Neil Portnow, Om’Mas Keith, Jody Gerson, Greg Kurstin, Elle King and Ken Ehrlich photographed Dec. 8 at The Recording Academy in Santa Monica.
Neil Portnow, Om’Mas Keith, Jody Gerson, Greg Kurstin, Elle King and Ken Ehrlich photographed Dec. 8 at The Recording Academy in Santa Monica.
Austin Hargrave

Grammy Roundtable: Insiders on Adele Vs. Beyonce, Sturgill Simpson's Surprise Nomination & James Corden as Host

by Gail Mitchell
December 22, 2016, 9:14am EST

There are three types of Grammy viewers, according to Ken Ehrlich, the telecast's producer since 1980. "There are people for whom this is the only music show they watch all year," he says on Dec. 8, two days after The Recording Academy announced its 59th annual ­nominations. "There are hardcore music fans, and then there's this third element who think they're going to see something they don't see on other [awards] shows -- and that's what we try and give them."

For the ceremony's Feb. 12 telecast on CBS, that likely means the ­combined spectacles of pop supernovas Beyoncé, who leads the year's nominations with nine, and Adele, who faces off against Bey in three of her five ­nominated ­categories, including album of the year -- vying against Justin Bieber, Drake and alt-country upstart Sturgill Simpson. With all that star-power ­potential on one show, Ehrlich admits, "I have to be very optimistic."

That race and other storylines provided fodder for Billboard's second Grammy Roundtable, held at the Recording Academy headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif. Joining Ehrlich, 74, and president/CEO Neil Portnow, 68, were Universal Music Publishing Group chairman/CEO Jody Gerson, 55, and Grammy-winning ­producer Om'Mas Keith, 40 -- who won the best urban ­contemporary prize in 2013 for Frank Ocean's Channel Orange -- along with two just-announced ­nominees: songwriter Greg Kurstin, 47, who's ­nominated in four categories, ­including song of the year (Adele's "Hello") and producer of the year; and singer/songwriter Elle King, 27, who's honored in the best country duo/group ­performance category for her featured role on Dierks Bentley's "Different for Girls."

During an hour-plus conversation, the six touched on everything from the music industry under a Trump administration (and the possible "positive") to the installment of 2017 host James Corden.

What was your first reaction to the slate of nominations?

GERSON: I applauded the diversity. ­[Voting members] did a great job. Yes, there will always be ­somebody who's missed, but I'm impressed.

KEITH: I was very pleasantly surprised. R&B and urban music was fully represented by artists you wouldn't normally think would be nominated -- people you may have ­forgotten about and people who are at the top of the game.

KURSTIN: I totally agree with Jody and Om'Mas. But I was happy when I saw my name. (Laughter, cheers.)

EHRLICH: Frankly, I was scared out of my skin until we saw what was in the envelope. That's the way it always is: We're dealt a hand and we have to play that hand. Some years are better than others. But I was ­really pleased because the palette we have to paint a three-and-a-half-hour TV show with is broad -- as Jody said, musically rich with a lot of choices.

KING: I woke up to getting the greatest ­surprise ever. Then I read about everyone else who was nominated. A lot of my friends are on there. It's fun to cheer everybody on and get to be a part of it.

Greg, did you talk to Adele on the day of the nominations?

KURSTIN: I did. We actually saw each other and had a little champagne. You just never know how anything is going to go. I was so nervous the night before. But then I woke up to the good news.

PORTNOW: (To Kurstin.) It's good that you were nervous. It means that it matters.

KURSTIN: It definitely does. You can tell ­yourself it doesn't, but it does.

KING: (To Kurstin.) Yeah, but come on. How did you not know? You had to know.

KURSTIN: You just never know. Crazy things happen in elections. (Laughter.)

What common elements do you see in Grammy-nominated songs -- ­stylistically, emotionally or structurally?

GERSON: There are certain things as a music publisher that I think about, and for me it's about emotional resonance: that a song moves me and was produced in a way that takes me somewhere. A lot of the songs that have been nominated this year do that.

KEITH: There's definitely a shift toward a more insightful kind of songwriting. People are approaching songwriting now with an understanding that there's a lane to really express themselves. You have artists like Chance the Rapper writing very endearing songs that are very positive.

KURSTIN: There are a lot of changes I'm ­seeing in the way songs are written. Like Jody said, there's this emotional connection with those songs that get picked. There's always something about them that breaks through to a lot of people -- songs that say something, are about something.

One big surprise is Sturgill Simpson's nod for album of the year. How did his album come to the attention of so many voters?

PORTNOW: People have to remember who our voters are. To be a voting member, you have to be part of the industry ­community. You have to have credentials. So that levels the playing field in terms of it not being just about sales, marketing, market share, ­number of streams or chart position. There are no other layers to get in the way of the greatest music that you've heard over the course of the year. That's how we get that kind of a nomination.

Another major nomination storyline is Adele versus Beyoncé. Are both artists booked to perform on the show?

EHRLICH: Very few people say no to the ­Grammys. Over all of the years I've been ­doing the show, there have been [only] three or four acts who've actually said no.

Do you want to share who those are?

EHRLICH: Absolutely not. (Laughter.) But I can tell you that Adele and Beyoncé are not two of them. We have every anticipation that both of them will be with us in February. We love a good horse race. It's a fine line: We love the competition aspect of it, but it's really more -- here's the cliché -- the family of music. I don't know how many of those three categories they're in together that we'll announce during the telecast, but we'll probably come pretty close. When you can start with that as a foundation for a show, you're in pretty good shape.

What does the dominance of Adele and Beyoncé say about the industry?

KING: I'm extremely happy about it. I thought for a long time that [the industry] was all equal and fun, then I realized it's actually not: Some people don't take me seriously, so I had to work harder. So to see a lot of amazing women -- and a lot of young women -- nominated this year is very empowering. And it's about time.

EHRLICH: I want to take issue with the ­question. I've been around long enough -- I helped kick-start that term "diva" in the early '90s, those VH1 shows. From that point on, we've had the Celines, Glorias, Faith Hills, Shanias, Mariahs, Whitneys. If we look back at our show year to year, there are probably a number of years where there were more female artists than males.

GERSON: I see it a little differently. The ­difference this year, compared to others, is that Beyoncé and Adele are both women controlling their careers. In years past, the women who have been nominated ­probably were A&R'd by men who told them what songs to sing, and men who wrote the songs for them and then asked them to go into the studio and kill it vocally. These two iconic superstars control their own destinies. They're not "divas." No offense; I think that was [the term] of the time. It's strange to me that VH1 still does it, because I don't know if that's how I would describe any woman. I wouldn't describe Beyoncé as a "diva." She is fierce, as is Adele.

KEITH: They're both bosses.

GERSON: Yes, bosses. That's how I see it.

KING: People want real. And there are a lot of women out there doing that.

What prompted the change from LL Cool J to new host James Corden, and what can viewers expect from him?

PORTNOW: LL has been magnificent for five years. Before LL, we went for quite a run as the no-host Grammys. As simple as it seems, when you start to think about who can do this, who has the skills and ­background, it's a needle in a haystack. So we got very lucky when LL was ­available, because he's also a musician. James Corden, in his own way, represents something very similar. He's a musician; he's got a Broadway background and sings. It's not just finding a comedian or an actor. It's someone that relates to what we do.

This will be the first major awards show after Donald Trump's ­inauguration, and people have been very vocal about his election. Will any guidelines be given to artists, ­performers and presenters about ­going off script?

PORTNOW: We support artistic freedom and always have. Obviously, the network has to comply with the FCC's standards and practices. But beyond that, there will be no comments to artists in terms of what they can or can't say. They have to follow their muse and heart.

Neil, do you and Ken recall ever ­doing the show during such politically charged times?

EHRLICH: Well, remember, when I started, Franklin Roosevelt was president.

PORTNOW: (To Ehrlich.) You mean Teddy Roosevelt.

EHRLICH: We went through a period when artists were reticent to go public either ­politically or socially -- a time when artists have said, "No, our marketing says I can't do this or I can't do that." I'm a child of the '60s, so I love the fact that we are returning to a time when artists are standing up. We saw it in this past political campaign: Everybody we needed to step up for Hillary Clinton stepped up. There's a real rebirth in the artistic community to stand up for what you believe in.

PORTNOW: My point of view about the new administration, taking away all the other social issues, is that we as a music ­community have our own issues about advocacy, copyright, intellectual ­property, being paid fairly for the work that we do. I have optimism that there may be ­opportunities with this administration, who are business people and who may understand we are workers entitled to be compensated fairly. Some of the laws and legislation in place don't allow that. The fact that there isn't a performance right [for the use of sound recordings on ­terrestrial radio] means there's hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign income that doesn't come to the artists in this country. For example, because U.K. artists aren't compensated when their music is played on U.S. radio ­stations, U.S. artists aren't ­compensated when their records are played on U.K. stations based on the fact that there's no reciprocity. If that income came in, our ­artists would be paying income taxes on it. So if we can get a lot of policy on the radar, that may have some positive influence.

GERSON: (To Portnow.) I agree with you.

PORTNOW: We already have sent a letter to the president-elect. It has been received and we'll be pursuing meetings. He's ­seemingly not so enamored by the tech ­sector that he's co-opted by it. Obviously, it's an important part of our economy and our future.

KEITH: I'm excited to see which artists will be performing at the White House in the ­coming years. James Brown was at the White House throughout his whole career with every president.

GERSON: (To Keith.) You won't hold it against them?

KEITH: I won't hold it against them. (Laughs.) The demonstration of art is what's ­paramount here.

EHRLICH: We were very fortunate the last eight years, producing a PBS show a year at the White House. I don't want to make a comment about president-elect Trump, but there was no better audience in the front row of the East Room than President Obama and the first lady. They knew the lyrics to every song we did. They loved it whether it was Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Justin Timberlake or Jill Scott. They love music, the arts in the broadest sense. Can we expect that we'll get that kind of response now, because the plan is to do more of these performance shows from the White House? It's a question mark as to one, who will do it, and two, who they will want.

Back to the nominations. Om'Mas, what's your take on Frank Ocean ­refusing to submit Blonde?

KEITH: Frank is demonstrating his truth, and denying people the ability to vote on his product is part of his art form. What's most important is he contributed something to the overall scope of music. There will be more from him, I'm sure. And maybe his opinion of the Grammys will change. At first I was a little confused as to why he would not include his product. He didn't tell me why, just only said, "This is what I'm doing."

Neil, how rare is it that artists refuse to submit their work?

PORTNOW: It's pretty rare. The ­Recording Academy has the utmost respect for Frank's artistry and his work. He not only was nominated early in his career, but we felt he was influential enough to have him perform on the show. He had a very specific view of what he wanted to do. And we gave him the flexibility, freedom and platform that ­undoubtedly were useful to building his career. We'd love for him to be closer to us.

What is your response to ­criticism of the Grammys' lack of ­transparency for its nomination ­process?

PORTNOW: It's interesting because we live in a time of fake news -- things that are made up and manufactured. So sometimes you don't want to believe everything you hear. The committee structure that's in place -- the nominations review process -- is hundreds of people. It's musicians, producers, engineers, ­artists, songwriters, industry people, ­musicologists, ­journalists. We certainly ask everybody to keep the ­confidentiality. The reason for that is not that there's anything secretive about it. It's a process by which if you have a ­roomful of people having to essentially create ­objectivity around ­something that's ­inherently ­subjective -- art and music -- you want people to be able to say what they're thinking without ­feeling that there's going to be some sort of ­retribution. We also don't want to ­create a situation for someone volunteering their time to be subjected to lobbying and ­influence peddling.

Beyond the Grammys, what are you looking forward to musically in 2017?

KEITH: The Internet has opened a vast lane for new artists to make music in different ways than what we've done in the past.

KURSTIN People are being more ­experimental. I hear chords being played that really haven't been on the radio. I love that. I go to my kids' school and see kids playing in bands. It is a sign of what's to come.

GERSON More authentic music. My hope is that it's genre-less. I don't think that's how kids listen to music: They're not thinking, "What is it? What color is the person who's singing it?" And with the political climate, I'm hoping for important songs that will last the test of time.

2017 Grammys

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 22 issue of Billboard.