In Deal for NYC Grammys, MSG Warned Recording Academy That 'No Events Could Be At Barclays'

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Neil Portnow arrives at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28, 2018 in New York City. 

In April 2017, Joel Fisher, a vice president at Madison Square Garden in New York, sent an email to a Recording Academy executive with whom he was hashing out the contract for the 60th annual Grammy Awards, which were returning to New York after over a decade in Los Angeles.

"When we went into this, we said no events could be at Barclays," wrote Fisher in an email to Branden Chapman, Recording Academy production and chief business development officer, threatening that it would "kill the entire deal" for MSG to host the ceremony if the Barclays Center, MSG's Brooklyn competitor, hosted the academy's annual MusiCares Person of the Year charity event two nights before the awards. Fisher signed off on the email, which was reviewed by Billboard: "Please confirm no Barclays. Thanks."

Meanwhile, across the East River, Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment executive vp Keith Sheldon was aggressively pitching MusiCares/Grammy Foundation then-vice president Dana Tomarken on having the MusiCares fundraiser at Barclays, offering to waive the rent for the night, and rendering plans to create a platform on top of the lower seating bowl that would provide enough floor space for 250-300 banquet tables that could be sold to corporate partners, as well as multiple stages and a large silent-auction space. Sheldon also had offered to cut in MusiCares on suite revenue and connect the charity's sponsorship team with BSE's own sponsor network for its concerts, events and Brooklyn Nets divisions.

The event, which was held eight months later at MSG's Radio City Music Hall and allegedly netted $1 million from a $7 million gross for the beloved music-industry charity -- down from a $5 million profit in 2017 -- is now the center of the latest storm cloud to envelop The Recording Academy this year, and the email exchange between Fisher and Chapman raises new questions about why academy president/CEO Neil Portnow selected Radio City as the fundraiser venue.

Portnow announced on May 31 that he would step down from his post when his contract expired in July 2019, though he made no mention of the controversy in his announcement.

The funds raised by the MusiCares benefit were ultimately hampered by soft ticket sales, theater seats instead of banquet tables and less space than usual for its lucrative live auction, but an academy spokesman says there was no reason to conclude that Barclays would have been a better or more profitable choice.

The academy was flying high as recently as January, with one of the most diverse slates of Grammy nominees to date, but the mood was muted as only one woman accepted an award on TV, and hip-hop's top stars lost in the big categories. Petitioners began calling for Portnow's resignation in February after his ill-worded comment following the male-dominated Grammy telecast: that women needed to "step up" in order to be better represented. The academy slowly assembled a task force led by Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, Tina Tchen, to improve inclusion both at the Grammys and within its own -governance, but Tchen told Billboard in an earlier interview that she didn't see any quick fixes.

The drama around the MusiCares event's location that has more recently ensnared Portnow, meanwhile, highlights the intensifying competition playing out in one of the country's top concert markets. MSG "was proud to be a part" of the Grammys, usually held on AEG's Los Angeles campus, and wasn't involved in allocation of money between the academy and MusiCares, says a spokeswoman. Its securing of both flagship Grammy events this year was its latest coup in its own ongoing rivalries. It has battled AEG over the block-booking policy for the Staples Center in Los Angeles and the O2 Arena in London, a policy that AEG COO Jay Marciano says was in reaction to alleged block-booking between MSG and The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., which MSG denies. MSG is also locked in a separate face-off with Barclays Center, which is an open building but shares some ties with AEG. Since it opened in 2012, Barclays has been a fierce competitor with MSG in one of the top concert markets. MSG and Tim Leiweke's Oak View Group are now partnering to build a new arena on Long Island for the New York Islanders, who are leaving Barclays after the next hockey season.

Tomarken was let go from MusiCares in April after 25 years, and on May 21 wrote a letter to the academy board alleging that Portnow had funneled money away from the charity to fund a deficit from the telecast, which Portnow denies. She voiced frustration at having to turn down Barclays' offer to "underwrite a significant portion of the Person of the Year costs and provide an event space that would allow us to stay true to our highly successful, prestigious gala dinner and silent-auction model," claiming that "the agreement with Radio City Music Hall was at least twice as expensive ... and that does not factor in any additional support we might have been able to secure from Barclays sponsors." A representative for Irving Azoff says the event was always slated to happen at Radio City Music Hall, which Portnow had booked, and if Portnow's "head of MusiCares disagreed, that is an internal issue." But Tomarken said that she had only learned the Barclays deal was a no-go last June, two months after the email exchange between Fisher and Chapman in which Chapman acknowledged that the Academy was aware of the request to keep events away from Barclays Center and wrote: "Irving has spoken with both Neil (Portnow) and Dana (Tomarken) and expressed a similar position."

Tomarken also claimed in her letter, obtained by Billboard, that she experienced a hostile work environment at the academy and was wrongfully terminated because she was late in paying $2,500 for a MusiCares auction item that she purchased. The academy said in a statement that Tomarken didn't lodge the hostile-workplace claims while she was employed, and that it was now investigating them.

Tomarken's departure has sparked concern about the future of the charitable foundation that provides financial and medical assistance to music professionals. In February, for the fourth consecutive year, Charity Navigator gave MusiCares four stars, the independent charity watchdog's highest rating; MusiCares also releases detailed financial information in its 990 tax filing. But Scott Rodger, who manages 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year Paul McCartney, says the organization's finances should be more transparent. "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. That part is a mystery to all of us," says Rodger.

An academy rep says, "MusiCares will continue to provide the highest level of service and support to people in need," and will distribute $6.3 million this fiscal year. A spokesperson for the Barclays Center didn't comment on the deal points to land MusiCares but tells Billboard "the organization aggressively pursued the event in support of the charity's important fundraising efforts and the Grammy's return to New York for the first time in 15 years."

The lack of a succession plan at the academy has long irked some trustees, sources say, though the academy says there's plenty of time to devise one: Portnow initiated discussions with the board and executive committee about a succession plan last year, a source says. WEA vp international repertoire development Ruby Marchand, who is the board's vice chairman, is one internal possibility, another source tells Billboard, while a former trustee says "it's time for a black female to move the academy forward," suggesting former academy president of member services Angelia Bibbs-Sanders. Portnow says he'll help the board to "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."