Recording Academy Invites 900 New Voting Members Based on Task Force Recommendations to Increase Diversity: Exclusive

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Courtesy of The Recording Academy

Task Force Chair Tina Tchen discusses other initiatives to make the Grammys more inclusive.

Taking its first steps since forming a Task Force on Diversity & Inclusion earlier this year, the Recording Academy has invited 900 music creators to join as voting members in an effort to build a membership more reflective of the diverse creative community. 

As part of the Member Invitation Initiative, invites were extended to a broad range of music creators, including vocalists, songwriters, instrumentalists, producers and engineers. All 900 invitees, who were pre-qualified to vote by the Recording Academy, are female and/or people of color and/or under 39. 

Additionally, with the help of the Task Force, the Recording Academy has greatly diversified the composition of its Nominations Review Committees, the 16 committees that determine the final Grammy nominations in craft and other specialized categories. This year, the composition of the Nominations Review Committees is 51 percent female and 48 percent  people of color, up from last year, when they were 28 percent female and 37 percent people of color.

The eight National Governance Committees, which oversee such areas as membership and advocacy, also increased their number of female members to 48 percent and people of color to 38 percent, up from 20 percent female and 30 percent people of color last year. 

The moves come five months after the May formation of The Task Force, which is charged with identifying barriers and unconscious biases that impede the advancement of women and people of color in the music industry and coming up with best practices for the Recording Academy and the industry. 

The Recording Academy initially announced the Task Force in February, shortly after Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow was criticized for saying women need to "step up" if they want to have a bigger role in making music and in the industry. He made the remarks backstage after the Jan. 28 Grammy Awards when questioned about best new artist winner Alessia Cara being the only woman to receive an award during the television portion of the ceremony. Two days prior to the Awards, University of Southern California released its USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative which revealed that of 600 popular songs on the Billboard Hot 100 from the past five years only 22.4% were performed by females. Females accounted for only 12.3 percent of the songwriters.

The work of the Task Force is just beginning, Task Force chair Tina Tchen told Billboard.  The Member Invitation Initiative is “a first step. We hope to work with the Academy in the coming months to do it again next year in a more organized way, but we wanted to do [it] right away to affect this year’s awards season,” says Tchen, who served as chief of staff to former First Lady Michelle Obama. “This is an outreach effort to say ‘You are qualified [to vote], we hope you will join.’ We are hoping this will be part of getting the artists to be part of the change that we want to have, which is to diversify the leadership of the industry through the Recording Academy by having all diverse artists participating in the process.”  Invitees who join by Nov. 15 are eligible to vote for Feb. 10’s  61st Annual Grammy Awards.

Among the members of the 16-member Task Force are Universal Music Group evp Michele Anthony, former BET CEO Debra Lee, ASCAP CEO Elizabeth Matthews, Sony Music evp of business affairs Julie Swidler, Common, Sheryl Crow, Andra Day and Jimmy Jam.

The Recording Academy membership, including voting and associate members, totals 22,000, of which 33 percent are women. Of the approximately 13,000 voting members, 21 percent are women. In a statistic never before released, 55 percent of the voting membership identify as white, 28 percent as people of color and 17 percent declined to disclose. 

To qualify as a voting member, applicants who have released online recordings only must have 12 qualifying digital tracks in a single voting category with at least one qualifying track released within five years of receipt of the application, while applicants with physically distributed releases must have six physical tracks in a single voting category, also with at least one track released within five years of applying.

Still to come, with input from the Task Force, the Recording Academy will unroll a new membership model, which will go into effect Nov. 19, and will center on community-driven recommendations. It will also include a Peer Review Panel, which will evaluate all new member submissions in the spring.

Tchen talked to Billboard about the work of the Task Force for the below Q&A. 

Billboard: One of the main criticisms of Grammy voters is they don’t age out even if they are no longer involved in actively making music. How important was reaching out to younger voters, specifically those 39 and under? 

Tina Tchen: A key issue of having the Recording Academy reflect the broad industry and even more, the broader population, is to make sure we’re reaching out to people who are currently underrepresented in the current Academy membership and we know there are not enough young people in the Academy membership even though we have amazing young artists who are making music, who have the credits to get in and they are our future. It’s important to reach out to them. 

One of the things that we found out through Listening Forums [held in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Nashville] is there really are a lot of people who don’t know what the Academy is, they don’t know what the benefits of being a member are. In this day and age you need to do outreach. You can’t sit passively by and expect people to come to you. You need to do deliberate, intentional outreach and make sure that your membership reflects the broad range of folks that you want to have in. 

Within five years what would you like the percentage of female voters to be?

I don’t have a goal yet to announce. We’re talking to the Task Force and the Recording Academy and together we’re going to set a goal that is both aspirational and one that we can work towards within the next five years. The interesting thing is you go back to the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report that [says] out of the music industry as a whole, 22 percent [of the performers] were women, so the 21 percent of the voting members that are women is roughly on par with that number.  Neither the task force nor the Academy are satisfied at being at 21 percent with voting members as women. We really want to reflect the broader population. 

What is a good return rate on the initial 900 invites? How do you gauge its success?

I don’t know. I think this is all new. I know in the past, the Recording Academy has done membership drives and the yield has been, I think, disappointing. Part of the objective here is to ask people to join us, to be part of the change [to] diversify the  Academy and the industry as a whole. One of the ways to do that is to become a member, become active, become a part of who makes the decision about the Grammy Awards and we are really hoping that will spur more folks than the 900 to join.

In 2015, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences established the A2020 initiative, a 5-year plan to improve diversity. Was there anything you were able to take from them while devising this plan? 

We’re looking at what they did, absolutely. One of the things to recognize is we only came together in May, but one of the reasons we felt we wanted to do some initial immediate work was as we continue to deliberate our long term initiatives, we feel the urgency of trying to address these issues head on and did not want to let this awards season go by. Starting our work in May meant the Academy is pretty deep into the 61st Award cycle.

Neil Portnow will step down in July 2019. Is the Task Force involved in finding the new president/CEO? 

We are not. The one observation that we have made to the Academy leadership is, which I think they are listening to, whenever you fill a position making sure you have women and people of color on whatever the final slate is and that you don’t go to the final decision until you have a diverse slate of candidates. That is the one observation we’ve made to the Academy that I think they are taking to heart. 

What result will diversifying the nominations and governance committees have?

We’re not dictating a specific result other than to say that we know research shows that when you have diverse decision-making bodies, they make better decisions. Fortune wrote about [a study] recently where the diverse teams make the better business decision 87% of the time than the non-diverse teams, so this is about having better decision making, not dictating a particular outcome. No matter what you’re looking at, whether it’s nominations review here at the Academy whether it’s business decisions, the more diverse your room is, the better your results at the end.

 Is there a culture change within the Recording Academy that needs to occur? 

One of the things I learned from my broader work is that we need a culture change overall. We’re living through a moment where we’re seeing a national culture change on these issues. The music industry and Recording Academy are not immune to that. What specifics things they are are probably too early for me to say other than for me to observe that the industry and  Academy exists in a broader world that is currently going through what I hope will be a true reflection point and true cultural change overall in how we view our leadership and our talent across the board. I applaud the Academy for taking a very thoughtful approach and the Task Force members  in how we achieve that. 

What are the Task Force's next steps?  

We continue to look at everything. We’ve been meeting very regularly. This is a group that has really rolled up their sleeves and dug in to do some hard work. We’re looking at all the issues, There’s no one thing. These particular initiatives, the ones we’re announcing now, we took quickly because they were the ones we could quickly do to address the 61st awards season and now I think we’re going to turn to the long term issues that we need to look at. 

How long will the Task Force operate? 

We don’t have a set timetable. I have been hoping, and I remain still hopeful, that we started our work in May and that by the time we got to our year anniversary we’d be largely finished. That’s the pacing that we’ve wanted to be on. This is not a longterm gig for all of us. But we haven’t set a firm deadline. We want to get the work done and we want to get it done right and we understand the urgency of getting it down quickly as well.