Who Should Take Over The Recording Academy? Industry Weighs In

Neil Portnow
Theo Wargo/WireImage

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. 

Wanted: Passionate music lover with ability to cut deals, manage budgets (and an occasionally contentious board of trustees), interface with artists, label and network execs, oversee a large charitable org and keep own ego in check.

As Neil Portnow begins his final year as Recording Academy president/CEO, a number of top industry executives surveyed by Billboard, some with close ties to the Recording Academy, suggested criteria for Portnow's replacement as well as a wishlist of contenders they would like to see considered. All spoke on the condition of anonymity. None of the suggested executives have publicly expressed interest in the job.   

In May, Portnow announced that he will not seek an extension after his current contract expires in July 2019,  and filling his job will be a tall order.  Under Portnow, the Recording Academy has made great strides as a voice for music creators on Capitol Hill, significantly increased funds raised for the Recording Academy's primary charity MusiCares. negotiated a 10-year deal to keep the Grammys on CBS through 2026, and established the first Grammy Museum in 2008 and the Museum's international expansion.

However, Portnow's replacement will also come into an organization that following recent incidents faces considerable turbulence. In January, Portnow suggested that female artists "step up" if they wanted better representation in the music industry.  His words -- said in response to Alessia Cara being the only woman to receive a televised award at this year's Grammys --led to the formation of a 16-member task force on diversity and female inclusion. Then in April, former MusiCares vp Dana Tomarken accused Portnow of steering money away from the Recording Academy's charitable organization to help defray a deficit from holding the Grammys in New York. The Recording Academy has denied the allegation.

Almost everyone contacted by Billboard agreed that it is unlikely that Portnow's successor will come from within the Recording Academy's ranks -- either someone who is employed by the Academy or on the board of trustees.  "I don't think there's a clear frontrunner from people on the board," says a top music executive.  "I think there are people who up until the most recent crises [were] sharpening their knives saying ‘I'm the next Neil' and they are the wrong ones. What the Recording Academy needs is someone with real institutional organizational experience to come in and whip the place into shape."

They also agree that now is the time to promote diversity by placing a woman and/or a person of color in charge. "The winds of change require that kind of thinking and I think doing anything other than that would send the wrong message," said one top label executive. Indeed, a number of white males contacted for this story suggested that under different circumstances, they would throw their hat in the ring, but they recognized that now was not their time.


With no prompting, the names that came up multiple times were Sony Music Entertainment executive vp of business affairs/general counsel Julie Swidler, Universal Music Publishing Group chairman/CEO Jody Gerson and Spotify Global head of creator services/former artist manager Troy Carter. "Julie's really smart and acts out of good intentions," said a label executive. "She's a good person, but not a pushover, and is thoughtful and receptive to different points of view."  Carter, who is rumored to be leaving Spotify, earned high marks for being "young, progressive, intelligent, forward thinking, and tech savvy," said another label head. "He's worked with artists across genres and with major and indie labels. He'd be great to make the Grammys relevant again." A Grammy-winning producer also endorsed Carter for his skills and also as a great public face of the Recording Academy: "You have to think of that moment when the head of the Academy comes out and speaks at the Grammys. Troy would be great."


Though someone affiliated with the Academy is not likely to get the nod, two names closely associated with the organization that popped up were trustee vice chair Ruby Marchand, Warner Music Group's  vp of international repertoire development, and former board chair and Grammy-winning producer Jimmy Jam. "Jimmy is highly respected, accomplished, with a bullet-proof record of high achievements in the music industry," said one executive. Reaching back into the Academy's history, a former trustee also recommended Angelia Bibbs-Sanders, a past VP of member services at the Recording Academy: "I truly believe that it's time for a black female to move the Academy forward. Angelia has experience within the infrastructure of the Academy and she held an executive level position for years."


Also suggested for their strong business acumen and ability to deal with artists were Susan Genco, co-president of Azoff MSG Entertainment; Michelle Jubelirer, Capitol Music Group COO and Jeffrey Harleston, executive vp business and legal affairs/general counsel, Universal Music Group.  A leading attorney suggested A2IM CEO/record producer Richard James Burgess would be "great," but added that the "organization needs a woman."

Some industry leaders felt hiring an executive who comes with television experience was the way to go especially when it comes to freshening up the Grammy telecast. A leading touring executive suggested former MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath: "She has great music experience, great TV experience, is incredibly thoughtful and transparent and is universally well respected." Utilizing the same thinking, a top label exec put forth recently departed BET Networks CEO/Chairman Debra Lee:  "She has a certain gravitas. She's run a diverse organization that has put on a national TV show, she's had to get along with artists over the years and she's dealt with corporate politics at Viacom. Like Swidler and Gerson, Lee is on the Recording Academy's task force.

The selection process will be led by executive search firm Korn Ferry, which will review candidates with the help of a sub-committee of board members (excluding any board members who are in contention). The hope is that Portnow's replacement will be hired in time to shadow Portnow, although it is also possible that Portnow will remain as a consultant for a brief time after his official tenure is up, suggested a source.

Ed Christman and Gail Mitchell assisted in reporting this story

This article originally appeared in the June 30 issue of Billboard.