that, in fighting against this process, it “fucks up the best day of [these creators’] lives.…This is a tough job with very little when it comes to accolades. I’m not an artist. I’m a songwriter. You’re gonna tell me that my nomination doesn’t count? It isn’t real?”
Having served on one of the review committees, Rose says, she can vouch for the “thoughtfulness and the hard work” going into the process. “It is so vetted, and it is treated with the utmost respect. You walk out of the room proud. They’re secret for a reason. They’re secret so you can’t be lobbied,” she says. “And, by the way, if it wasn’t secret, no one would do it!”
According to Freimuth, concealing the identities of the committee members is a crucial part of the voting process. “It’s really for their own privacy reasons, for one,” he says. “We don’t want them to be lobbied from outside people. We absolutely know that would happen. That’s the main reason. But also, it’s to protect their own privacy in general. We don’t want people to be pointed at if some particular artist didn’t get a nomination, and we don’t want people pointed at if some particular artist did get a nomination, leading to ‘This is your fault’ or ‘We owe you dinner.'”
He points to the peer-generated nature: “The people in the nominations review committee are artists themselves. There are no label folks in those rooms or anything like that. [The Grammy] is not a fan award. This is a peer award. That’s what makes the [show] so special. Nothing against the fans. We love the fans, but there are fan-based awards that exist already. And I think what makes the Grammy so coveted and valuable to people in the music industry is that it’s their peers saying, ‘Wow, you did a great job.'”
“What makes this even more convoluted is that there are a lot of things we can’t say because it’s secret and we’re protecting the process,” says Rose. “I want to stay on the board. I want to be involved, so I can help maintain that purity. I want to be respected by the trustees, so I have to be careful, but I also have to call bullshit when I see it. Because of the secrecy that protects us, we can’t fight back, and [Dugan] knows that. That, in particular, is so unfair.”
As of today, the EEOC is still investigating Dugan’s discrimination allegations. If it finds enough evidence to continue an investigation, it will either attempt to create a settlement between the two parties or take the case to federal court. Meanwhile, the Recording Academy’s interim CEO Harvey Mason Jr. has sidestepped questions about voting reform and announced a number of new initiatives related to diversity and inclusion, including hiring a dedicated executive to oversee their implementation. “We must take action,” Mason said in a statement last month. “There is no excuse for waiting, especially when so many of our members have been tirelessly advocating for a bold new direction for so long.”
Additional reporting by Ethan Millman