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Music

Sexism? Cronyism? Mismanagement? After sudden ouster of Grammys chief, spin and finger-pointing begin

Deborah Dugan
Recording Academy President and Chief Executive Deborah Dugan was placed on administrative leave on Thursday.
(Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

The last thing the Recording Academy wanted, or needed, heading into the 2020 Grammy Awards ceremony next week was more turmoil.

Yet that’s precisely what it got late Thursday when the advocacy organization that oversees the annual awards ceremony and accompanying prime-time CBS telecast placed its newly installed president and chief executive, Deborah Dugan, on “administrative leave” amid allegations of misconduct.

In return, Dugan’s lawyer fired back that she is prepared to “expose what happens when you ‘step up’ at the Recording Academy,” a pointed reference to a remark made by former Recording Academy Chief Executive Neil Portnow that was roundly derided as sexist.

The news of Dugan’s exit blindsided many in the music industry as well as those at the 62-year-old organization, which is barely a week from the Jan. 26 Grammy ceremony that will bring thousands of musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers, record company executives and fans together at Staples Center in Los Angeles to celebrate “music’s biggest night.”

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The Recording Academy said its move was necessary despite the impending ceremony because of the seriousness of the allegation against Dugan. The academy’s statement did not detail the allegation, but a New York Times report characterized it as “bullying.”

It was leveled by “a senior female member of the Recording Academy team,” according to a statement the academy issued Thursday, which added that the organization’s board of trustees “has also retained two independent third-party investigators to conduct independent investigations of the allegations.”

Dugan retains her title but will remain on administrative leave while the independent investigations are ongoing, an academy spokesperson said. Board chairman Harvey Mason Jr. is serving as interim president.

A source close to Dugan characterized the complaint as “a routine HR matter.”

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Harvey Mason Jr.
Interim Recording Academy President Harvey Mason Jr. at the Grammy nominations press conference on Nov. 20, 2019 in New York City.
(Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

An academy spokesman said the woman’s complaint about Dugan was filed to the executive committee of the academy’s board of trustees before Dugan herself raised allegations of wrongdoing.

Dugan submitted a memo less than a month ago, reportedly to the organization’s human resources department, detailing her concerns about practices she had discovered including 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,” according to a New York Times report.

“You knew that Deb was going to face a lot of organizational challenges going into this,” said an entertainment industry veteran with knowledge of the workings of an independent task force created in 2018 to examine issues of gender and racial bias in the music industry and Recording Academy. “I do know the frustration level she was struggling against with this very incestuous, archaic, cronied organizational structure between the board and the [academy’s regional] chapters.”

A source with knowledge of the academy’s leadership spoke critically of Dugan’s executive skills. “She didn’t have the qualities or experience to run the organization. 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.”

Common, Neil Portnow
Common, left, and former Recording Academy President Neil Portnow at the 58th Grammy Awards.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Beyond the particulars of the crossfire accusations, the episode has highlighted a clash of cultures that is rocking not just the music industry or even the broader entertainment world, but companies of all stripes in the #MeToo and Time’s Up era.

“I honestly believe the reports we’re seeing [about Dugan’s allegations] have a degree of veracity to them,” said another longtime Recording Academy member who, like others, insisted on anonymity so they could speak freely. “It is hard to change. Is she a bully? I have no idea. But if she was a dude who was coming in, would it be characterized differently?”

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The bombshell developments grew out of efforts the academy began in earnest after the 2018 Grammy ceremony. That’s when then-President and Chief Executive Portnow said backstage, in response to a question about the predominance of male award recipients that evening, that the time had come for women to “step up” to achieve parity. The remark prompted pop star Pink, among others, to call for Portnow to “step down” for the tone-deaf comment on factors working against women in the music industry.

Portnow said the comment was taken out of context and quickly attempted to walk it back but announced in the weeks after the incident that he would indeed step down after his contract ended in 2019.

The immediate response was the formation of a 15-woman, three-man task force headed by Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, Tina Tchen, which made 18 specific recommended changes, some of them striking at fundamental elements of the organization’s operations, in its final report issued in December.

Among the many findings was that not only was there little diversity among the academy’s 40-member board, but the same was evident on the special committees that review recordings submitted for award consideration. Thus, committees that even in recent years remain overwhelmingly male and white ultimately have been deciding which recordings and artists make it to the nomination circle, affecting the makeup of winners to a large extent.

“It’s an old-boys network,” the source close to the task force said.

Portnow’s departure led to the hiring of Dugan, who previously worked with U2 singer Bono at the AIDS nonprofit organization (Red) that was founded in 2006. Before that she held top positions at Disney Publishing Worldwide and EMI/Capitol Records after spending years as a Wall Street lawyer.

Despite her history with various music-related firms, Dugan was viewed as an outsider by many in an industry that doesn’t routinely welcome them. Former NBC News chief Andrew Lack encountered significant resistance when he took over as head of Sony Music Entertainment in 2003. English financier Guy Hands was roundly pilloried for his handling of EMI Music when his Terra Firma private equity firm acquired it in 2007 and lost an estimated $2.5 billion when Citigroup took over the music conglomerate in 2011.

Dugan started her duties guiding the Recording Academy in August at the same time musician-producer Mason was installed as new chairman of the board of trustees, signaling the potential for change under new top leadership.

Just last week, in an interview with The Times, she spoke in upbeat terms about the opportunity given her to lead the academy into a new era following Portnow’s 17-year tenure at the top.

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“Everything’s being examined,” she said. “What are our values in 2020?” She also expressed a desire for greater transparency at the organization, whose methods for determining which recordings are singled out each year for nominations and awards remain a mystery to many.

Bringing change would necessarily present risks. As Dugan put it last week, “I think people are excited. But you know what? Change is disorienting. You start thinking, ‘Hmm, what’s that mean for me?’”

As it happened, Dugan reportedly often was at odds with Mason. Some academy officials were put off by a “very different management style” than they had become accustomed to during Portnow’s reign, and bristled at the change. Others, however, praised the new energy and ideas she brought.

Some of those ideas spoke to building of community and sensitivity to members’ feelings, which also generated complaints in some quarters.

“She wanted to take down walls and thought everybody should work in one communal space,” one source said. “There was a lot of kumbaya type stuff, like ‘Let’s get together and hold hands.’ She wanted everyone to take the train [from the academy’s West Los Angeles offices] down to Staples Center as a group.”

The palace intrigue, however, is not expected to spill over into the Grammy telecast, which will be hosted again by musician Alicia Keys and at which emerging artists Billie Eilish and Lizzo are leading the nominations.

Times pop music critic Mikael Wood contributed to this report.


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