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Recording Academy President Neil Portnow addresses 2019 Grammy nominations and his rocky year at the top

Recording Academy President Neil Portnow addresses 2019 Grammy nominations and his rocky year at the top
Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow in New York at rehearsals for the 60th Grammy Awards ceremony in January, looks back on 2018 and the changes his organization has made. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Putting it mildly, 2018 was not a great year for Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow.

After 15 years of steady stewardship of the organization with little in the way of controversy under his watch, Portnow ignited a firestorm of criticism on the heels of a comment after January’s Grammys that it was time for women to “step up” if they wished to be better represented in the annual gala.

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Portnow’s quick mea culpa did little to quell the outrage among many who argued vociferously that if it was time for anything, it was time for Portnow to step down. Several weeks later he announced that that was precisely what he would do — after his current contract expires in July.

“It wasn’t the most fun year in my life last year,” Portnow said Thursday in his first extended interview with The Times since the controversy arose. “But these kinds of events can be beneficial if you take them as teaching moments.

“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “It has strengthened my commitment to doing the right things, to having created the task force we did, and being committed and committing the academy, along with our board, to seriously working on this issue.”

He was referring to the announcement in May of a task force charged with investigating biases at work in the music industry — whether conscious or unconscious — that created the situation spotlighted in a 2017 USC Annenberg study that found 93% of Grammy Awards in the top categories over the previous five years went to male recipients.

The task force’s initial recommendations resulted in this year’s expansion of the four general Grammy Award categories — record, album, song and new artist — to make room for eight nominees in each, up from the historical five nominations apiece.

Friday’s Grammy nominations reflected the effort to create a more diverse group of top-of-the-slate nominees, finding room for academy recognition for hip-hop artists including Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Cardi B and Post Malone, the indie folk-pop of Brandi Carlile, the progressive country of Kacey Musgraves, the youthful mainstream pop of Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey and the classic rock underpinnings of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s music from “A Star is Born.”

“We’ve had a few objectives here,” Portnow said. One is “to be reflective of the year in music. … Another objective clearly is the commitment that we’ve made — that I’ve made — to looking at and finding tangible ways of ensuring that we are diverse and inclusive across the organization, and that we take this very important issue very seriously.

“We also want to assume a leadership role from an industry standpoint,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done across the industry. From that perspective, from having broader opportunities for more and wonderful artists to be recognized as nominees, this intuitively feels like a good way to go.”

Portnow and task force chairwoman Tina Tchen both told The Times this week that their goal extends beyond simply reflecting the reality of the music business as it stands today.

The USC Annenberg study also pointed out that just 22% of hit recordings that made the Billboard Hot 100 sales chart during that same period featured female performers, highlighting an institutional gender imbalance. Further, internal analysis of various segments of the music business have shown that just 2% to 3% of producers and engineers currently are women.

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Going forward, Portnow said he hopes to see the Recording Academy take a leadership role on diversity and inclusion the way its MusiCares philanthropic wing has created a platform for helping musicians in need on behalf of its member organizations.

“From the academy perspective, it’s important to remember that we don’t sign the artists, we don’t create the song collaborations, we don’t assign the producers and engineers, we don’t determine the marketing campaigns or the radio promotions,” Portnow said. “We’re on the receiving end of what happened during the year.

“I say that only by way of saying, if we’re going to make a difference on this very important, vital issue, we have to do that hand-in-hand with the industry. We have to go to the source of where these decisions ultimately get made,” he said. “Whatever processes are in place, we need to ensure that there aren’t biases for women, people of color and other under-represented communities.”

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