It’s award show season, and who better to offer some perspective and insight on the season’s top-rated show than Mr. Neil Portnow. In the following Q&A, he discusses a bevy of points regarding the institution known as the Recording Academy and the Grammy process.
How impactful has the independent music community been on the Grammy process this year, and what role do you foresee it playing in the future?
The independent community which you would define other than the major label world has actually had a growing presence with us for quite a while now. This is good news from our perspective. The independent community represents a greater share of the market than ever before. Frankly, almost half of our entries and nominees and half of our Grammy recipients of late come from that sector.
How do reconcile highlighting indie talent on the show, which brings you added credibility, versus major recording stars, which drive the ratings and interest from sponsors?
It’s a combination and a balance. Unlike any other music show on television or unlike any other award show for that matter, our process is very unique and different. Ours is a very peer-based award. The determination of the Grammy recipient and nominees comes from a process which is the collective wisdom of our 12,000 voting members. That is where the nominations come from. They vote without regard to sales, marketing and popularity. They vote what they believe is the best in music over the last year. That is a very mixed combination.
The last few years appear to be a boom for the Grammy telecast, more so than other longtime award shows. Discuss how social media has been vital to the program
Well, it’s not by accident. We’ve made a concerted effort to put a lot of focus on marketing, and the digital and social media worlds as they’ve evolved in the past years. We’ve had a very specific strategy for it, along with a dedicated staff that envisions, executes and delivers. The results have been very gratifying. Last year we were the most talked about media event…even beating the Super Bowl in terms of discussion. Music is a topic that’s of great interest to folks on a social media basis and the Grammys are the pinnacle of excellence and represent the best in music. The world really knows and recognizes that, and looks to us for those great Grammy moments that you can’t see anywhere else. The Grammys is also a place of discovery. We have artists on our stage that aren’t typically seen by large audiences in the way they can be seen on the Grammy telecast.
Unlike the Oscars or Golden Globes, why don’t the Grammys do a joint East Coast/West Coast telecast of the show?
One interesting statistic from last year is that we actually out-rated the Academy Awards for the first time. The Academy Awards outrates the Emmys. We were the top-rated Award show last year. Along with our network partners at CBS, it has been the collective thinking that the way we roll this out currently works really well. At this point, we’re sticking with it. Another interesting thing is those watercooler-type moments that we’re able to generate with the show. So, if someone on the East Coast is watching live, and they’re communicating with the rest of the folks who haven’t seen it yet, they are starting the conversation by saying, ‘hey, you can’t believe what I just saw on the Grammys.’ In a way, it actually drives more enthusiasm and anticipation because people want to see all that they’ve heard about.
How is the organization continually able to attract legendary names for the annual MusiCares charity?
The MusiCares Person of the Year has become the evening to attend from an industry standpoint, and that has been a developmental process. The event is 20-plus years old, and featured some terrific artists in the first decade such as Bono whom we were able to honor. Part of the reason is that the work MusiCares has done has stepped up dramatically—to the point we are recognized as the charity of choice in our industry. There’s no other organization that does what we do for our industry which is to help music people in their times of need. This year will be the largest ever, honoring Bruce Springsteen (February 8th). We are expecting 3000 guests. We actually sold it out as soon as we announced it. We didn’t even print invitations. We didn’t need to. The saved money will go back towards music professionals who need assistance. I think success builds on success—that I can go to Bruce Springsteen and say, ‘We’d love to honor you, and you follow Paul McCartney, who follows Barbra Streisand, who follows Neil Diamond, who follows Aretha Franklin.’ The legacy, the allure and appeal, and even more importantly the vital need of supporting the work that we do, tends to resonate more than it ever has.
One of the goals of the organization and certainly for me, personally, is the continued diversification of our membership. That takes on a number of different elements. Diversity to me speaks to genre, to gender, to ethnicity, to age and to geography. We hit the ground running on all of those—making sure people are aware of what we’re doing; making sure they understand they are welcome in this organization, and that the future depends on them. Ultimately, we’re only as good as our members. Our nominations are only as good as those who create them. To the youth question, we established the Grammy University Network. The idea was if you’re going to a college or a university and if you’re pursuing a career in music or the music business, then you have the ability to join the Academy as a Grammy U member. We’ve got close to 5,000 students now in our membership, which associates with over 300 colleges and universities around the country. That’s the farm team and future for us.
There was quite a bit of scrutiny a couple of years ago for the deletion of so many categories. But it appears you are open to re-instating some categories, e.g., the Best Urban Contemporary Album.
On an annual basis, the Academy reviews its Awards process and its categories…because music changes. We have a very fluid and dynamic process. We have something called the Awards and Nominations committee, appointed by the Board of Trustees of the Academy…people from our industry who are experts like musicologists and journalists, record label and publishing executives, engineers, artists and songwriters. Annually, we review the current status of categories as they stand…sometimes that means adding something new; sometimes that means removing a category; sometimes it means a consolidation of various categories, and we need to be fluid in that respect.
What we did three years ago when we had our 50th anniversary, was to say to ourselves, ‘When was the last time we reviewed the entire process as a whole? Not just the individual categories but the whole way we put this all together.’ The result of all the study and all of the work was the restructuring of the categories, which went from 109 to 78. No genre or style was disenfranchised in terms of not being eligible to be entered in the process. The only difference was it might appear in a different category than it did previously. Obviously, when the perception is something is taken away, it leaves certain people unhappy. We expected that might be the case, and it was…even at the time, that was a small group of people who were unhappy.
Generally, we have been praised by most of the membership and certainly by the media, a lot whom had been critical of 109 categories. We all thought to ourselves what happens if we’re on this track—in five years are we going to have 120, or in ten years 200 categories. Where do you draw the line? Generally, we’ve been applauded for the change. Now, that we’re into it here, it’s settled in. However, every year we’ll take a look at how we’re doing. What’s changed and how it works? What doesn’t work and what needs to be modified? Upon review of the major overhaul, we’ve found a few situations where we can do it a little better and differently. We are now 81 categories, and next year who knows? That could change again.
Update us on one of your more recent ventures, the Grammy Museum located in downtown Los Angeles.
We’re very proud as the Museum celebrated its 4th anniversary in December . We are beyond expectation on every level. I’m very proud this comes on my watch, and we were able to get that done. The museum business is not a very easy one…yet we’ve secured some of the most exciting exhibits over the past couple of years, which could’ve gone to lots of wonderful places like the Smithsonian, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, or the Experience Music Project in Seattle; but they wound up with us…whether it’s the John Lennon Exhibition or the George Harrison Exhibition, or the recent Whitney Houston exhibit, I could go on and on. We’ve also hit a homerun with the Up Close & Evening Exhibitions we host. Through the Museum, we’ve created a friendly, warm and family environment where people feel comfortable. We couldn’t be more proud of it.
What do you see as the hot topic facing the music industry?
With technology being what it is; with consumer interest being larger than ever, but there being more and more ways to consume and enjoy music, what is the future from a business standpoint? What will be the business model if you are a creative individual, an artist dedicated to the art of making music? What is the scenario in which you will feel comfortable to earn a living, do that full-time and be dedicated to your art? What is the business model that allows the industry to flourish, grow and help develop those artists? For me, that is the big picture question. There are subtexts to that question, and I think that’s what everyone is working diligently to answer; to develop and create for the future.
Watch the Grammys, Sunday, February 10 on CBS (check local listings) www.grammy.com
Conducted by David A. Mitchell