The press room backstage at the Grammy Awards is a bunker-like space beneath Staples Center sports arena, a nondescript room that isn’t typically a beehive of activity, much less a frequent source of breaking news.
The biggest names in pop music typically skip it after they’ve won awards or completed performances on the star-studded telecast. It tends to be a hangout for first-time winners or stiff-upper-lip also-ran nominees on what’s branded “music’s biggest night” by CBS-TV and the Recording Academy, which collaborate on the annual ceremony.
So when the academy’s then-President Neil Portnow stepped in front of reporters following the Feb. 18, 2018, Grammy Awards, the expectation was that he would deliver less-than-memorable bromides about the academy’s pride in all nominees and winners, and its overarching mission to promote music as a universal language.
Instead, when a reporter tossed him a question about the evening’s male-heavy winners’ circle — best new artist winner Alessia Cara was the only woman presented an award during the televised part of the ceremony — Portnow said the time had come for female artists “to step up because I think they would be welcome.”
The quote was “taken out of context,” said the career bass guitarist who worked his way up through the ranks of the music business to his post leading the industry’s primary advocacy organization, which he held for 17 years. He insisted he never intended to imply it was somehow women’s fault for their poor showing at the Grammys.
“I don’t have personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face,” he said, “but I think it’s upon us — us as an industry — to make the welcome mat very obvious, breeding opportunities for all people who want to be creative and paying it forward and creating that next generation of artists.”
But the damage was done.
Within weeks, the Recording Academy announced the formation of a blue-ribbon task force to examine “conscious and unconscious bias” in the music industry and at the academy. It was charged with making recommendations about the roadblocks hampering women from being equally represented among Grammy winners and nominees, as well as in the halls of record companies, recording studios, management offices and music venues.
Tina Tchen, former chief of staff for First Lady Michelle Obama, was the high-profile choice to lead the task force. She assembled a 15-woman, three-man team from the entertainment industry and academia to take a serious look at the factors holding women, people of color and those in the LGBTQ community back in the music business.
Portnow’s comment was ground zero for what was intended to be a hard reevaluation at the Recording Academy. That led to the selection last spring of a new president and chief executive, Deborah Dugan, who took the reins on Aug. 1, a day after Portnow’s contract came to an end.
Her appointment by the academy’s board of trustees was greeted enthusiastically in most quarters as a pivotal step forward: A woman at the top of the nonprofit organization heralded real and necessary change.
On Thursday, however, just 10 days before the 2020 Grammy Awards ceremony will take place at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the rosy glow became a raging inferno.
Shock waves rippled through the academy and the music industry at large after Dugan was suddenly placed on “administrative leave” by the academy’s board and accused of misconduct stemming from what was described in a public statement as a complaint from “a senior female member of the Recording Academy team.” The statement added that “The Board has also retained two independent third-party investigators to conduct independent investigations of the allegations.”
The nature of the complaint was not detailed and academy representatives declined to offer additional information. A New York Times report said the academy employee’s complaint involved “bullying.” The employee, who took a leave of absence after filing her complaint, is widely believed to be Claudine Little, Portnow’s former assistant.
Dugan, through lawyer Bryan Freedman, quickly issued a heated statement of her own: “What has been reported is not nearly the story that needs to be told. When our ability to speak is not restrained by a 28-page contract and legal threats, we will expose what happens when you ‘step up’ at the Recording Academy, a public nonprofit.”
Dugan is said to have filed a memo weeks ago with the academy’s human resources department outlining concerns she’d developed over voting irregularities, financial mismanagement, “exorbitant and unnecessary” legal fees and “conflicts of interest involving members of the academy’s board, executive committee and outside lawyers.”
On Friday, musicians, record producers, label execs and others expressed their shock at the meltdown between Dugan and the academy. But on reflection, many expressed empathy for Dugan, talking of the academy as an “old boys’ club” in which many veterans were dead set against the kind of changes her hiring portended.
Others criticized her as an outsider who didn’t understand or seem to care to learn about the nuanced workings of the 62-year-old academy and its symbiotic relationship with artists, record labels and various constituencies.
She came to the post from heading (Red), the AIDS nonprofit formed in 2006 by U2 singer Bono, and previously held top posts at Disney Publishing Worldwide and EMI/Capitol Records.
“In fairness, she didn’t have the qualities or experience to run the organization,” a source familiar with the academy’s leadership said, asking not to be identified. “She felt she was hired to restructure the Grammys. Somehow she got the message that’s what she was there for. But she never stopped to learn how things work.”
Even in the short five and a half months she’d been at the helm, Dugan, who was recommended to the academy by executive recruitment firm Korn Ferry, drew comparisons with Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Dawn Hudson and her tumultuous eight-year tenure at the top.
What Hudson said about the film academy in a recent interview could double as a comment about the music industry and the Grammy Awards: “The academy grew up around a cozy club that was the center of the universe, and it was wonderful — if you were part of that club. We are still an exclusive club,” she said, “we’re just not an exclusionary club.”
The Grammys wrestled in recent years with exclusion by gender. A USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study issued just before the 2018 Grammy ceremony showed that more than 90% of awards in five top categories over the previous five years — record, album, song, new artist and producer — went to men, and just 9.3% to female recipients, a statistic that framed the tone-deaf quality of Portnow’s “step up” comment.
One significant effect of what the task force labeled “a public relations crisis” over Portnow’s remark was a precipitous drop in contributions to MusiCares, the philanthropic wing that provides aid to musicians in need, according to a lawsuit filed last year by longtime MusiCares Vice President Dana Tomarken, who was fired in 2018 after 25 years with the academy.
Her wrongful termination suit alleged that support for MusiCares fell from $5 million in 2017 to barely $1 million in 2018. The suit also alleged financial mismanagement surrounding the Grammys’ 60th anniversary event in New York, which incurred significantly increased costs over the expense of staging it in Los Angeles, where it traditionally has been held in recent decades.
The suit was settled through arbitration in November, with both parties agreeing not to disclose details of the settlement.
The biases affecting women, people of color and LGBTQ creators in the music business are deeply ingrained, the task force concluded in the 47-page final report issued in December. It contained 18 specific recommendations to address the various ways such biases play out. The academy has adopted and begun implementing some of those recommendations; others are still awaiting action.
Most notably, the task force discovered early on that the academy’s 25,000-strong membership, of which about 13,000 are voting members who decide on the Grammy Awards, is overwhelmingly white and male.
So is the academy’s 40-member board of trustees, which has averaged 68% male and 69% Caucasian since 2012. (An academy representative pointed out this week that the eight-person executive committee that elected to put Dugan on leave is 50-50 female-male.)
The same biases were found of the select nomination review committees that winnow down submitted recordings each year to five or, in the case of record, album, song and new artist, eight nominees for final selection by the voting members.
Tchen’s task force recommended quickly revamping the review committees to make them demographically in step with the general population. That resulted in selection groups that were 50-50 male-female as well as more racially diverse.
Some of those with knowledge of the task force’s operations told The Times last week that they encountered significant resistance to many of their recommendations for change, with men as well as women suggesting that old practices and old thinking were still deeply entrenched at the academy.
“I was one of a handful of people who came in to try to help Neil when the whole thing started imploding, said another industry veteran, also on condition of anonymity, who was not on the task force but was familiar with its proceedings. “It was such a rude awakening to learn how deeply and structurally flawed the organization was. It really is an old white boys club. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but it’s made up of a lot of guys late in their careers for whom this was the biggest platform they’ve ever had and they were going to do anything they could to hang on to it.”
Dugan’s leave is not expected to have a direct effect on next Sunday’s Grammy show, which is being assembled at Staples through the week, with artist rehearsals kicking into high gear as of mid-week. While the independent investigations are carried out, Board chairman Harvey Mason Jr. is serving as interim president of the academy.
Singer-songwriter Alicia Keys is returning as host after making a well-received first appearance as emcee last year. Emerging artists Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X are among the field-leading nominees this year — they received a combined 20 nominations — and will be among dozens of musicians performing during a telecast.
To hear it from those directly involved, the behind-the-scenes drama hasn’t dulled the shine that is part and parcel of a Grammy win. A music industry veteran who also asked not to be identified said, “The interesting thing is, to most artists, winning a Grammy is still incredibly important.”