Ken Ehrlich on Grammys Past & Future: 'Overblown' Ariana Grande Clash & 'Energy' of Young 2020 Performers

Jesse Collins, Raj Kapoor, David Wild, Chantel Sausedo and Ken Ehrlich speak with Scott Goldman
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Jesse Collins, Raj Kapoor, David Wild, Chantel Sausedo and Ken Ehrlich speak with Scott Goldman at Producing The GRAMMY Awards: the Team That Makes It Happen at the GRAMMY Museum on Jan. 13, 2020 in Los Angeles.

Show's exec producer, along with Jesse Collins, Raj Kapoor, Chantel Sausedo & David Wild, sits down for Grammy Museum panel discussion ahead of 62nd annual awards.

Less than two weeks before the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, the show's core creative team, led by executive producer Ken Ehrlich, participated in a panel discussion at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. The evening began with a long "sizzle reel" of famous "Grammy moments" throughout the last 40 telecasts, from Barbra Streisand & Neil Diamond's "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" (1980) to Brandi Carlile's "The Joke" (2019).

"I like looking at that reel more than any of you do," Ehrlich said. "It's my life. There are a number of artists that I grew up with; grew older with. Because I'm less than a mediocre piano player, I can't do what they do, but I can come up with an idea that makes them [come across as] a fuller artist."

Ehrlich was joined in the panel discussion, "Producing the Grammy Awards: The Team That Makes It Happen," by producers Jesse Collins, Raj Kapoor and Chantel Sausedo and producer/writer David Wild. The discussion was moderated by Scott Goldman, moderator of the Grammy Museum's public programs.

Ben Winston, who is in his fourth year as co-executive producer, and who will succeed Ehrlich in the top job next year, was originally announced as part of the panel, but he did not appear—though he was introduced in the audience.

Ehrlich noted that when he started as producer in 1980, the Grammy telecast was in late February. Now it's in late January. "The show is [coming] together," he said. "It's overbooked, but that's the name of the game."

Wild, who joined the team in 1999, echoed the idea that the show is jam-packed. "Writing happens later and later each year, because Ken keeps booking. The intros will have to be 'And now, him.'  He loves performances, so he keeps booking."

Ehrlich noted that "so much of it is about context. It's not just a parade of people doing the hits. I've never booked an act I haven't seen live and I never will. It's the Recording Academy but it should be called the Performance Awards, because that's what [the telecast] is."

Asked by Goldman if there's a through-line in this year's show, Ehrlich replied, "Youth has a lot to do with it. Change, musicality, energy."

Wild added, "The first time I went to your office in Encino, you had a list of artists on the wall you can build a show around. We've lost some of those artists, but some names have emerged this year—Lizzo, Billie Eilish—who can go on that wall."

Alicia Keys will host the show for the second year in a row. Wild noted "Alicia Keys is someone who has grown up on the Grammy stage." That's literally true. Keys is a former best new artist winner who was, at the time, the youngest song of the year winner in Grammy history.

Ehrlich added, "I have long said that the show would work without a host—and we've gone without a host in the past. But when you get someone like that who brings a love of artists and of music in general, that's a gift."

Kapoor noted the power of a Grammy performance. "We can change the way they'll be perceived. They'll be elevated."

Ehrlich acknowledged that it's a ratings game. "At the end of the day, we've got to deliver those numbers, but there are various ways of doing that."

Wild noted "It's a triumph of the will to see this guy [Ehrlich] create something out of nothing constantly."

Ehrlich supplied a good example. He recalled the 2014 special The Beatles: The Night That Changed America. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr had agreed to come to the taping, but not to perform—until the day after Christmas, when McCartney called and said he'd like to discuss his performance. That, of course, elevated the special, which went on to receive six Emmy nominations. Don Was won for outstanding music direction.

Ehrlich launched his career at PBS, where he worked on the hour-long music show, Soundstage. Asked what he drew from that experience, he replied, "I learned how to do a show for no money. At PBS, you learn to do everything. I learned how to edit. I learned structure and continuity. Those are things you just never forget."

Ehrlich moved into network television in 1976 as producer of The Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour, a notably lame variety show. In 1979, he produced The Music for UNICEF Concert: A Gift of Song, which featured some of the hottest stars of the era, such as Bee Gees, Rod Stewart and Olivia Newton-John.

In 1976, he had a meeting with Pierre Cossette, who had originated the Grammys' live telecast in 1971. In 1980, Ehrlich produced the show for the first time. "Pierre took a chance on me and then reminded me of that for the rest of his life," Ehrlich said with a smile.

Ehrlich, in turn, has given opportunities to the rest of his team. Wild recalled the 2000 show, hosted by Jon Stewart and featuring the famous Eminem performance with Elton John. "I met with Jon. We were coming up with jokes as we watched Eminem. I thought, 'This is the greatest job in history.'

Collins made note of Ehrlich's unflappability. He remembered the 2009 show where M.I.A., then nine months pregnant, performed "Swagga Like Us" with Jay Z, Kanye West, T.I. and Lil Wayne. "His attitude was she's just got to make it through five more minutes. I think that's what I learned from him—never panic."

Sausedo remembered her first show day where she felt overwhelmed. "I knew he could tell I was drowning. He told me, 'You can be tired in 12 hours.' It gave me the confidence to do things that I never thought I could."  Sausedo teared up in telling the story. She and Ehrlich, who was seated next to her, embraced.

Ehrlich was close to many of the artists he has worked with, which allowed him to tell stories that might seem irreverent coming from someone who didn't know the artists as well. "We went directly from Aretha Franklin's funeral to a White Castle in Detroit—but she would have done the same thing," he said, to laughter.

Wild saw the big picture. "In a country as divided as this one is, to bring people together [is meaningful]. He noted the star-making impact a great performance can have. He cited two examples—Ricky Martin's "La Copa De La Vida" (1999) and Carlile's "The Joke."

As for the future, Ehrlich joked, "I'll just be looking for tickets."

Before the evening's program, Billboard spoke to Ehrlich for this informal Q&A.

Billboard: I was pleased to see you get the Trustees Award from the Recording Academy.

Ehrlich: I was too. It's nice. (lightly, joking) It's about f---ing time.

It would be nice if you got an Emmy for your last show as executive producer.

It would be very nice. The Emmys don't come our way.

Do you have any idea why that is?

I have no clue. Something's wrong, but I don't know what it is.

I was glad to see that Ariana Grande is performing on this year's show, to put last year's booking controversy to rest.

I am too. She has had an amazing year. And [the controversy] was overblown. The whole thing got out of control. From the beginning, I was a champion of hers…I'm really glad she's back. We had a lovely rapprochement at her show at the Forum a few weeks ago.

Your claim to fame is creating the concept of "the Grammy Moment."

I think it's what distinguishes the Grammys from other award shows. There's a little secret to it. The first artist needs to be malleable; open to ideas. Then the second artist will kind of come along. We've had Justin Timberlake with a bunch of people over the years. He's the kind of artist who will do that. Bruno Mars is the kind of guy who can do that. Bono, John Legend, Dave Grohl can do that. So why not push the boundaries when you have artists who are open to not being restricted to a lane? Those are the artists I've always chosen to work with.

It's amazing that you have the energy after producing a 3-1/2-hour live special to do another two-hour-special two nights later, such as this year's Prince tribute.

I don't really look at it that way. I'm invigorated by all of this. Maybe two weeks after I edit the second show, I'll go, 'I'm glad that's over.'

Will you continue to produce these Grammy spinoff specials even when you're no longer executive producer of the Grammy telecast?

I don't know. We really haven't talked about it. We've all been too busy. I created the template for the [Grammy Salutes] specials. I love doing those shows. That second show is as exciting, and occasionally even more exciting, than the first one [the main Grammy telecast], in that you know that every artist is coming to perform because they love the artist.

I get the sense that Prince is a special one for you because you worked with him several times.

Prince is special. He probably did 12 TV appearances over his career. I did five of them. I think it's going to do very well because the audience that has grown around him since his death is equal to or greater than the audience that loved him when he was alive. There's no 15-year old who doesn’t know who Prince is.

2020 Grammy Awards