New Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan Pledges More Diversity, Inclusion: 'I'm In Awe of the Potential'

Deborah Dugan
Amanda Friedman

“I’m taking the time to listen and to be very sure,” says Dugan, photographed on Sept. 11, 2019 at The Recording Academy in Santa Monica, Calif.

In her first interview as CEO, Dugan lays out her plans for the industry organization.

The day after Deborah Dugan moved from New York to Los Angeles with her three children, 91-year-old mother and their dog, Sandy, to become The Recording Academy's first female chief executive, Southern California experienced a 6.4-magnitude earthquake, followed two days later by a 7.1-magnitude quake. "I knew I was going to shake things up," she says with a laugh.

Six weeks after her Aug. 1 start date, Dugan deliberately has not made any seismic changes to the organization that Neil Portnow led for the past 17 years. Instead, she's doing a lot of listening in a near-constant flow of meetings with new Recording Academy board chair Harvey Mason Jr., her staff, artists and managers, plus trying "to figure out the phone system" at The Recording Academy's Santa Monica, Calif., offices.

Dugan arrives with a résumé that includes the skills she'll need to lead the operations of the 22,000-member Recording Academy, which includes overseeing the Grammy Awards, MusiCares and various advocacy initiatives, as well as serving on the boards of the Grammy Museum Foundation and The Latin Recording Academy. The Long Island native is a former Wall Street mergers and acquisitions attorney who worked as executive vp of EMI Records Group/Angel Records in the 1990s before becoming president of Disney Publishing Worldwide. She most recently served as CEO of (RED), the AIDS nonprofit that U2's Bono and activist Bobby Shriver co-founded in 2006. Dugan is also co-chair of the storytelling nonprofit The Moth.

"Deborah is an extraordinary leader and I'm excited about the fresh perspective and the energy she brings to the Recording Academy," Mason tells Billboard. "I love her vision and her desire to set a new, higher bar for the organization."

She inherits a Recording Academy that grew under Portnow, both in membership and financially, but also has been accused of being a "boys club" sorely lacking in gender and racial diversity, especially when it comes to Grammy voters, and has to deal with a ratings decline that has affected awards shows across the board.

Amanda Friedman
“I do my best to be mindful and use various tools like the Headspace app to help keep me grounded,” says Dugan. “Early in my career, a mentor gave me this Buddhist Tara to ground me in compassion and wisdom.” 

In her first interview as president/CEO, Dugan lays out her plans for the 62-year-old organization, with culture change on the agenda. "It's our task to ensure that membership is diverse, representative of the creative music community, all genres, genders, voices," she says. "And that that group can become activists for their rights. If we give them the tools to do that, it's going to change the world for the better."

You had been leading (RED) for almost a decade. What about this position appealed to you?

I was approached by a recruiter, and at first, I thought, "Do I really want to disrupt my life?" I was very happy as CEO of (RED) [and] with my loft in the West Village. I've been 35 years in New York City. I have three kids in school and wasn't looking to make a move. This is probably the only other job I would have taken. I love music. I look for places where I could make maximum impact, and I knew that I could do that at The Recording Academy.

You have had a tremendously diverse career. What has prepared you for this opportunity?

My whole leadership style is about unheard voices and storytelling. A lot of that came from disrupting philanthropy with (RED). But there, it was also innovative marketing that would change the AIDS fight, so I was privileged to work with Apple and Amazon and Beats by Dre and Salesforce. I look at innovative partnerships that can take us where we need to go. Certainly at EMI it was all about music and marketing, and the lawyering, it was deals and advocacy. So I do feel like I'm prepared. I look at it being a not-for-profit peer-to-peer and service organization, and I want that feeling to come across in everything that we do.

When your role was announced, Bono issued a statement saying he was looking forward to you "cracking the ceiling." How will you do that? Has he given you any advice?

I haven't spoken to him since I started, but he knows my spirit and I think he's smiling that I've taken this position. One of the first things that I've focused on is the diversity and inclusion task force that began prior to my arrival. I'm excited as the first female CEO to have that as part of my mission. 

Amanda Friedman
“I stole this wooden drawing figure from my son. It’s a daily reminder to think creatively. It’s always asking me, ‘What have you done that’s innovative today?’”

How would you characterize your conversations with the task force chair Tina Tchen?

They've been fantastic. I've had numerous long conversations with Tina, certainly including the board, the executive committee of the board and Harvey. I'm feeling proud of where we are in the process and able to make a lot of strategic decisions that I think will move diversity and inclusive activity forward for the Recording Academy and the industry.

Under the guidance of the task force, 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. When will we hear more about the task force's recommendations beyond what's already been made public? 

The plan now is to regroup again with the task force and Tina feels that she will report back imminently and I believe that would be within the next few months.

You have had to jump right into Grammy season. What can you tell us about the Jan. 26 Grammys, which will be Ken Ehrlich's last as executive producer after 40 years before Ben Winston takes over?

My background is dealing with highly creative people, and I feel like I'm great at coming up with ideas and having the best of those go to market, especially representing the music community. I did have Bono as a boss for eight years. (Laughs.) Those conversations [with Ehrlich and Winston] are just highly creative — one of us topping the other with suggestions and ideas. Really, this is a celebration of Ken. He already has left a great legacy, but I think he looks at this show as a culmination of the best of his talents. Everybody's working to make it the best show.

Last year, The Recording Academy expanded the Big Four categories from five to eight nominees. Are you looking to expand others?

Absolutely, because we are continually examining and improving the process. So those questions are evolving and top of mind at every meeting as we approach the Grammy season. I can't point to a specific change at this moment, but I would say that it's a constant process of improving the way we do the Grammys.

Amanda Friedman
“When I was unpacking from my move to Los Angeles, I grabbed a bunch of vinyl from my stash and brought it into the office,” she says. “I think better with music playing.”

Are you hiring a COO? It's a position that Neil Portnow never had and many felt that he needed.

I'm still getting my arms around the organization. I feel like just about every organization has a CEO and a COO, but what exactly would fall under that and how the organization is best suited for future purpose, I'm taking the time to listen and to be very sure.

Is the organization's staff as diverse as you would like it to be?

The staff actually does represent society in quite an accurate way. There's 59% female, 41% male. A good mix of Asian, black, Hispanic, white. Are there enough females in leadership positions is what I'm looking into. The senior staff does have six women, seven men, but are they in the right seats on the bus?

On Aug. 12, a judge ruled that the employment agreement that former MusiCares and Grammy Foundation vp Dana Tomarken signed was unconscionable and that the academy cannot force arbitration upon her. (She sued the academy for wrongful termination in February.) Do you have any thoughts on the suit or the judge's ruling?

I'm not going to opine on that because I've just walked in the door and it's so sensitive to everybody involved. But I do have a lawyer's background and I plan on looking into it, and I'll have to get back to you on that one.

The Recording Academy operates 12 chapters across the country, each with its own board. Is that setup the best way to continue?

I'm with open eyes asking a million questions with a lot of focus, saying, "Is this the best it can be?" My initial take is it's quite a glorious thing. Do I wish that it were simpler? Do I wish that it could be the most streamlined, and am I the person to do that? Yes, I think so. But I wouldn't walk in the door and change anything that has been represented by 62 years of excellence. In a year's time, I might be saying something different, but for now, I'm very much in awe of the potential of this organization.

What does the academy look like a year from now?

I'm trying to think about our vision, our rallying cry, our way of working and very clear strategic objectives. I would be doing a disservice if, 20 days in, I landed on what that looks like a year from now. But I do believe it's representing the artists' community in the most relevant way. It's advocating on their behalf. It is having a diverse and inclusive role and being a model for the industry. I look for us to be taking the lead in all of the positive change to bring out the best of humanity through music. I know that sounds really grandiose, but I think that that's what The Recording Academy should be.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Billboard.