The 2021 Grammys were always going to be different. Aside from the fact that the pandemic necessitated social distancing and strict safety procedures – and delayed the broadcast from Jan. 31 to March 14 — the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards marked the first broadcast since longtime executive producer Ken Ehrlich retired after a four-decade run. With new executive producer Ben Winston and his team running the show, the Grammys got more than just a fresh coat of paint; the new team reimagined what a music awards show can look and feel like, not just in the COVID-19 pandemic but in the 21st century.
A few days after the 2021 telecast, Billboard hopped on the phone with Winston and Recording Academy interim president/CEO Harvey Mason Jr. The interviews were conducted separately but the answers have been combined below as many of the topics overlapped.
From Winston explaining how BTS‘ overseas performance ended up on the broadcast to Mason providing an update on the Academy’s progress on finding a new CEO, here’s everything we learned about pulling off the 2021 Grammys and what’s next.
How did you feel at the moment right before it went on air: Did it feel like everything was totally perfect and ready, or were there a million little things to tend to?
Winston: Whenever you do live TV, you prepare as much as you can. Every item is prepared, rehearsed and practiced. But when you’re on live TV for three and a half hours, it’s like you just step off a cliff; you try to flap your arms to try to fly as much as you can and not crash. There’s always that unknown. You’re alert and ready for whatever gets thrown at you.
Mason: The whole thing came together nicely. I wouldn’t say perfect, but it never felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants. It felt very organized, very methodically planned out and detailed. Ben Winston and his team did an immaculate job of planning it and running it. The thing that struck me was how lucky we were that the artist community came out and showed up for this. They were all on our stage, it was amazing. I was so thankful.
You obviously had a very historical moment with Beyoncé setting a new Grammy record for women and singers. Of course, you can’t guarantee that moment will happen prior to the broadcast. Did you reach out to her and say, “This might happen, so we’d really, really like to have you there?”
Mason: When you start the planning of the whole event, you have a list of people you’d like to have at the show, either performing or just accepting awards. And when someone like Beyoncé is nominated, you of course want her on your stage, you hope that she wants to come. And when she’s nominated for that many awards, you expect she’ll probably win some, so it was always good to have her. We were excited to have her in our building.
What about Silk Sonic (Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak). You announced the full lineup, but then added them on after they publicly asked to be added to the broadcast. How much of that was real, or was it planned to generate additional buzz?
Mason: A bit of a combination. We hoped we were gonna be able to get the performance to happen. I don’t think we wanted to announce it before we were certain it was happening.
Winston: I love Bruno and Anderson, I really wanted them to do the show. It was definitely part of Bruno having fun with us and teasing us a little bit. But having them on was so great and the fact that they did Little Richard as well was really significant. It was a big night. Anderson won for one of my favorite tracks of the year. To be honest, I considered asking Anderson to do “Lockdown” because I love that track. But when Silk Sonic was coming about [it made more sense to ask them both]. I don’t think I’ve ever danced during an In Memoriam, as only Bruno and Anderson could make us do. It was an amazing moment.
What about Taylor Swift’s magical forest or Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s giant bed. How much of the creative concept comes from your end versus the artists?
Winston: Each performance is a different story, but this year, huge amount of credit for the creatives go to the artists. More than ever, I take very little credit for the amazing creativity they produced. People like Taylor or Bruno or Harry [Styles] come and say “we’d really like to do this.” We get involved in how it’s staged or shot, or we pitch an idea, but ultimately the creative ideas on the whole come from the artists and their teams. And we facilitate it in the safest way possible. If you look at DaBaby’s choir, for example, there’s six feet between each choir member. If you look at the way the bands are laid out, there’s more spacing than usual. Every element needed to be creatively brilliant but also safe.
Mason: There’s a television committee made up of Academy members and there’s producers on the show who are representatives from the Academy, but we really rely on Ben Winston and his team because this is what they do professionally. He’s the best of the best and we were very fortunate he and his team were working on this particular show. We had conversations about who we’d like to see on our stage, we go through the list of talent, and then Ben gets to work with his team on booking the show and getting the creative for the individual artists. We are in the loop on that, but we leave a lot of the day-to-day decision making in Ben’s hands because he’s so good at it.
During the outdoor segments with Trevor Noah handing out awards, I couldn’t tell how much turnover was going on with the audience. Can you explain how that went down?
Mason: I was there for the majority of the awards portion and between each award there were performances. So as soon as they’d announce the award, the talent and their plus ones – because everyone was allowed just one guest – would stand up and the representatives of the show would walk them from one area to another because the traffic was in one direction. As they exited, the cleaning crew came in with these little carts. On the carts were a fresh arrangement of flowers, a fresh bottle of champagne, more glasses, napkins, a tablecloth — they took everything off the table, put a new tablecloth down, new flowers, new everything. Wiped down the seats, the legs of the table, and then moved the carts out. And the next group of artists would come in, sit at the table, and the whole thing would happen again between each award.
Winston: Outdoors was huge maneuvering. We only had nine tables out there, and we had a plan for each award on who would be at those nine tables. We wanted to keep it safe. Behind that was 15 chairs for nominees who wanted to stay around for the whole night or Harvey Mason Jr. or members of the Academy, but mostly nominees. That was a huge undertaking.
It’s funny when I’ve read some reviews that are like “I’m not sure that artist should have gone after that one.” And I’m thinking, “if only you knew how many minutes we needed on this stage compared to that stage, but that artist can’t be there then because their award is outside….” The puzzle of putting it all together is the most complicated part. But for me, genuinely, it’s the most fun.
One thing that worked so well was watching the artists dance and sing along to each other’s songs. I know that was part of your plan, Ben, because of our earlier conversation, but did you have to get each performer’s permission for that?
Winston: I don’t know if I ever said “I’m going to cut to shots of you” but I definitely went around to every single artist months before and I said, “I don’t know who you’ll be with, I don’t know what the bill is right now, but when we book you for this show, you are going to be surrounded by three other artists and they’re going to play. When you finish the performance, I would really appreciate it if you stay. We’ll get you a drink, we’ll put up a stool, sit with your band, sit with your dancers and watch the other performers. I’d really appreciate it. And in return, those artists will be watching and supporting you.” Every single one of them went “that is really cool.” Every single one of them. Someone said, “Are you kidding me? I haven’t seen live music for a whole year. I’ll have the best seat in the house. I can’t wait.” It was a cool moment for me in the control room when we started taking those shots of the reactions. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t punching the air with some of them. That was the proof of concept. It was like “this is going to work.” It gave me confidence in an idea that’s been in our brains for 12 months. When you see Harry Styles singing along to “The Steps” by Haim, you’re like, “This is amazing. This is working.” And when you see Post Malone losing his mind to “WAP”? That was all of us.
BTS’ “Dynamite” performance recreated your interior set in the Los Angeles Convention Center, with the flowers hanging from the ceiling and everything, but ended with a reveal that they were actually in Seoul. That was a clever surprise. How did that concept come about?
Winston: Originally, I’d always said I wanted every performance to be in the room. From day one, before the nominations came out, I said I really wanted to pull off a show where all the artists are in the room. I think that’s important. I don’t want to be going to Nashville one minute and New York the next and London the next. If you can’t make it, you can’t make it. And I totally understand why you can’t, but I want to sacrifice people if I need to for the artists to be in the room. The whole point of it was about the artist community coming together. Then with a few weeks to go, it became clear for various reasons that BTS wouldn’t necessarily be able to make it in time to come. Because ultimately, there is a global pandemic, and that’s far more important than the Grammys.
So about five months ago, on The Late Late Show [which Winston executive produces], this is what started this. BTS were booked on the show to do “Dynamite.” Because we were in the lockdown, musicians would just send video of their performance. And BTS didn’t tell us anything about their performance, they just sent it, and it blew my mind. They had recreated the entire Late Late Show set. Not just the area James sits in, but the performance area. And every element of it, from the font on his mug to the neon sign outdoors, was exactly correct. All of us watched it and were like “these boys are outrageously talented and the team who creates these sets is amazing.” So as soon as we realized they might not be able to make it, I think it was their manager who said to me, or maybe we said it at the same time, “What about if we did what we did on The Late Late Show?” They said, “yes, we can rebuild your stage, but how about when we go outdoors, we’re in Seoul?” And I loved it. The slight change we made was that I wanted Korean roses coming out their Gramophone rather than the same flowers we had. I like that little nod to the Korean culture. It was an amazing performance and I’m pleased we bent the rules for BTS. It was worth it to have them on a year where they got a historic nomination – sadly not a win – but a historical nomination; I was pleased we didn’t stick too hard to our rules. They are so amazing. It didn’t feel like they were delivering us a music video, which is what so many awards shows have had this year. It was a live vocal — you can hear it’s a live vocal — and it’s two shots. There are two edits in there. Even though they weren’t there, they got the spirit of what we’re trying to do. I’m genuinely in awe of their talent, I’m not just saying that. I’m a fan of theirs.
There were a few moments where you could hear the Los Angeles traffic bleeding into the telecast. Megan even joked about it. Going into the broadcast, was that something you were aware of that you realized you’d just have to live with? Personally, I thought it gave it a nice sense of authenticity.
Mason: We talked about it, we knew it was a possibility but it didn’t really bother any of us. At one point a plane went over, a helicopter flew over, an engine went by with music playing, but it was part of the live, intimate feeling of the show. I quite liked it and I think the artists enjoyed it. It felt real.
Winston: What hasn’t been written about, if you listen to when Trevor is doing the opening, a helicopter flies over. When it flew over my first thing was “oh shit, oh no.” And then I was like, “actually, I sort of like it. We are where we are. We’re outdoors. We have a gorgeous backdrop, a beautiful view of Staples Center.” That gave us a soul, a place to be…. [The performances were in the L.A. Convention Center, and then] you walk out the door and you have this amazing view of L.A. We were somewhere: we had roots, we had soul. If that meant that a motorbike drove past fast, I sort of liked it, to be honest. It started in daylight and ended in pitch black, which meant everything kept changing throughout the evening.
Ben, if you’re back next year, is there anything you learned from doing a COVID era broadcast you would retain? Might you keep it outside?
Winston: I haven’t given any thought to next year. I’m just pleased this year is over. I also don’t have a contract to do next year, so who knows whether I’ll get asked back? I have no idea. But I feel like people really reacted well to the intimacy with the artists and feeling like they were watching something really special. And so I do want to think about how we do that in the future. If I was to do it next year, I would think carefully about what we can use and learn from this. I feel very happy it was received so well.
The biggest compliment I got was someone said “I always watch the Grammys, but I never watch all the Grammys. And this year I watched the whole thing.” And this is my team, not just me, every 30 minutes we wanted something different to happen. … Three and a half hours is far too long for a TV show. Far too long. As the producer of the show I say it should be an hour shorter. I’ll never win that battle because there’s too many great artists and CBS needed it to be that long. But I can be honest, if it’s going to be that long, we need to make sure it keeps a viewer engaged and we keep introducing new and different things so that people are like “oh I didn’t actually realize that was three and a half hours long.”
Harvey, I know Ben isn’t locked in for another year. Would you like him to come back for 2022?
Mason: Obviously we’d love to have him back, he was incredible. He did things in the show we could have never imagined and he was so collaborative, a joy to work with. His energy and his whole demeanor about how he interacted with the creative community, his tone. It was so special this year. We haven’t had those formal conversations and we’ll do that pretty quickly, but we absolutely loved working with Ben.
Harvey, you said the Academy was looking to have a new CEO by May. Are you still on track for that?
Mason: Yes, I believe we are on track. The interview process is ongoing and there’s some great candidates, so we’re hopeful that we’ll have it locked in by May.
Where does that leave you?
Mason: I’m out in the cold. Out here on my own, blowin’ in the wind (Laughs).
Will you miss it, or are you ready to move on? I’m sure it’s a ton of work.
Mason: I absolutely will miss it. I’ve loved the opportunity and I’m so thankful to get to do this work. I’ve gotten to enjoy the time I spent with the staff, members and trustees. But I also have a company I’ve been building for the last 10 years that’s at a really critical point. In the area we’re in of content and music and television and film, it’s such an exciting time in that space, and I do have goals and aspirations to continue to build my company. I’m still a creator and really passionate about creating cool things and I also feel like my time at the Academy was well served. I came in to try to bring a fresh approach to things and my artistic eye and creator’s eye to what we do as an Academy, and I feel good about where we have headed and where we’re pointed towards. I told everybody, “I’ll hang here as long as I need to.” I care about the Academy and I know how important it is. I’m confident we’re finding a great candidate to come in. And I have the opportunity to continue on as chair of the board. If the trustees want me to continue on in that capacity, I’ll do that. I won’t be completely out in the cold (Laughs).
What was most satisfying about this year’s Grammys?
Mason: The best part was the camaraderie amongst the artist community, seeing everyone come together and rally for the show. In my time here I’ve talked a lot about the reason the Grammys are important is because, yes, awards and honoring excellence in music, but also all the other things the Academy does. People started to recognize that. Through MusiCares we’re giving a safety net and reaching back into the community, helping people who need help, providing money or medical care or addiction recovery care. Advocacy for making sure musicians can continue earning a living off of the art we create. And music education, making sure people are being introduced and exposed to music and putting instruments in people’s hands. Those are the things that we’re doing that we’re really getting right, and the artist community coming together around that message is something that felt really good to me as one of the positives of the show. The second positive was just working with Ben Winston and his team. The spirit of excellence and doing it all together in conjunction with CBS, Jack Sussman is the executive I work with; myself, Jack, Ben Winston and the team at the Academy all worked very closely, and we loved the experience of coming together to create something special. At the end of the evening we all exhaled and gave each other air hugs. It was a time of coming together.