Recording Academy's Neil Portnow on Grammy Nominations: 'I Think We're Incredibly Relevant and on Point'

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The Recording Academy and MusiCares President/CEO Neil Portnow attends the 60th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28, 2018 in New York City.  

As the Recording Academy continues to work on improving issues surrounding inclusion, this list of nominees for the 61st annual Grammy Awards, announced this morning (Dec. 7), proves to be a diverse slate. This is particularly true in the record, song and album of the year and best new artist categories, where women and people of color dominate the nominations.

“Trying to take a pretty broad view, I would say I’m very pleased and I think this is a great representation of the best music that was made this year,” says Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow. “I think we’re incredibly relevant and on point. I’m very proud of it, honestly.”

Portnow talked to Billboard about the nominations and the changes this year, that included expanding several fields and broadening the voting membership. He also reflected on leaving the Recording Academy next year after steering the organization since 2002. The Grammy Awards air Feb. 10 on CBS. 

Billboard: The task force to examine issues of diversity established by the Recording Academy in May invited 900 new voting members to join, all of whom were female and/or people of color and/or under 39 in an effort to increase diversity. How is that effort reflected in this year’s nominations? 

Neil Portnow: It’s a little hard to know that information because I don’t have the statistics from [Academy accounts] Deloitte [Touche] and, typically, we don’t get most of that. That being said, we do know that we had a good percentage of those folks that we invited that did join and I would take a leap of faith and an assumption that people that have joined recently and are excited are probably part of the participation.

How else do you feel that the work of the task force may have influenced this year’s nominations? 

I don’t know that I’d make that as a link. Let’s look at our process: Our voting members are the professional music makers and creators of the highest level in the industry and their objective is to make a judgment as to what represents excellence and the best of music in the year…That being said, creative people are typically sensitive people and are aware of what’s going on in the world and in society, and we all know that diversity and inclusion is in a phase and tipping point of incredible significance and importance. So is that in somebody’s mind when they vote? I don’t know the answer to that, but I suspect it’s part of our consciousness and that’s a good thing. It ought to be. 

What’s the impact of going from five to eight nominees in the four main categories — song, record and album of the year and best new artist?  

You’ve got a few factors that led us to the conclusion that that was something that had value to try: We continue to have an expansive number of entries — we’re at 21,000-plus entries this year, which is terrific. These four fields are the ones that get the largest number of entries. Having a little broader opportunity for more artists and more voices to be heard would seem intuitively to be of value. The second part of it, related to diversity and inclusion, it would certainly seem to create more opportunity for more different kinds of music and more different artists to be recognized as nominees. Those are the objectives, and based on what I’m seeing, that has been successful.

The Grammys were criticized for only one female receiving an award during the telecast earlier this year. Since you don’t know who the winners are beforehand is there any way you can avoid that happening again? 

You pretty much answered your own question. There’s really no way to know in advance what that’s going to be. So we can crystal ball it a little bit and you could potentially look at categories where you have overweighted demographics, if you will, but really, we’re probably likely to look at the various categories from a musical standpoint and what makes a nice balance, not only in terms of music performances, but awards. And that’s where it will wind up. From there, it will be however our voters determine how it comes out.

Post Malone is not on the best new artist slate because the screening committee deemed him ineligible. Do you stand by that decision or does the criteria need to be reexamined, as you frequently do after there’s a controversial decision? 

We do have a standard procedure through the Awards & Nominations committee for an annual review of each of these kinds of issues. [Best new artist] has always been a tricky one because the goal posts have moved from time to time and as hard as we try to create a narrative of what constitutes a best new artist in any given year, I think it’s always healthy to take a look at that and I would expect we would continue to do that. For this year, I think it was an intelligent and passionate conversation. I think it could have gone either way. I have to stand by the process that got us there, but I do think these are the kinds of things we should have an open mind about and continue to look at year over year. 

This is your last Grammy Awards as president/CEO of the Recording Academy before you step down in July 2019. How are you feeling? 

It’s an interested proposition in terms of life. The Academy has been at the centerpiece of my life for the past 16 years sitting in the chair, but for the 15 years that proceeded that, as a trustee and as a national officer. Effectively for half of my life, I’ve been dedicated, involved, passionate and as active as anyone can be. The fact that there would be a change and a transition from that is something that I haven’t experienced before, quite honestly. Part of me is relishing the next chapter, part of me is melancholy about it. At this point, Elvis hasn’t left the building (laughs). I’m still here, there’s a pretty good runway ahead. I’m excited this time of the year. It’s always the highlight and I relish it and I’m looking forward to seeing it through.

Do you know when the Recording Academy will name your successor? 

We have a bit of process around that. The board of trustees has the fiduciary responsibility for that process. Of course, I’m involved and consulting and part of the mix there, so they have the structure in place as to how that’s going to work. We’ll have an outside search firm that will be in play. That ball will get rolling probably more seriously once we get on the other side of Grammy season, but it’s coming and it’s in the works.