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Recording Academy President Neil Portnow stepping down in 2019

Recording Academy President Neil Portnow stepping down in 2019
Neil Portnow, Recording Academy president and chief executive, will step down when his contract ends next year. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Controversy has been following Recording Academy President and Chief Executive Neil Portnow for months since since he said that women in the music industry needed to “step up” after this year’s male-dominated Grammy Awards telecast. On Thursday, the organization announced that Portnow would be stepping down when his current contract ends in July 2019.

The news follows months of criticism leveled at Portnow and the academy over those comments and came after the Grammys celebrated its 60th anniversary. Initially, the nominees for the 2018 Grammys were hailed as a progressive move forward, as they honored many R&B and hip-hop acts in the major categories.

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Yet the narrative quickly changed after January’s ceremony. Of the nine awards handed out during the televised portion of the Grammys, only one went to a solo female; meanwhile, a USC study released around the same time highlighted that the awards have been far from diverse in the major categories.

“There’s an overall stewardship issue with Neil Portnow in this position,” Britney Spears’ business manager, Lou Taylor, told The Times on Thursday. “We’re not seeing the evolution of the Recording Academy come into today’s time, and that’s not just with the female market. It’s people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ.”

Thursday’s announcement made no reference to the #GrammySoMale controversy that went viral after a preponderance of nominations and awards were bestowed on male recipients, continuing a trend that has long characterized the music industry and which ignited this year after the emergence of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

Portnow had earlier apologized via a statement: “Regrettably, I used two words, ‘step up,’ that, when taken out of context, do not convey my beliefs and the point I was trying to make.”

After the intense backlash over Portnow's comments, many felt his departure was inevitable.

“The people in power have been a bottleneck for change,” said Andreea Magdalina, the founder of shesaid.so, a networking and advocacy group for women in the music industry. “By bringing someone else on board, maybe the process of voting and how the winners are selected will change as well. Having allies in power will have a domino effect."

Still, before this year’s controversies, Portnow had long been credited as a stabilizing force for the Recording Academy after his predecessor, Michael Greene, resigned amid allegations of harassment and mismanagement of charitable funds.

“Since taking the helm in 2002, Neil has been instrumental in evolving the Recording Academy to address the needs of our creative community in a changing music landscape,” said John Poppo, the academy’s board chair.

“From critically important music advocacy initiatives and financial assistance for our music community, to the music education and preservation programs of the Grammy Museum and Grammy Music Education Coalition, Neil has not only advanced the academy’s mission, he’s extended its reach and impact.”

“I’m saddened,” said the show’s longtime executive producer, Ken Ehrlich, on Thursday. “We’ve had 15 years of a pretty unique and remarkable relationship between the network, the academy and my company. I don’t know if those things come along that often. He will be missed.”

Portnow more recently came under fire after an accusation by a former academy executive that he’d misdirected funds from the group’s philanthropic wing, MusiCares, to help pay the added expenses incurred by holding the Grammy ceremony and ancillary activities in New York this year, rather than Los Angeles, in observance of the academy’s 60th anniversary celebration.

Portnow and the academy have denied any misuse of MusiCares funds, and the academy’s board of trustees praised his leadership in the statement announcing his decision to end his 16-year tenure at the top.

Before becoming president, Portnow was on the Recording Academy’s board of trustees; during his watch, the organization established the Grammy Museum, strengthened its voice in Washington, D.C., and expanded MusiCares into a multimillion-dollar charity.

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Portnow also signed a 10-year deal with CBS to keep the Grammy Awards on that network through 2026 and is credited with building up the academy’s finances and brand — but the controversy about female inclusion at the Grammys and elsewhere in the music industryhas continued to roll on.

Portnow told the board last week that he would not seek an extension of his current contract, which expires in about 14 months. He couched the decision as part of a long-held plan to craft “a thoughtful, well-planned and collegial transition” whenever he decided to exit the post.

Portnow took over the reins at the academy in wake of a controversy surrounding his predecessor, Greene, who came under fire after a series of stories in The Times showed Greene to be the highest paid executive of a nonprofit organization in the country, with figures indicating that only about 10% of money raised for MusiCares ultimately going to needy musicians for whom it had been raised.

“I’ll be working with our board to put the various elements in place that will ensure transparency, best practices, and the academy’s ability to find the very best, brightest and qualified leadership to take us into our seventh decade of operation,” Portnow’s statement said. “I truly look forward to continuing my role leading the academy in the year ahead, and to continuing the pursuit of excellence and the fine missions we embrace and deliver.”

A recent addition to the academy’s mission — and one crafted in response to Portnow’s post-Grammy comments — has been the creation of a task force to study systemic biases that have resulted in the strongly male slant among Grammy nominees and winners over time.

A USC study last year indicated that 90.7% of nominations in the awards’ highest profiled categories went to men, while just 9.3% recognized women.

A significant part of that disparity stems from nominations in the record and album-of-the-year categories not just for musicians but also for producers and engineers, two fields that remain overwhelmingly male-dominated.

When musicians and other members of the industry took to social media after the Jan. 28 Grammy ceremony, Portnow was asked about the imbalance, and his response fanned the flames.

“It has to begin with women who have the creativity in their hearts and their souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, who want to be producers, who want to be part of the industry on an executive level, to step up,” Portnow responded, a remark that quickly came back to haunt him.

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Musician Pink tweeted, “Women in music don’t need to ‘step up’ — women have been stepping since the beginning of time. Stepping up, and also stepping aside. Women OWNED music this year. They’ve been KILLING IT. And every year before this.”

Similarly, singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton said simply, “It’s time for him to step down.” A number of female music executives also called for Portnow to step aside.

But Portnow and the academy made no such immediate move. Instead, Portnow subsequently stated that he regretted the remark, saying: “Regrettably, I used two words, ‘step up,’ that, when taken out of context, do not convey my beliefs and the point I was trying to make.”

“I regret that I wasn't as articulate as I should have been in conveying this thought,” Portnow added at the time. “I remain committed to doing everything I can to make our music community a better, safer, and more representative place for everyone.”

Shortly after, the academy announced the formation of a diversity and inclusion task force to be headed by Tina Chen, former chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama. At the beginning of May, the academy revealed the names of 16 others who would work with Chen — 13 female and three male musicians and entertainment industry veterans.

“Not saying that Neil’s a bad guy,” Taylor said. “He has done good. But there does come a place and time when you have to as a leader [say], ‘Maybe I’m not the best person to continue to take… the academy into the next 20 years’. Like anything else, there is a refreshment that needs to happen, and it’s evident in the [show’s] ratings. It’s evident in how decisions are being made.”

Rock group Garbage, fronted by singer Shirley Manson, issued a single-word tweet Thursday in response to the Portnow announcement: “Victory.” It followed an earlier post from the band, “Praise the Lord Hallelujah.”

A key component of Portnow’s job as the Recording Academy’s top executive was his collaboration on the annual Grammy Awards telecast with Ehrlich and CBS-TV’s executive vice president of specials, music and live events, Jack Sussman.

“He was always supportive of the show,” Ehrlich said. “He was supportive of me personally, and he did some pretty remarkable things that moved the needle forward in terms of what the show was in 2002, when he came in, and where it is now.”

He also lamented that the #GrammySoMale criticism about the awards themselves had extended into complaints about the show itself. “I did a count after this year’s show, and we had 17 males and 15 females, so there was no big imbalance,” Ehrlich said.

He added that the blowback over Portnow’s “step up” remark overshadowed what he considered one of the most socially progressive shows in Grammy history.

“When you look at the pieces we did on gun control following the tragedy in Las Vegas, how we handled the issue of immigration with Camila Cabello’s introduction of U2, the performance by Logic at the end of the show, there were several moments that were more, I don’t want to say political, but social, and they totally got lost.”

The Recording Academy’s statement tacitly defended Portnow’s role supporting MusiCares, stating that the organization “provided more than $5.9 million to 7,900 members of the music industry in the last fiscal year alone — the largest number of clients served and dollars distributed in a single year in the charity’s history — and anticipates it will provide $6.3 million to nearly 9,000 members of the music industry this fiscal year, again reaching new milestones.”

Yet some are calling for more transparency with the charity organization.

"Moving forward, for the benefit of everyone in the industry, there needs to be total transparency, and the full accounts need to be published after each event so that we can all see exactly what was raised against the costs to stage the event and, more specifically, the salaries paid and the operational costs,” Paul McCartney manager Scott Rodger told Billboard.

In his annual advocacy segments during the Grammy telecast, Portnow often lobbied on behalf of various causes supporting the music community. Among those are his support of legislative measures intended to boost royalty payments to music creators in the digital era, including the Music Modernization Act recently passed by the House of Representatives and now awaiting Senate approval.

Times staff writers August Brown and Randall Roberts contributed to this report.

4:46 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details.

The article was originally published at 12:05 p.m.

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