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Music

Recording Academy releases plan to diversify Grammys

Grammy Awards
Alicia Keys hosts the Grammy Awards in 2019. On Thursday, a Recording Academy task force recommended significant changes to the awards in order to better reflect the diversity of the music community.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Recording Academy should rethink the way Grammy Awards are determined and the organization itself needs to implement significant structural changes if its activities are to be more reflective of the music and the music community of the 21st century, according to the final report issued this week by a task force assembled in 2018 to examine issues of gender and racial bias in music.

The 47-page report highlights 18 recommended changes based on findings of the 15-woman, three-man task force headed by Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama and recently appointed president and CEO of Time’s Up, an advocacy group taking on issues of sexual harassment and equitable working conditions in Hollywood and other industries.

The report proposes a major change in the voting method the academy’s 13,000 voting members use to determine the Grammy Awards for the four highest-profile categories — record, album, song and new artist — “to level the playing field for diverse artists.”

The recommendations also include a top-down proposal to fundamentally revamp the Recording Academy’s Board of Trustees, which the study found to be 68% male and 69% Caucasian since 2012.

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“That’s a pretty big, radical change,” Tchen told The Times in an interview Friday. “Some of the people in power will be giving up their power, but to their credit, they announced this week they will change the way the Trustees are chosen. That’s a very difficult change to make for a 60-year-old organization.”

Tina Tchen
Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to Michelle Obama and head of the Recording Academy task force.
(Gittings Photography)

The task force grew out of a confluence of events in recent years, perhaps most significantly a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that found 91.7% of Grammy nominations over a five-year period in the top four general categories, plus the category of producer of the year, went to males, while only 9.3% recognized females.

That issue was further pushed into the public arena by the male-centric results of the top 2018 Grammy Awards, and then-Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow’s post-telecast comments that it was time for women to “step up” to achieve parity, a remark that prompted many to call for Portnow to step down.

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He did so as of July 31 when his existing contract with the Recording Academy ended. On Aug. 1, Deborah Dugan took over the top post, coming to the organization from (Red), the nonprofit founded by U2 singer Bono and activist Bobby Shriver to combat AIDS. The Recording Academy is the music industry advocacy group made up of musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers and music industry personnel that, among other functions, annually determines the Grammy Awards.

Among the report’s most notable recommendations are several proposed changes to both the voting processes for the thousands of recordings submitted annually for Grammy Awards consideration, and to the makeup of the academy committees that oversee the nominations and awards themselves.

“The proposed reforms touch virtually every part of the Academy’s operations, ranging from revision of internal policies to reforming the manner in which Grammy nominees and Board of Trustee members are selected,” the report states.

The substantive change recommended for choosing top Grammy winners would move the voting from the present plurality voting system, under which about 13,000 voting members select one choice from among eight nominees in each category, to a ranked-choice vote in which members prioritize their top four picks in each category.

“A plurality voting system …. benefits polarizing candidates and harms women’s chances,” the report states, partly because of three other factors: “(1) the relative lack of women in the music industry as a whole; (2) historical and systemic discrimination within the music industry; (3) insufficient gender diversity in the Recording Academy’s voting membership.”

Also at issue are the racial and gender makeup of committees that oversee academy operations nationally and which shepherd the Grammy Awards process.

“Despite the indisputable importance of these committees,” the report noted, “they have historically not included members that reflect the demographics of society at large. For example … between 2015 and 2018, 71% of the national governance Committee members were [male], while only 29% were female; and between 2015 and 2017, members of the nomination review committees in the aggregate were 74% male, 26% female.”

Initial changes to those committees were implemented quickly after the task force came together because “we realized immediate corrective action was needed. Fixing this issue could not wait until the end of the Task Force’s work, especially given the upcoming Grammy Awards cycle ... In the aggregate, the individuals appointed as members of the nomination review committees for the 61st Grammy Awards [which were handed out last January] were 51% female — a significant improvement over the 26% number in prior years.”

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Yet despite demonstrable steps toward increasing diversity in 2018, there was backsliding in some areas this year, the report noted, including an increased male component in both the nomination review and national governance committees.

“If you’re not constantly paying attention to these issues,” Tchen told The Times, “it gets really easy to fall back into old habits. Sometimes it takes the extra effort to realize you don’t have the fully diverse committees you want.”

The report indicates that the academy has historically been resistant to embracing diversity at various levels of its operations.

“One refrain we heard when we initially raised concerns over committee diversity was that the academy tried — but could not find — diverse candidates,” the report states. “We do not agree with that view, and believe the dramatic compositional change in the year the Task Force worked with the academy demonstrates that it is incorrect.”

After spending nearly 18 months delving into the workings of the academy, and the music industry in general, Tchen said, “In one sense, what surprised me was how little I was surprised. As an outsider I was told by a lot of people what’s unique about the music business — and it does operate in a different way. Music is much more fragmented, music is getting made in smaller settings not just in large company settings.

“But at the same time,” she said, “a lot of issues are the same as in other industries: lack of representation at the top, not just for women, but also people of color and LGBTQ communities, and the same kinds of discrimination and harassment exist.

“Workplaces in the music business are creative places where people can reach their full potential,” Tchen said, “but the work culture, the studio culture, the tour culture has got to be a safe place for that to occur.”

In the report’s conclusion, it states that Dugan has committed to reconvening the task force in one year to evaluate what progress the academy is making.


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