Business

Why Harvey Mason Jr. Was a Safe, Smart Pick By the Recording Academy

Harvey Mason Jr.
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Harvey Mason Jr. attends the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2020 in Los Angeles.

Deborah Dugan’s brief and bumpy tenure notwithstanding, this is a position with pretty good job security. Her predecessors each served more than a decade.

Harvey Mason Jr. has just concluded what amounts to one of the longest job interviews in history. He was named president/CEO of the Recording Academy on Thursday, nearly 16 months after he became the academy's interim leader upon the suspension of his predecessor, Deborah Dugan.

Dugan, who served as CEO of (RED) from 2011-19, following executive posts at Disney Publishing Worldwide and Entertainment Rights North America, was an outsider who didn't fit into the academy's clubby culture. On Jan. 16, 2019, just 10 days before the 62nd annual Grammy Awards, she was placed on administrative leave after accusations of "bullying" were made by academy staff members, including her former assistant. She was formally terminated six weeks later.

This time around, the board decided to go with someone it knew well, an ultimate insider. Mason has been either a trustee or a governor (elected by the Los Angeles chapter) for all but one of the past 14 years. Mason even put his hat in the ring for president/CEO in 2019, when Dugan got the job. The search committee this time around was co-chaired by John Burk and Leslie Ann Jones, who serve on the board of trustees that Mason chairs. Jones headed that board from 1999-2001.

Dugan's style may have been too hard-charging for the organization, which, at the trustee level, functions like a club, with unwritten rules of decorum. Mason understands that. Still, he is not a timid leader. A sentence in a press statement released on Thursday showed sides of his make-up -- the modest man and the strong and decisive leader. "I will serve humbly with a steadfast commitment to building a more inclusive, responsive and relevant Academy."

Mason's gentlemanly manner may allow him to make bold moves that someone with a brash manner would have a hard time getting away with. In a way, Mason resembles Pres. Joe Biden, who in a time of crisis has so far been able to move the country forward, inspiring trust because he seems decent at his core.

The academy has made a number of bold moves on Mason's watch. The recently announced decision to disband nominations review committees, which determined the final nominations in 59 out of 84 categories, was a momentous change. The move to make even long-term members re-qualify for membership by showing evidence of at least one recent credit and that music remains their chief occupation, is also a bold move.

It may just be a coincidence, but Dugan’s hire in 2019, on the heels of her predecessor Neil Portnow's clumsy "women need to step up" comment, addressed the academy's most pressing image problem at the time -- the sense that women weren't taken seriously by the academy. In the two years since then, we have had a major racial reckoning in American culture, which may mean that Mason is the right leader for this moment. The academy has put racial diversity at the forefront over the past couple years. In April 2020, it hired Valeisha Butterfield Jones as its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Five months later, it formed the Black Music Collective, with the goal "of amplifying Black voices within the Academy."

The academy has made significant strides in Black representation. According to its own figures, released in October 2020, Black individuals account for 39% of the board of trustees, 29% of chapter boards, 25% of executive staff, 12% of membership, 11% of voting membership and 21% of those invited to be part of the 2020 new member class.

It's a sign of progress that few are making note of the fact that Mason is the first Black executive to become president/CEO. That's partly because Mason held the post on an interim basis for so long, but it's also partly because it's starting to seem unremarkable.

Dugan’s brief and bumpy tenure notwithstanding, this is a position with pretty good job security. Michael Greene and Portnow, Dugan’s predecessors in the job, each served more than a decade. Greene, the academy's first full-time, paid president, served from 1988 to 2002. Portnow served from 2002 to 2019.

It’s unclear when Mason signaled to the academy that he would be interested in taking on the job on a permanent basis. He had suggested otherwise to Billboard, saying that he was happy to have served, but hinting that he wanted to get back to his day job as a creative. (It's possible Mason played down his interest so it wouldn't look like he was passed over if he didn't get the job.)

Mason, 52 (he turns 53 right after his June 1 start date), was not paid by the academy for his long stint as interim president/CEO.

Mason is a five-time Grammy nominee for work with Toni Braxton and Justin Timberlake and on the soundtrack albums Dreamgirls, Pitch Perfect 2 and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. Mason is a second-generation musician. His father, renowned drummer Harvey Mason, is a 10-time Grammy nominee. (Neither has yet won.) Both father and son were nominated in 2000 -- Mason Jr. for co-writing Braxton's "He Wasn’t Man Enough," a best R&B song nominee; his dad for best contemporary jazz album for Fourplay's Yes, Please! (Mason Sr. is a long-time member of that jazz group.)

In a Recording Academy virtual town hall meeting on March 1, Mason gave an update on the CEO search, among other topics. "The current search is ongoing," he said in response to a member question. "We hired a search committee … They formed a job description. It went out to the marketplace. We’ve been speaking to over 100 candidates or potential candidates and then they narrowed it down to a few and we’ve done some interviews. It’s ongoing. It will continue to go on for the next two to three months. Our goal is to have a new CEO in place sometime around May, hopefully."

In a statement released Tuesday, Tammy Hurt, vice chair of the Recording Academy, subtly hinted that the search committee had a hard time finding qualified candidates who wanted the job.

"I want to commend the search committee and our partners at Heidrick and Struggles for orchestrating a robust and exhaustive search for our next President and CEO," she said. "I am not surprised that they faced a significant challenge in finding candidates that would meet the standard that has been set by Harvey during these past 16 months."

Mason handled himself with grace at key points. The academy asked Tiffany Haddish to host the 2021 Premiere Ceremony, at which the bulk of the Grammys are awarded. When she inquired about payment, an academy staffer told her there would be no payment and that the academy wouldn't even cover her hair and make-up expenses. When Mason got wind of this, he seemed genuinely pained and recorded a video in which he publicly apologized. He also called Haddish to personally apologize. And he made sure that future hosts and performers on that "show before the show" are paid for their efforts.

Mason also seemed pained when The Weeknd called the Grammys "corrupt" after he was shut out in the nominations for this year's awards.

"It saddened me," Mason told Billboard of his reaction to The Weeknd's tweet. "I try to empathize with where that came from, but it was difficult to hear… I can understand he's disappointed. Everyone at the Academy understands that he's disappointed. I was personally surprised that he was not nominated."

At that March 1 town hall, Mason was asked where he saw the academy in a year's time.

"I'm excited in general about the transformation of the Academy and the changes that we've made and that we are making," he said. "I want to make sure our membership is even more diverse and inclusive than it is now. I want to make sure that the [award] outcomes are more equitable than they ever have been and I want to make sure that the Academy is trusted and respected more than it's ever been. There have been times that we've been accused of things, or we've had [people] bring things up as far as nominations or they're upset about one thing or another, so it's real important to me and I think to everyone in the Academy that we continue to communicate, have outreach to different people. We can continue to evolve and transform the Academy."

Come to think of it, that doesn't sound like a man who was preparing to pass the baton in just a few months, but like a man who was hoping to be able to continue to build on the work he had done. And now he'll have that chance.