The Recording Academy Seeks New Leader, But For What Exactly? (Column)

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The Recording Academy and MusiCares President/CEO Neil Portnow speaks onstage during the 60th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28, 2018 in New York City. 

Neil Portnow's successor needs to build on his work -- and do a much better job communicating about it.

Since January, a lot of people in the music business have spent a lot of time talking about the Recording Academy. First the Grammy Awards telecast snubbed Lorde for the likes of Sting and Shaggy; then Recording Academy chief executive Neil Portnow made an ill-advised comment that women in the music business needed to "step up;" more recently, Portnow was accused of steering money away from its MusiCares charity to cover a financial shortfall from the Grammy Awards. (A Recording Academy spokesperson says this isn't true.)

Portnow -- who no one seems to believe is particularly sexist, despite the fact that he made an incredibly stupid comment -- will step down next year when his contract expires, and speculation about who should replace him, and what that person should look like, has already started. But that conversation should be preceded by one about what that person -- and the academy, for that matter -- should actually do.

That's less obvious than it might seem. The Recording Academy runs a number of valuable, effective programs -- the Grammy Museum, the MusiCares charity, an advocacy operation in Washington -- but it's not entirely clear what ties them together besides the fact that they're funded by membership dues and revenue from the Grammy telecast.

For all the prestige its name implies, the Recording Academy is really just a nonprofit television production organization that charges its members to vote on who will receive prizes. (I'm exaggerating for effect -- membership has other benefits -- but you get the point.) That's not a bad thing -- it spends that money on worthy, music-related causes. And by turning the Grammy Awards into Grammy Week, it's managed to spend even more money on even more worthy music-related causes. Which is great. But the original idea was to promote the importance of pop music to the public, and it's worth asking whether that's still the goal, and how effective the organization is at it.

The concept of academies for entertainment dates back to 1926, when MGM co-founder Louis Mayer decided to create an organization to handle film industry labor disputes and give Hollywood producers and studio heads some respectability to go with their newfound wealth. The following January, all the guests at a banquet at the Ambassador Hotel became founding members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- BOOM, just like that. "The ‘Arts and Sciences' touch was genius," as the film historian David Thomson wrote in Vanity Fair, "because it made you think the Academy had always been there, arranged by God and Harvard and Albert Einstein."

The Recording Academy's origin is even less impressive. In 1957, when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce created the Walk of Fame, the organization reached out to a group of music executives to pick some singers who deserved their own stars on the sidewalk. While these executives were at it, they decided to form an organization that would hand out awards in a televised ceremony. At the first Grammy Awards, in 1959, Domenico Modugno's version of "Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare)" beat out "The Chipmunk Song" for Record of the Year. (At the time, viewers probably thought Alvin and the Chipmunks were a passing fad.)

The whole point of these academies -- another three preside over three different sets of Emmy Awards -- was making their respective industries look good. The Motion Picture Academy ultimately couldn't prevent Hollywood creators from unionizing, but it still gives the movie business a halo of prestige to this day. At a time when Hollywood is essentially in the business of turning intellectual property into cinematic universes -- and then rebooting the franchises in order to do it all over again -- the Best Picture Award almost always goes to a arty human-scale film that's a rounding error by major studio standards. The last five Best Picture winners are "The Shape of Water," "Moonlight," "Spotlight," "Birdman," and "12 Years a Slave;" only the first and last of which brought in more than $50 million in U.S. theatres. Whatever problems the Oscars have with diversity, they at least showcase a side of moviemaking that the industry can be proud of.

The Grammy Awards don't always do the same, partly because they usually go to artists who are commercial juggernauts. That's not because the most important music always sells well, but because the music business isn't nearly as tight of a community as Hollywood is. Voters from Nashville don't share the same idea of Great Art as those who work on modern R&B albums. That creates a bias toward name recognition in the biggest categories, and the major Grammy Awards seldom go to recordings and songs that aren't hits. When less commercial artists win the big awards -- think Steely Dan and Herbie Hancock winning Album of the Year -- music fans gripe. Such complaints are often taken seriously, since Recording Academy members are so much older than most music fans, but the awards need to reach a broader audience, anyway. No one minded that "Birdman" wasn't a pop culture sensation. ("Birdman" could be the Steely Dan of films -- dark, brooding, and technically stunning.)

It's hard to debate quality, but the Recording Academy should retool the nominating and voting procedures in order to focus on rewarding excellence in a way that communicates the importance of pop music. The Grammy Awards shouldn't be a popularity contest -- we have pop charts for that. At the same time, it looks bad when Kendrick Lamar receives a Pulitzer Prize before he's won a Grammy for Album of the Year.

How to change that will be the first priority for Portnow's successor. The second should be figuring out the relationship between the Grammy Awards and what the academy does the other 364 days a year. The academy now does so much that it's tempting to see the award show as merely a means to an end -- a source of funding for advocacy work, the Grammy Museum, and any number of other programs. But the Grammy Awards telecast is so much more popular that everything else the organization does that it needs to be seen as an end in itself. As cool as it is, the Grammy Museum doesn't do nearly as much to improve the standing of pop music in the eyes of the public.

Although Portnow has criticized for some of the academy's problems, he also deserves far more credit than he gets for turning the organization around when it faced serious questions about its legitimacy. He started in 2002, succeeding Michael Greene, who was at the time the highest paid nonprofit executive in the country, with a compensation package worth more than $2 million a year. (Greene resigned after a meeting when Academy trustees heard the results of an investigation into sexual harassment complaints against him.)

Portnow professionalized the Recording Academy's governance, expanded the work it does, and gave it a presence in Washington DC, at a time when music creators needed that badly. It's not on television, but Grammys on the Hill may have done more to help creators than anything else the organization does.

Portnow's successor needs to build on his work -- and do a much better job communicating about it. Some of this needs to happen online and through social media. But some of it needs to happen at the awards telecast -- because the truth is that, for all the important work the academy does, it exists partly just to put on a show. And Portnow's successor needs to make sure that show is as vital and compelling as the industry it celebrates.