National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) President/CEO Neil Portnow expressed his disappointment with a lawsuit filed by four Latin jazz artists this week demanding the reinstatement of their grenre as a distinct Grammy Award category. The category was eliminated in April when the Academy announced a substantial restructuring of the awards.
In an exclusive interview with Billboard, Portnow spoke at length about why the nonprofit organization eliminated 31 of its 109 categories through a subcommittee of members who then took their findings to a board of trustees, a process that first began in 2009 through a series of meetings, evaluations and the participation of Academy members.
"It's unfortunate that resources and time will be spent in this sort of a bureaucratic way rather than in other ways that would be more productive to everybody concerned," Portnow said. "The wonderful thing about our awards process is that it's designed to be a fluid process because it's a evolutionary art form where music changes."
The four Latin jazz musicians who filed a lawsuit against NARAS are Ben Lapidus, Mark Levine, Eugene Marlow and Bobby Sanabria. They are not asking for compensation, but believe their careers are being harmed by the elimination of their category in a breach by NARAS' "contractual obligations" and that the elimination of Latin jazz causes "irreparable injury to the members of the Recording Academy."
Portnow said he has seen a copy of the lawsuit, which was filed in the Supreme Court in New York on Aug. 2, but declined to elaborate on the 20-page complaint due to pending litigation. He did, however, say that the Academy on a yearly basis looks at making changes.
Portnow and several others NARAS members on April 6 announced during a press conference the "awards category restructuring" and new rules. Officials clarified that all artists are still eligible to submit their recordings, but under a different categories.
For example, folk recordings previously submitted under best contemporary folk album or best traditional folk album can now be entered in the best folk album category. Similarly, Latin jazz recordings can now be submitted in best jazz instrumental album or best jazz vocal album.
Major changes include the end of gender-based categories in pop, R&B, rock and country. The Academy has eliminated separate awards for male or female vocals instead having an award in each genre for a single "solo performance."
The Recording Academy has also established new rules on entries and voting. Categories now need to have at least 40 artist entries to move forward. Categories will not be presented if they receive fewer than 25 submissions and a category will be discontinued if there are fewer than 25 entries for three years in a row.
Since the eliminated categories were announced NARAS members and their supporters have been vocal about the new changes that many feel puts some artists in classifications that are too general and unfairly pits them against a pool of competition that isn't balanced.
Actors Jimmy Smits and Esai Morales and attorney Felix Sanchez, all founders of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA), are also voicing their concerns with the eliminated categories through a letter dated July 27. They ask for all 31 categories to be reinstated and request to meet with Portnow and George Flanigen, chair of the board for the Recording Academy.
"Respectfully, NHFA asks that you reconsider these categories and arrive at a better solution with Latino musicians," the letter reads. "Otherwise it will be clear that the reduction in categories was meant to dilute Grammy diversity and that will eliminate smaller labels from Grammy competition."
Lapidus, a guitarist, educator and 10-year member of the Academy, said that he and the three other plaintiffs had no other choice than to file a complaint in order to be heard.
"The category eliminations came from left field," Lapidus said. Grammy-winning "Eddie Palmieri fought to have Latin jazz. Now Latin jazz is gone. There was no reaching out to the membership."
Palmieri, a longtime member of NARAS, in 1995 helped establish the Latin jazz jazz category. His album Palmas was nominated that same year.
Portnow says that there was a significant amount of outreach by local and national representatives of the Academy during the restructuring process and also emphasized that he's always encouraging NARAS members to actively participate.
"I don't know how we could have possibly been more transparent," Portnow says, and understands that, "Change is difficult and not always easy to understand."
Asked whether the elimination of categories affects the organization's financial picture, Portnow said "there is very little benefit" other than having fewer trophies and less certificates.
"There is also no change in the telecast," Portnow says. "We'll continue to book the television show with the greatest musical experience in mind."
Additionally, he said, there will be no changes in staff, the submissions process remains the same and the current entry period is seeing a similar volume of entries as compared to last year.
Portnow says that he wants artists to contact NARAS with any concerns regarding their categories or anything else they feel they're concerned about.
"The simple answer is talk to us," Portnow says. "You can't make everybody happy all of the time, but we want people to understand why it's been done and the level of care and transparency"