A Look at How the Recording Academy's Task-Force Assembly Stacks Up

Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP
Neil Portnow participate in the 60th Annual Grammy Awards red carpet roll out at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 25, 2018 in New York City.

Earlier this month (Mar. 6), the Recording Academy announced that it appointed Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama and co-leader of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, to chair a new, independent task force for addressing barriers facing females and underrepresented minority groups in the music industry -- including but not limited to evaluations of the Recording Academy’s own operations and policies.

While some preferred the task force chair to come from within the industry itself, investigators leading such cases should ideally have no personal stake in the outcome, nor personal relationships with any involved parties -- criteria that Tchen’s appointment arguably fits well.

But some execs have nonetheless expressed concern to Billboard about whether the “independent” task force can be truly objective, particularly with respect to investigating Academy leadership, if the leaders of the Academy themselves are selecting the task force members. While Tchen is now involved with member selection as well, the Academy began the process without her input and is still involved.

A Recording Academy source tells Billboard that "while Neil [Portnow] and the Academy board members are involved in determining the task force’s scope and membership, Tina will be establishing and leading its framework. The task force members will be fitting into her framework, not the other way around.”

Legal experts say that the profiles of the task force members themselves ultimately matter more than who is doing the selection behind the scenes. “You need to look at the appointee's background and credibility,” Carrie Cohen, partner at Morrison & Foerster LLP and co-chair of the law firm’s Workplace Misconduct Investigations Task Force, tells Billboard. “It doesn’t trouble me that the Academy and industry members themselves are making the appointments for their own task force, and I would want someone at the helm like Tina who has the right experience and reputation. She’s such a well-respected attorney, and lends a lot of credibility to the task force itself as well.”

Determining whether the Recording Academy’s task-force assembly has been standard so far is difficult because diversity task forces are so rare in corporate culture, let alone in entertainment. A 2016 study from Harvard Business School found that only 20 percent of medium to large employers have diversity task forces, while only 10 percent have diversity managers.

In 2015, trade organization UK Music established and appointed its own Diversity Taskforce, chaired by Keith Harris (manager of Stevie Wonder and consultant on performer affairs for PPL), that published a landmark music-industry workforce diversity survey in Jul. 2016. Yet, this task force seems to be focused more on taking the pulse of the wider industry, rather than reflecting on UK Music’s own policies and operations.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has taken similar steps in the past to improve diversity and representation within its member base. In Nov. 2015, then-president of AMPAS Cheryl Boone Isaacs launched the A2020 initiative, a five-year plan to “study practices at the Academy with the aim of improving the diversity of its own staff and governance while also bringing new voices into the organization.” Craig Schirmer -- a former Obama campaign adviser that has been counseling AMPAS since 2012, on behalf of consulting firm New Partners -- was hired as an external adviser to A2020 both on public-facing positioning and on internal organizational change.

In terms of membership, improvement was measurable and significant: the number of women invited to join AMPAS skyrocketed by 359 percent from 2015 to 2017, while invitations to people of color grew by 331 percent. But Isaacs’ replacement John Bailey is currently under internal investigation for sexual assault, and it is unclear exactly what other headway A2020 has made when it comes to nominations or other internal AMPAS policies. (Neither AMPAS nor New Partners responded to requests for comment by press time.)

In corporate and university contexts, it is typical for the CEO or president to be in charge of assembling task force members: see Deloitte’s Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women (now known simply as the Women's Initiative, or WIN), launched and first chaired by then-CEO J. Michael Cook, or Harvard University’s ongoing Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. These task forces often end up consisting entirely of internal rather than external talent, although leaders usually make an effort to achieve fair representation across management hierarchies and underrepresented groups.

Companies have opted to conduct investigations internally for decades, but extreme cases lend themselves to exceptions. For instance, after settling a $193 million race discrimination lawsuit in 2000, Coca-Cola North America hired a court-appointed external task force to help improve recruitment and mentoring initiatives for middle managers and minorities within the organization. As part of the women’s initiative at Deloitte, Cook established an Inclusion External Advisory Council (EAC), first chaired by former U.S. secretary of labor Lynn Martin, to deliver annual progress reports on the company’s efforts; the EAC remains active to this day.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, entertainment companies are increasingly turning to outside law firms to investigate allegations of sexual assault and harassment. In Oct. 2017, the Weinstein Company hired outside attorneys John Kiernan (partner, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP), Matthew Fishbein (former Chief Assistant United States Attorney, Southern and Eastern Districts of New York) and Helen Cantwell (former prosecutor, Southern District of New York and the New York County District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit) to investigate sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Later in Nov. 2017, independent of any individual case, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced she would be leading a new task force of trained deputy district attorneys to tackle sexual abuse allegations across the entertainment industry, working closely with the LA and Beverly Hills police departments.

With more serious cases, hiring outside attorneys can be a good PR move for regaining trust among employees and onlookers. But even then, some remain doubtful about whether outside counsel can be truly objective if they are being paid by the company being investigated -- and may want continued business from that company in the future.

Nonetheless, “you don’t see a lot of questioning around the attorneys leading these more public, higher-stakes investigations,” says Cohen. “Even though they may be employed at a particular law firm that was hired by that particular company, they have extensive background and training in employment law or in handling complex, white-collar crime cases, which gives the credibility and expertise to rebut any claims of bias of lack of objectivity.”

In the case of the Recording Academy, there are no individual, explicit assault or harassment cases motivating the formation of its task force; rather, the initiative intends to engage with a wider inquiry into possibilities for deeper, systemic change in the industry.

In Feb. 2018, six female execs from the recorded music sector undersigned a joint letter to the Recording Academy’s board of trustees, offering to serve as task force members -- and signaling that some of the Academy’s most renowned members are also among its staunchest critics. “As senior music executives with true commitment to the welfare of the organization and the music community, we hereby put ourselves forward for service,” reads the letter. The Academy had assembled about half of the 15- to 20-member task force when it announced Tchen's appointment, but has not announced any other names since.

Because of the scope of the problem, the Recording Academy source hopes onlookers will “give us more space and time” to determine the best way to assemble an investigative team.

“Sometimes, too much pressure makes you do things for the headline, and not for the real deal,” the source tells Billboard. “For this to really be done right, it needs to be studied over the course of five to seven years -- but public pressure won’t allow for that, ever. This can lead to a harmful mindset of taking action just for the sake of placating people, rather than encouraging real, systemic transformation.”

On the other hand, the source adds that Tchen is actively trying to avoid a purely report-oriented mindset for the task force, as such a mindset could “stall progress for a prolonged period of time. It can take an organization up to six months or even longer to put together a proper report on diversity statistics that can be disseminated publicly, but Tina is adamant about how we don’t need to wait until we have everything to start something, to start enacting tangible change.”

To do it, Tchen seems determined to involve as many members as possible in the investigation process: “It takes everyone in a company, everyone in an institution, everyone in an industry to pull together to make these changes happen,” she told Billboard earlier this month. “I'm encouraged by the conversations that we're having in all industries and at all levels from the C-suites down to the shop floor. That’s the kind of approach the Academy wants to take from all aspects of the recording industry.”

Many individual music companies are already taking a bottom-up approach to identifying and tackling internal diversity issues. At a Women in Music panel at SXSW this year, SoundCloud’s vp of content & community Megan West discussed how SoundCloud’s intra-office diversity resource groups -- which include Women in Leadership (WIL), Women in Engineering, Queer Clouders and Clouders of Color -- began as more grassroots, self-organizing community initiatives, but ultimately turned into officially recognized programs with monthly progress meetings and defined budgets from senior management.

“It’s not SoundCloud saying, ‘Hey, these are the three things that we think are important for women,’” said West. “It’s really about the community within each of these resource groups setting their own agenda for what they want.”

In short, the Recording Academy’s practices around assembling its task force fall in line with the few corporate precedents it has in other industries, and its self-evaluation should be in stable, rigorous hands with Tchen at the helm. It remains to be seen how the eventual task force’s collective experience will be triangulated with data-driven research and more grassroots perspectives to uncover why Grammy season is a visible symptom -- but not the root cause -- of pressing issues around gender and diversity in the music industry.


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