Grammys On the Hill Brings Together Creators, Lawmakers For Annual Event

Shannon Finney/WireImage for The Recording Academy  
Major R. Johnson Finley and Neil Portnow attend the GRAMMYs on the Hill (Advocacy Day) on April 10, 2019 in Washington, DC. 

Last year, the entire United States music business came together to support the Music Modernization Act, landmark legislation that remade the mechanical licensing system, improved rate-setting procedures for creators and required satellite radio and streaming services to pay to use music recorded before 1972. What’s left for an encore?

On April 9, the annual Grammys on the Hill awards dinner offered some hints. Washington, D.C. is more divided than ever, but more than 60 members of Congress attended -- including Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- and at least a third of them took the stage when Linda Perry played “What’s Up,” singing, clapping along and playing tambourines and maracas. (Some of them had a sense of rhythm that might politely be described as idiosyncratic.) Music, several of the evening’s speakers pointed out, makes the people come together.

The idea of Grammys on the Hill -- both the dinner and the lobbying that follows, where music creators spend the day meeting with members of Congress and staffers -- is to give musicians, songwriters and producers a chance to talk to the politicians who make decisions that help determine the future of the industry. Last year’s legislation addressed some of the most pressing issues, but both creators and industry lobbyists would like to see further changes. For years, one of the Recording Academy’s priorities has been getting a law to require terrestrial radio stations to pay to use recordings, as they do in almost every other country. Other concerns include getting the Justice Department to amend the consent decrees that regulate ASCAP and BMI and trying to ensure the U.S. doesn’t write into trade agreements “safe harbor” protections for online platforms.

Most of these issues are more complicated to rally around than the Music Modernization Act -- and radio royalties could put the industry at odds with a business that has considerable lobbying power. As usual, though, the Grammys on the Hill event left those issues for the next day in order to celebrate the power of music and honor creators and politicians -- in this case gospel icon Yolanda Adams and Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth, as well as Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

The evening -- hosted by radio personality Tommy McFly -- started with a performance of the National Anthem by Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton. Then speaker Polosi introduced Chenoweth -- “this little, tiny person with a great, big voice” -- who was honored for her philanthropy. Chenoweth joked about the height difference between her (4’11”) and Yolanda Adams (6’1”) before bringing onstage a music student to sing a duet.

Daryl Friedman, the Academy’s chief industry, government & member relations officer, reminded attendees that this was hardly an ordinary Washington, D.C. event -- “most organizations end their events with dinner, we end ours with a jam session” -- before introducing Linda Perry. She played “Beautiful” on an acoustic guitar, then invited members of Congress onstage, plus singers Gavin DeGraw and Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale, who helped out with vocals.

When he was honored, Rep. Jeffries, known for his love of hip-hop, joked about running into someone on Fulton Street in Brooklyn who asked him if he was the Congressman who quoted the Notorious B.I.G. on the House floor and the head of the House Democratic caucus. “I responded the only way that I could,” Rep. Jeffries said, quoting the Notorious B.I.G.: “You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.”

Sen. Grassley couldn’t attend the event, but Portnow thanked him and then introduced Adams, who ended the evening on an inspiring note.

Although Portnow has been criticized for the nature of the Grammys telecast and an insensitive misstatement he made about women needing to “step up,” he took the lead in making the Academy a force in Washington, D.C. (The organization’s efforts in DC have become a top priority for members, according to an internal survey.) His successor, expected to be named in the next couple of months, will have to think about the perception of the Academy in a fast-changing business, and how best to reflect that with an awards show. Oddly, though, as aspects of the Academy have become more divisive and Washington, D.C. becomes more partisan, the organization’s event there has remained celebratory and uplifting.