Top Artist Managers Express Concern for MusiCares Amid Turmoil as Recording Academy Announces Record Dollar Distribution

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Roger Daltrey, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nile and Pete Townsend perform onstage at the 11th Annual MusiCares Map Fund Benefit Concert at Best Buy Theater on May 28, 2015 in New York City. 

The non-profit anticipates providing $6.3 million to the music community in the current fiscal year.

Some of the world’s biggest superstars' managers are voicing concern about the current state and future of MusiCares. This follows former MusiCares/Grammy Foundation vice president Dana Tomarken's May 21 letter to the Recording Academy board alleging that Recording Academy chairman and president Neil Portnow funneled money away from the charity to fund this year’s Grammys deficit and that MusiCares had been asked to reduce the amount of financial support for its clients. The Recording Academy denies both allegations.

Furthermore, Portnow’s decision to step down after his current contract ends in July 2019, a move announced Thursday (May 31), means further disruption for the Recording Academy’s highly respected charitable foundation that provides financial and medical assistance to music people in need. Portnow also serves as CEO/president of MusiCares. MusiCares/Grammy Foundation senior vp Kristen Madsen left in 2015 and was not replaced.

“MusiCares is an important and incredible organization. I personally know more than one person whose life may have been saved because of MusiCares. It’s essential that MusiCares continues to be able to serve their clients of musicians and industry professionals in need,” said Katie McNeil Diamond, manager of MusiCares 2009 Person of the Year Neil Diamond. McNeil Diamond called Tomarken “professional, proactive, very thoughtful and sensitive about how MusicCares presented the artist,” adding she had also “always had a good working experience with Neil Portnow.”

Jon Landau, who manages Bruce Springsteen, MusiCares’ 2013 Person of the Year, also expressed support for Tomarken and the 25-year Recording Academy’s veteran’s dedication to MusiCares. “We and Bruce worked with Dana on Bruce’s MusiCares award and she was an outstanding collaborator -- honest, thorough, hard working, intelligent and deeply dedicated to MusiCares,” said Landau. “She was the key to making it an absolutely great night.”

In her letter, Tomarken claimed she was wrongfully terminated in April because she was late in paying $2,500 for a MusiCares auction item that she purchased, and some sources have suggested that her termination was politically motivated.

As of earlier this year, MusiCares, which was established in 1989, has distributed nearly $60 million to more than 125,000 clients, assisting them through personal health crises, addiction, and natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.

In moving from Los Angeles to New York to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Grammy Awards, the Jan. 28 televised event cost up to $8 million more to produce at New York’s Madison Square Garden over Los Angeles’ Staples Center. MusiCares, held Jan. 26, also cost more to produce in part, Tomarken alleged, because Portnow decided to hold the event at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan instead of Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, which was offering MusiCares a number of financial concessions. Due to that decision and other factors, Tomarken believed the 2018 MusiCares event would “likely net no more than $1 million… Last year’s net was $5 million.” 

Tomarken also alleged that Portnow, in an effort to make up for the telecast deficit, approved dropping MusiCares from a package revenue deal conceived by Portnow and Oak View Group that was designed to raise, in part, $1.5 million for MusiCares. The Recording Academy denies the allegation. 

Furthermore, regarding the venue choice, The Recording Academy said in a statement, “MusiCares’ interests were not sacrificed in favor of the interests of the Recording Academy.”

The Recording Academy in the statement also denied that MusiCares would receive any less money to help its clients despite any revenue decline from the 2018 MusiCares gala, which honored Fleetwood Mac. New figures released Thursday by The Recording Academy bear that out: In the last fiscal year, MusiCares provided $5.9 million to 7,900 members of the music industry -- the largest dollar amount distributed so far -- and MusiCares anticipates providing $6.3 million in the current fiscal year. 

In responding to any ongoing concerns that managers and others may have about MusiCares, a Recording Academy spokesperson told Billboard, “Just this last February, for the fourth consecutive year, Charity Navigator gave MusiCares four stars -- the independent charity watchdog's highest rating... MusiCares will continue to provide the highest level of service and support to people in need across our music community.”

Though MusiCares’ releases a detailed accounting of its financial information through its public 990 tax filing, Scott Rodger, who manages 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year Paul McCartney, says now is the time for the organization’s financial results to be even more readily accessible. "Moving forward, for the benefit of everyone in the industry there needs to be total transparency and the full accounts need to be published after each event so that we can all see exactly what was raised against the costs to stage the event and more specifically the salaries paid and the operational costs.”

Among the information in the 2015 MusiCares 990 filing (the latest on file) are Tomarken’s salary of $127,592 (with additional compensation of $51,003), as well as $10.5 million raised from fundraising events, including the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year dinner honoring Bob Dylan. At that time, MusiCares had total net assets of more than $23 million. 

Sources suggest that the MusiCares board could also do with more transparency. The board was not notified in advance of plans to dismiss Tomarken -- though the Recording Academy was not necessarily obligated to inform them of a personnel matter -- and, furthermore, the board was not included in any discussion about holding the Person of the Year fundraiser at Radio City or Barclays, despite the effect the venue choice would have on money raised. The MusiCares board has not met since the January event -- a move the source says is not unusual. 

Always involved, Portnow has become increasingly more hands-on with MusiCares, sources tell Billboard, especially since Madsen’s departure. The Recording Academy has not said if it plans to replace Tomarken.

Though MusiCares is an integral part of the Recording Academy, a former MusiCares board member suggests that the best way to go forward may be to put some distance between the two organizations, especially given the opportunity that Portnow’s departure provides to reboot: “MusiCares wouldn’t exist if not for The Recording Academy and it has benefited enormously from the support that it has received from The Recording Academy and Neil over the years. But much of the MusiCares community has a longstanding relationship with Dana and they were surprised and disappointed by her departure, and particularly how it was handled. It may be time for MusiCares to operate more independently from The Recording Academy, so that it can focus single-mindedly on its mission and not have its fortunes rise and fall on the success of the Grammys.”

A manager of a past honoree expressed hope that the turmoil would not derail the 2019 event, adding that by this time the year his act was honored, they were already locking in talent. 

Portnow has extended an invitation to Dolly Parton to be the 2019 MusiCares Person of the Year. As of press time, she has not made a decision.