For new Grammys boss Deborah Dugan, change is (mostly) good: ‘Everything’s being examined’

Deborah Dugan
Recording Academy President and Chief Executive Deborah Dugan, at her home in Santa Monica.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Deborah Dugan moved to Los Angeles in July, just a few weeks before the longtime New Yorker’s first day as the president and chief executive of the Recording Academy. The role, which she officially began on Aug. 1, is a time-consuming one, with concerts at night after days spent meeting with the music-industry bigwigs who will convene Jan. 26 at Staples Center when the academy presents the 62nd Grammy Awards.

So you could understand why, on a recent morning at Dugan’s new home near the beach in Santa Monica, a weathered-looking note was stuck to a window shade reminding her that the shade was broken.

“Oh, please — that can’t be in the picture,” she said with a laugh to a photographer, swearing to herself that she’d find time someday to get it repaired.

Yet the window shade was nothing compared to what Dugan is being counted on to fix at the academy.

Viewed for years as being out of touch with modern music — remember when Steely Dan beat Eminem for album of the year in 2001? — the Grammys have more recently become a locus for important conversations about how race and gender play out in a music business that has yet to undergo a full #MeToo-style reckoning.


Prominent artists including Drake and Frank Ocean have criticized the ceremony for marginalizing hip-hop and R&B; women such as Ariana Grande and Lorde have skipped performing because they say they’ve been blocked from doing it the way they want.

Many saw signs of improvement in 2019, a year after Dugan’s predecessor, Neil Portnow, infamously suggested that female artists should “step up” if they wanted to be recognized at the Grammys — as though their being sidelined was the result of a lack of effort rather than the organization’s institutional bias.

Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Alicia Keys, Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez
From left, Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Alicia Keys, Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez at the 61st Grammy Awards, Feb. 10, 2019.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But much of the goodwill generated by last year’s show, which was dominated by the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Cardi B, has faded as insiders echo longstanding complaints about the academy’s secretive committee that steers nominations for the biggest awards.

Asked why she wanted what could amount to a thankless job, Dugan — the first woman to lead the Recording Academy — shook her head.

“Can I just say: Why should that be?” replied the 61-year-old, who left her position as chief executive at Red, the nonprofit AIDS-advocacy group founded by U2’s Bono, to take over from Portnow. “Why should the association that represents music-makers be a thankless job? It should be the best job on the planet. So I’m coming in with that spirit.”

Still, she acknowledged, the work before her represents an obvious challenge, with competing goals and distinct constituencies among the academy’s approximately 25,000 members. “A noble paradox,” she called it, explaining that the Grammys must celebrate innovation even as they preserve tradition.

This year the academy was widely hailed for showering nominations on diverse new acts such as Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X. Yet some have worried that a CBS telecast filled with newcomers could have trouble engaging that network’s older audience.

It’s too early to gauge Dugan’s efforts, or even to describe them with much precision beyond saying that she’s committed to “fast decision-making” and “less hierarchy” — two sensible objectives at a moment when digital streaming is dramatically reshaping pop’s established power structures.

If results so far are scarce, though, Dugan — who likes to say that a Grammy nomination changes the first line of an artist’s obituary — has the support of some of the industry’s most prominent players.

“Any institution needs refreshing on an occasional basis, and if you’re not going into a job like this with Deborah’s optimism then you’re the wrong person for the job,” said Warner Records co-Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Tom Corson.

For now, as Dugan learns the academy’s ropes, “I’m trying to ask the right questions,” she said over coffee at a dining table piled with her 17-year-old daughter’s ACT-prep guides. “Everything’s being examined. What are our values in 2020? Are we doing the best we can in music education?” She recalled a recent staff meeting in which an intern pointed out that the organization isn’t especially funny on social media.

“I’m like, Oh my god, are we a drag?” the CEO joked.

Said Steve Barnett, chairman and chief executive officer of Capitol Music Group: “She really listens, and it’s clear that she wants to receive diverse opinions and input.”

A former Wall Street lawyer who later worked as a record executive at EMI and in publishing at Disney before her stint with Red, Dugan was approached for the academy gig by a corporate recruiter whom she initially assumed had gotten in touch to solicit her thoughts about other candidates.

She was happy in New York and with Bono, she said; she’d easily turned down earlier invitations to discuss overseeing the Humane Society and the Girl Scouts. “But they kept looping back to me,” she said of the Recording Academy, while friends in the business began to tell her she might be able to do some good.

Eventually, she flew to L.A. for an “intense” interview with the group’s 40-member board; she recalled quoting an Economist article she’d read on the plane about a young rapper from Africa whose story “made the point that music can change your life,” she said. “I think people in the room found that inspiring.”

Many in the industry had expected the board to select a woman for the job, though some were surprised by the choice of a relative outsider. Yet Jay Landers, a veteran A&R exec who worked with Dugan at both EMI and Disney, said her close relationships outside music — with tech companies like Apple, for instance — only bolster her “fresh perspective.”

Of being the academy’s first female president, Dugan said, “Maybe I’m a token. But better that there are some tokens changing the game than none at all.”

Warm and chatty in person, the CEO promises — without explicitly saying so — a shift in approach from the more patrician Portnow, who led the academy for 17 years and was “very positive” during the transition, Dugan said. “Complete transparency” is her aim in the nomination process, which frustrated many this year with a number of nods (and snubs) that seemed to reflect the unseen hand of the secret committee: Taylor Swift’s “Lover” being overlooked for album of the year, for example, or a best new artist field with several acts that many listeners have never heard of.

“I’m looking at it with a beginner’s mind,” she said of the committee, adding that it might have “course-corrected” in the past in an attempt to elevate the Grammys above other awards shows based strictly on sales or fan voting.

Dugan’s style is definitely different. At the academy’s headquarters in Santa Monica, she seemed embarrassed by the size of the office she’d inherited. And asked if she planned to maintain Portnow’s habit of appearing on the Grammys telecast, she claimed she wasn’t yet sure.

“I’m not in favor that after an hour and a half, somebody comes out and gives a Recording Academy spiel,” she said. “I won’t be there unless there’s something important for me to say to the 22 million people watching.”

Dugan’s grasp of that number pointed to the pressure she’s likely under to increase ratings for the Grammys, which like most awards shows have been trending down. This year’s ceremony — with Alicia Keys as host and scheduled performances by Eilish, Lizzo, Rosalía and Tyler, the Creator, among others — will mark the final one for the show’s longtime executive producer, Ken Ehrlich; next year, Ben Winston, known for his work with James Corden, will take over.

With a laugh, Dugan said that having Keys back after the singer’s well-reviewed turn in 2019 was “almost a condition of my taking the job. She’s a musician, and you see the show through her eyes.”

The CEO called herself a lifelong music lover whose father — a Brooklyn police officer who went on to help found the Peace Corps before dying at age 38 — exposed her to Billie Holiday and Johnny Mathis when she was young; later, she became a “Beatles maniac” and had her mind blown by Live Aid. Of her tastes these days, Dugan, who in addition to her daughter has two older sons with an ex-husband, said she gravitates toward “songs of protest that change the world.”

To judge by the books and photos in her home and office — think Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bono — those protesters have mostly been from the white-guy-with-guitar mold. But Dugan’s new position has led her to expand her view, she said, immersing herself in hip-hop and dance music.

Recently she had the pleasure of calling the members of Public Enemy to inform them that they’d been selected to receive the academy’s lifetime achievement award this year.

“They said, ‘You must be mistaken,’” she recalled, adding that the rap pioneers reminded her that they’d famously asked “Who gives a f— about a g— Grammy?” way back in 1988.

“I told them, ‘Yes, and that helped create a category we call rap. So please bless us and come to the Grammys so we can thank you.’” She laughed.

“And they were like, ‘Wait, who are you again?’”