Coda: Recording Academy Chief Neil Portnow Talks 'Step Up' Fallout, Boosting Diversity & Grammy Changes

Neil Portnow
Austin Hargrave

Neil Portnow photographed on Dec. 8, 2016, at The Recording Academy in Santa Monica, Calif. 

As the Academy boss steps down, he recalls the highs and lows of his 17 years.

The glittery gray Baldwin grand piano that Carole King once played during a visit to his office will stay. But the $150 bass from his high school band that's propped up in the corner will go, as will the autographed photo of President Donald Trump signing the Music Modernization Act into law. As Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow prepares to vacate his spacious, brightly lit Santa Monica, Calif., corner suite on July 31 after 17 years at the helm of the organization that runs the Grammy Awards, he's sorting through layers of material and memorabilia he has collected over time.

Otherwise, Portnow, 71, is taking care of academy business before he "turns the keys over" to his successor, Deborah Dugan, who officially replaces him on Aug. 1.

Portnow achieved a lot: negotiating a new 10-year Grammys contract with CBS in 2016 that's worth a reported $600 million; overseeing the 2008 opening of the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live in Los Angeles, as well as its three branches; creating the academy's Grammys on the Hill Advocacy Day and District Advocate Day; expanding MusiCares, which has helped over 150,000 artists and musicians with health care or financial support; and propelling the Latin Grammy Awards' move to Univision. To those outside the music business -- as well as some within it -- his controversial comment at the 2018 Grammys about how women need to "step up" has cast a shadow over his final 18 months. But he also transformed the academy, which now has more than $100 million in net assets.

"The Recording Academy is a completely different organization than before he became CEO," says newly elected chair of the board of trustees Harvey Mason Jr., who has known Portnow for 12 years. "Its success and accomplishments can be attributed to Neil. He's dealing with a lot of people with a lot of different interests, and he's able to pull them together for the good of the academy, the industry and music creators."

Later this year, Portnow will get to vote for the Grammys for the first time in nearly two decades. "I'm a voting member," he says, mentioning blank ballots from every year since 2002 on his desk. But he hasn't voted since he held his job, "because I always wanted to be in a position where I could say it wasn't by my vote one way or the other that made anyone receive a Grammy or not."

As he prepares for his next chapter, a relaxed and slightly wistful Portnow discusses how he expanded the academy's advocacy work and increased the organization's diversity, as well as those "step up" comments.

What's your mindset as you get ready to leave this organization after 17 years?

I have a bunch of old cars, and if I were going to sell you one, I would take it to the best mechanic -- then I can turn over a machine that can take you anywhere you want to go, so you can get in the car and drive the minute you get the keys. I want to turn over a well-oiled, well-running machine.

Deborah Dugan will be The Recording Academy's first female CEO. What signal does that send to the industry?

Any time opportunities arise where we can create diversity and inclusion and get back to that wonderful phrase -- "You've got to see it to be it" -- it creates an aspiration that people can see and really feel like they could have a shot. I think most important, though, is that it be the right person.

Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Neil Portnow with Lady Gaga in February. 

You negotiated the $600 million agreement to keep the Grammy Awards on CBS through 2026. What kind of financial security does that give The Recording Academy?

The ratio of the revenue from the telecast to our overall income when I started could have been 70%, maybe more. It's dramatically less now. We've [added] a sponsorship piece, increased our ticketing revenue, and I pulled the international rights from CBS and we're now in more than 190 territories. But this 10-year deal is wonderful security to have.

In the 18-49 demo, this year's Grammy Awards were your lowest-rated, though the overall ratings were up slightly over 2018. Do ratings matter as much as online and social media attention? And how do you monetize that?

I think everybody is struggling with the metrics of how you evaluate what's working and what's not. We were up 10% in viewership overall, which is encouraging. And you have people finding us online, CBS All Access, the mobile side, so we don't see any indication that the appetite is declining for the show.

MusiCares has raised over $60 million since its start. You had a staggering run recently, with honorees including Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and, in 2015, Bob Dylan, who gave a legendary 30-minute acceptance speech. That has to be a standout.

We didn't know if Bob was going to perform because he wasn't ready to commit, so we prepared for every possible eventuality. And up until the very last minute we weren't sure how he was going to accept the trophy -- it could have been "thank you very much." We got a historic performance that was unimaginable and unbeatable.

The Grammy Museum turned 10 this year and has expanded to three branches across the country. Does it support itself financially?

The museum needs to be self-sufficient. It has kind of been a little bit of a roller coaster: We've had some pretty good years, we've had years that were a little bit challenging, and now we're on an upward curve again.

Michael Kovac/WireImage
Neil Portnow with Dylan (left) and former President Jimmy Carter in 2015.

How important is the academy's advocacy work, including Grammys on the Hill?

When I started, we didn't have an advocacy department. When the Grammys come to Washington, it's exciting. It is one of my proudest accomplishments. When we do our member surveys, advocacy is one of the main things our members feel good about.

Last year, the Grammys went from five to eight nominees in the four main categories. Why? And is that expanding to more categories?

We were hoping to create more opportunity, a chance to have a wider field. We feel good about how it went last year. I believe the organization thinks you can't tell in one year necessarily what the impact is, so you want to let it roll a little bit to evaluate and see where else might this work.

Last October, the academy invited 900 new Grammy-voting members in an effort to increase diversity, and overhauled the voting membership process to include a peer-review panel. What results are you looking for?

It's a curated list [to become a voting member], basically. We can go to every chapter and say, "Who are the people you think should be part of the organization?" We can proactively invite them if they have letters of recommendation from two peers. It's about not having the person who's a dentist full time and who has a couple of albums and winds up being able to be a voting member.

You have fielded complaints from the hip-hop community, which feels underrepresented, especially in terms of the big awards. Is its criticism fair?

Whoever gets the most votes in any category receives the Grammy. One vote can make the difference. So if it's a matter of particular communities and genres that feel underrepresented, the answer is, join and vote. We've worked on that over the years really, really hard, and sometimes we were more successful than others. We still have a ways to go.

The Recording Academy created a task force on diversity and inclusion in May 2018 after you were criticized for saying women need to "step up" if they want to have a bigger role in music. How is that going?

[Task force chair] Tina Tchen felt that the most effective way for this to work is, as the group came to conclusions about [how things might work better], let's have those conversations as they happen and see if along the way we can have an impact. So all the changes that you've seen over the past year are partly a result of that. The next step is areas where they have made suggestions about things that could be handled better with respect to diversity and inclusion; those things need to get plugged into the appropriate system. I think this has been very positive for us [and] incredibly helpful.

Would you have stepped down if the "step up" controversy hadn't happened?

I made that decision maybe two years ago. I [knew] the [transition] would be a hard process, and we haven't done it in 17 years, so if we were going to do that, I needed to make up my mind well in advance. So it was really two years ago that I said to myself, "I think it's time." The unfortunate part with the controversy, if you want to call it that, is everybody wanted to conflate it with the decision that I made -- and frankly, it had nothing to do with it. I am not stepping down because of that. I like setting the record straight, because not everybody got the nuance of that.

But it has been a rough 18 months because of that controversy and its fallout, as well as an ongoing lawsuit filed by a former MusiCares vp who alleged wrongful termination and age discrimination, among other claims. Do you wish you had left earlier?

I don't second-guess myself, [but] I would say that the past year and a half has been challenging. In any job you're going to have all kinds of things that happen and difficulties -- whether it was the [2008] writers strike or when Whitney Houston passed away the night before the Grammys -- but this got a little personal. However, once I got past the personal part of it, I felt like, "Well, maybe there's an opportunity here. If this is a teaching moment, let's use it as that." That's where the task force came from, and [we're] putting more focus on those issues. So that's a positive that came out of something difficult.

What will you miss the most?

The people. I love the work and I enjoy the variety of one phone call to another, one minute to the next. But all of that, when you boil it down, is with people. The industry relationships will continue but on a different basis, and that's going to probably be the biggest adjustment. But I'll always be findable, because I want to be findable.

This article originally appeared in the July 20 issue of Billboard.