Can the Recording Academy Make the Grammys Shine Again? - Rolling Stone
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Can the Recording Academy Make the Grammys Shine Again?

After weathering a major PR fiasco early in the year, a new team tries to modernize the awards for 2021

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Lars Leetaru for Rolling Stone

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The most sensational moment of the 2020 Grammys took place a week and a half before the ceremony.

With hundreds of artists and music executives en route to Los Angeles for the January 26th awards show and the bustle of events around it, the Grammys’ parent organization, the Recording Academy, suddenly announced that it was placing CEO Deborah Dugan on leave. Dugan — who’d been hired only five months prior as the organization’s first-ever female chief, replacing longtime head Neil Portnow — immediately fired back with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint alleging rampant corruption and secrecy, adding that her ouster was the result of the academy trying to cover its tracks.

Her complaint claimed “egregious conflicts of interest” in the Grammy voting process, as well as “improper self-dealing by board members,” procedural irregularities, sexual misconduct, and an overall toxic culture and “boys’ club” mentality in the academy’s governance. (The academy responded with a blanket denial, saying the institution “has absolutely nothing to hide and, in fact, welcomes the opportunity to tell its story.”)

Dugan’s words roiled the music business, and artists demanded answers. At the Grammys a few nights later, Tyler, the Creator said that he felt the word “urban” in awards categories was “a politically correct way to say the n-word” — just one pointed shot in what became a wave of calls from artists for much more transparency and fairness in the awards process.

“There’s something I need to say to the Grammys,” Diddy said onstage at Clive Davis’ annual gala the night of the ceremony, with stars like Cardi B, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Jimmy Iovine in attendance. “Every year, y’all be killing us, man. 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 you just want an even playing field.” Diddy called the controversy around alleged misconduct and vote-rigging the “elephant in the room” at the party, and added: “That stops right now. I’m officially starting the clock. Y’all got 365 days to get this shit together.”

More than half a year has passed since then. In that time, a number of academy executives say, the organization has put major resources into its diversity efforts. The institution hired its first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer, Valeisha Butterfield Jones, who announced a partnership with Color of Change for several internal diversity initiatives, such as a black music advisory group. It also announced a new class of 2,300 voting members, highlighting that the new class was 48 percent female, and 32 percent of its members came from minorities and underrepresented racial groups.

But for the academy’s critics, the question remains: Can the 63-year-old organization truly shake the long-standing criticisms about its awards process?

Harvey Mason Jr., who took over Dugan’s role as academy chairman and CEO in an interim capacity after her ouster, is aware of the enormous task ahead of him.

“What Puffy said at the party was something that made me personally pay attention,” says Mason, 52, a longtime producer and songwriter whose résumé includes work with Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Justin Timberlake. “There were a lot of things he said that I’d been questioning myself. I don’t think it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe Puffy said that.’ It was like, ‘OK, we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to do better.’”

Since the public battle with Dugan in January, the institution has announced a dizzying flurry of projects and corporate flowchart reorganizations. It hired a new chief operating officer, revamped its business-development team, and promoted several employees into new senior leadership roles. It set up a multimillion-dollar MusiCares fund for Covid-19 relief to unemployed musicians and music-industry workers — and, amid national Black Lives Matter protests in June, the academy followed Tyler’s suggestion and nixed the word “urban” in the Best Urban Contemporary Album category. (That award is now Best Progressive R&B Album.)

In response to Dugan’s allegations of corruption in the voting process, the academy’s longtime awards chief, Bill Freimuth, told Rolling Stone in February that the organization’s secretive review committees exist to ensure fairness, not to tamper with votes; reps from the academy also pointed to “layers of safeguards put in place by our auditors at Deloitte.” But, the organization acknowledged, it needs to explain the process more transparently to voters and
the public.

Mason, who has been an academy board member since 2007, was around in 2018, when Portnow infamously said that women in the music industry need to “step up” in order to be recognized by the Grammys — a gaffe that ultimately led to Portnow’s departure from the organization the following year. (In one of the most shocking parts of Dugan’s legal filing, she alleged that the academy had been aware of a rape accusation against Portnow involving a musician; Portnow called that claim “ludicrous and untrue.”) “Right off the bat, I felt like there were things that needed to change,” Mason says.

Among the most important items on his agenda are the diversity initiatives that Butterfield Jones — an experienced executive who’s held similar posts at Google and the Alzheimer’s Association — has been brought on to work toward. “We are not only open for business, but ready for partnership,” says Butterfield Jones, who says her personal mission is to “follow the data” in reforming the academy.  She plans to introduce new goals and accountability measures into the membership demographics, leadership ranks, and communication of the academy. “You saw in the new member class a real focus on gender parity [and] stronger representation across all underrepresented groups,” she adds. “And that’s just the beginning.”

Few of these changes will be made easier by the pandemic that has reshaped the music industry. When Covid-19 struck the U.S. in early March, it wiped out billions of potential dollars from live music and ancillary businesses, along with kicking artists and behind-the-scenes workers out of their jobs for an indefinite period of time. For MusiCares, the academy’s philanthropy arm, that crisis has been an opportunity to shine.

MusiCares’ new executive director, Laura Segura (previously the academy’s vice president of membership and industry relations), says she is eager to have the charitable body function as a direct support system for musicians in the Covid-19 era. She plans to lead the 20-person MusiCares team in new initiatives around mental health, addiction recovery, and “removing the stigma around asking for help,” and wants to take a data-driven approach alongside Butterfield Jones to pinpoint underserved communities.

“The average salary in the music industry is around $25,000 a year, which is nearly poverty-level,” Segura says. “Because it’s so easy to focus on the celebrity elements of the music industry, people don’t realize how difficult it is for music people to make a living.”

MusiCares can help, she says, by championing awareness of those industry-specific problems to the broader public and offering support resources. “We know we can go deeper and serve more on that front,” she says. “I don’t think we have done a strong enough job to let people know that we are here to help them.”

But Segura acknowledges that both the academy and MusiCares first “have work to heal ourselves, in order to better help heal the music community.” In 2018, well before Dugan’s accusations, ex-chief Portnow was accused by a former executive of siphoning millions of dollars away from MusiCares to cover a deficit from the Grammys’ telecast that year; the academy denied the accusations. “Those were very difficult years,” Segura says.

Covid-19 has also put the academy’s advocacy arm — a five-person team based in Washington, D.C., that lobbies on artists’ behalf — on high alert. Daryl Friedman, the academy’s head of industry, government, and member relations, says he’s never seen this level of artist advocacy in his two decades leading the team. “Since the pandemic hit, we have been able to work with our membership and galvanize them into being what I call a new breed of artist activist,” he says, noting letters to Congress and social media advocacy around Covid relief for music makers.

The academy helped get musicians and roadies into Congress’ CARES relief package for independent workers, and it drafted the HITS Act, introduced in July and aimed at providing more favorable tax provisions to artists who record music in home studios. Though the pandemic has done away with face-to-face meetings with politicians, the advocacy team has been trying, virtually, to impress upon members of Congress that music was hit uniquely hard by the lockdown.

A few months of new initiatives are all the academy has to counter years of criticism, mostly surrounding the organization’s homogeneous membership and practices seen as exclusionary.

Over the seven years that Segura oversaw the membership team, she says, she was proud of bringing in members with more age diversity and racial diversity — but even so, the team struggled to shake the voting base’s reputation as stiff and out of touch. “We had to be more proactive in the ways we were inviting individuals into our community,” she says. According to Segura, for example, it has historically been difficult to find qualifying women to join the membership base, “but that’s one of the areas where we need the most growth.”

Overall, the academy’s leaders strive to strike an optimistic tone. Mason repeatedly refers to the 2021 Grammys as hallmarking “a new version of the Recording Academy.” But he is still an acting CEO and will not be in the role permanently; he says the search for an official Dugan replacement is “underway,” with a new chief expected to be announced likely a couple of months after the awards. It’s a huge job, and there are still miles to go.

“It’s been an era of change and evolution at the academy,” Segura says. “And although it’s hard to go through that in a very public arena, I know we are a better organization because of it.”

Additional reporting by Ethan Millman.

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