Two days after the announcement of the 58th Grammy Awards nominations, the show’s longtime producer Ken Ehrlich tosses off a whimsical ditty on the piano that sits inside Neil Portnow’s memorabilia-filled office in Santa Monica. “I think we just heard the opening of the show,” says the Recording Academy president/CEO to laughter and applause.
Among those cheering are three of the newly announced nominees who will be waiting to hear their names called on Feb. 15: songwriter Diane Warren, 59 (co-writer of Lady Gaga‘s “Til It Happens to You,” up for best song written for visual media); Bleachers leader, Fun co-founder and in-demand songwriter Jack Antonoff, 31 (a producer and writer on Taylor Swift‘s album of the year contender 1989); and songwriter-rapper Big Sean, 27 (whose “One Man Can Change the World,” featuring Kanye West and John Legend, is nominated for best rap/sung collaboration). Joining them is Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO Steve Barnett, 63, whose artist Tori Kelly picked up her first Grammy nomination (and who enjoyed a particularly rewarding Grammys last year, as Capitol’s Sam Smith won four awards and Beck took home album of the year). The foursome, along with Portnow, 67, and Ehrlich, 73, are wrapping a photo shoot before adjourning to the conference room next door for Billboard‘s first Grammy Roundtable.
During the ensuing 90-minute conversation, the six touch on everything from the impact of winning a Grammy to the quality of this year’s field of nominees — led by Kendrick Lamar with 11 nominations — to next year’s presumptive favorite, Adele.
Adele is obviously the talk of the industry. She wasn’t eligible this year, but what are the odds of her opening the Grammys?
PORTNOW The reality is that the show is centered around the nominations. We actually had our first academy television committee meeting on Monday night (Dec. 7) and our first meeting with Ken and the production team on Tuesday, so we’re really just beginning the booking process. The honest answer is, “We’ll see.”
EHRLICH It’s important to represent what happened in music this year. And if an artist has something that’s really significant late in the year, past the nominations period, we’ll look at that. As in the past several years, occasionally we will honor that by bringing that artist on. So let’s put it this way: Adele is definitely on our radar.
Beyond that, what effect has Adele had on raising optimism about the future of the music industry?
BARNETT I was thinking about Adele’s first album, 19, and going into her first performance on the Grammys [in 2009; Barnett was then chairman of Columbia]. We were at 610,000 and didn’t have any airplay at all. Then she won best new artist. And obviously 21 was incredible. It’s the most brilliant artist-development story. And isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? It hasn’t happened like that for a long time. I think it’s the perfect story.
EHRLICH And I do remember a call from this fella Steve, before anything happened, saying, “You’re going to be seeing a lot of her for a long time. So if you want her early, this would be not a bad time to get her.” And we got her.
WARREN At the end of the day, it comes back to a great song and a great voice. People are going to connect to that. It was true 50 years ago, and will be true a thousand years from now.
ANTONOFF I think about that a lot when I’m working. Everyone’s so obsessed with the new thing, what’s flying in and out of style. But that’s just production. “Let It Be” would be a hit today. The new thing and the best thing have always been the most emotional: the best melodies, the most interesting songs telling stories that people want to hear. People don’t want to idolize artists. They want to be friends with them. Those are the artists that last forever. I don’t look at Adele and think, “I want to be her.” I look at Adele and think, “I want to have lunch with her.” That’s how I feel about Springsteen, Tom Petty, Kanye.
BIG SEAN You want music you can relate to, that you can feel to, that you can cry to, that you can be great to, whatever it is.
Steve, how much of a difference can a Grammy nomination or win make for an artist?
BARNETT What Sam Smith did — six nominations and four wins — was really incredible. No British solo male artist had ever won four Grammys. And we were really proud of Beck. It was such an important moment for him. It kind of went off-kilter a little bit when he received the award, but I think winning was career-defining for him.
BIG SEAN Being nominated is an award in itself. It feels so good to get recognized for the hard work you put in. Those long nights and long hours in the studio; taking those chances, making records while not knowing how they’re going to translate. You just know how they feel to you. The Grammys for me are the gold medal of the race I have been running my whole life.
ANTONOFF You get nominated, which is the award right there. But the trickle down from winning is amazing. You think about the Grammys and it’s like Mars, it’s crazy. But it’s kind of no different than when you’re 14 and going to the mall to pass out flyers for your show, except with the Grammys you just passed out a hundred million flyers.
PORTNOW We’re a peer award. So when Sean and Jack talk about the honor of it, it’s a little different than a fan-based, market-based, chart-based or sales-based award. There is nothing more rewarding than your peers saying you created something excellent. We get 21,000 entries every year in the Grammy process. So if you’re nominated, you’re in very rarified territory.
Going around the room, what one Grammy moment stands out?
ANTONOFF What year did Whitney sing “I Will Always Love You”?
EHRLICH 1994. It was at Radio City, and we opened the show with it.
BIG SEAN I was 6 years old, but I still remember that.
Steve, besides Sam Smith’s four awards last year, is there a particular Grammys moment that stands out for you?
BARNETT In 1989, I was this young manager in England and my band AC/DC was nominated for best hard rock/metal vocal performance. Jethro Tull won. I was there; the band didn’t come. That was a bit of a moment, Neil. (Laughter.) When it was announced there was silence in the room. Crickets.
PORTNOW We’ve fixed that with some better rules and regulations.
Diane, what does a Grammy nomination mean for you in terms of your career as a songwriter?
WARREN It means I’m probably going to lose again. (Laughter.) I think this is my 14th nomination. I won one, for “Because You Loved Me” [in 1997]. I almost missed it because I got there late. It was in New York and I literally ran in as they were calling my name. But it’s cool to be nominated. I never think I’m going to be, so it’s cool.
Jack, what did it mean for you and Fun to win best new artist in 2013?
ANTONOFF Everything was happening so quickly at that time, it seemed insane. But it was so cool how many more people started coming to the shows. And it meant so much because we pretty much wrote and made that record in my mom’s living room, in a space so small it seems like the opposite of the Grammys.
WARREN Isn’t that weird? In some little teeny room, you’re working on this little song. Then it gets into the world and someone notices it.
ANTONOFF Yeah. Writing with Taylor, half the time we worked on email. Like me in bed and her in bed, 2,000 miles away, sending stuff back and forth. The fact that that could turn into a Grammy is crazy.
Steve, as a label executive, how involved are you in the Grammy submissions process?
BARNETT I spoke to Ken and Neil this time last year and said, “I think Beck could be a dark-horse record.” Because I looked at how it was going to play out, and I thought maybe Sam and Ed Sheeran would cancel each other out. It was such a brilliant work, that album. And thankfully the voters agreed. I’m blessed that we have a long relationship with these guys. And Tori Kelly this year, she worked so hard and did everything we asked her to do. And I thought, “God, please just get that nomination.” And, if we got the nomination, can we get her on the show, which could be defining for her.
There has to be ambition. Nothing is organic anymore. It doesn’t just happen. You’ve got to have a vision and hope that your artist believes in you and the manager believes in you. If you think about Sam, the year before he was in L.A. doing showcases. And he said to me, “Can I go to the show? I’d just like to go.” He was in the top rafter and no one knew who he was. A year later he wins four Grammys. That couldn’t have ever happened 10 years ago. In the world we live in now, things can happen so fast.
How hard do artists and labels lobby to be on the show?
BARNETT It’s not lobbying, you know? I mean, I called Kenny and Neil a month ago and said, “I think we’ve got a shot for Tori for best new artist. I really think she’s done a lot of good work.” So it’s not lobbying. You’re just making sure it’s on their minds.
EHRLICH The artist community has come to trust us. But it’s still tricky sometimes. There are things that I have wanted to do and artists that I’ve wanted to work with, one of whom I could mention to you, but… Well, I’ll say it: Prince. I’ll go to him every year. And how many times have I hit? Three or four.
What’s your overall take on this year’s field of nominees?
BARNETT I think this is a fantastic year, and this is going to be a spectacular show. I have an instinct that Kendrick could have one of those nights. Such a brilliant artist and album, and then you think about Chris Stapleton and Alabama Shakes, maybe they knock each other out. I said to my boss last night, [Universal Music Group chairman/CEO] Lucian Grainge, “You’re going to have a good Grammys because every album-of-the-year nominee is a Universal album.”
The nominations usually draw their share of criticism. But this year may be the most universally commended list.
PORTNOW Well, I would take exception to that statement. A decade ago there was a lot of criticism. In the past 10 years, certainly the last five years, we generally do get it right. And it’s an extraordinarily good year this year. Let’s remember that we’re trying to create an objective overlay onto something that is inherently subjective: art. So there is never going to be agreement, and we don’t expect that there should be. Again, people have to remember our process. We are not the People’s Choice Awards.
EHRLICH I make a TV show, first and foremost. So it’s really about making the best three-and-a-half hours of television. There are a lot of factors that go into that, but obviously we want to please the largest number of people. More people watch this show than any other music awards show. But I also look at it from an artist’s point of view. I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and I know artists who wouldn’t do the Grammys 30 years ago, 25 or 20 years ago because it wasn’t cool to do the Grammys. My first year was the first time that Bob Dylan ever set foot on the Grammy stage. It was 1980 and he did “Gotta Serve Somebody.” I’ve watched the evolution. And it really got better when the nominations got better.
So in light of the nominations and what’s been happening politically and socially this year, a couple of show ideas come to mind.
EHRLICH Oh, good, because we don’t ever get any ideas from anyone. (Laughs.)
With Kendrick Lamar leading with 11 nominations, will more rap categories be televised?
EHRLICH We structure the show differently than probably most other shows. This show evolves; we might elect to put a category on the air five days before the show. Honestly, today I couldn’t tell you what categories will or won’t be televised. You can be assured that because of Kendrick’s nominations, we will be attentive to hip-hop this year. And not just Kendrick; the rest of the rap nominees are very strong.
PORTNOW There are no rules anywhere in our bylaws that tell us we have to do anything. Traditionally, we’ve done album, record, song and best new artist on air. Beyond that, it’s very fluid. We’ve done comedy, we might do a spoken word, we might do something a little unexpected.
EHRLICH Probably the last thing that actually gets plugged into the rundown are the awards. It all starts with performances.
In this, an election year, will the show acknowledge the attacks in Paris and on our shores, and the racial, social and political controversies of the past year?
EHRLICH Again, it’s early. But I’m really proud of the past few years. We did Macklemore & Ryan Lewis‘ “Same Love” [in support of marriage equality]. Then last year, with President Obama and Katy Perry, we addressed the issue of rape. So back to Paris or what’s going on in this country right now, we are talking about it.
Why the decision to move the awards show to a Monday?
PORTNOW Sunday is Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day. So it’s probably not a great night for people being home watching television. That was the first observation. Then we looked at that week and it’s Presidents Day weekend, a three-day holiday. A lot of people are going to be away for three days and Sunday is the middle of that holiday. So adding those two things up, we decided to move it to Monday.
Do you watch any other awards shows and take cues from them?
EHRLICH I sit and watch every one of them. It’s painful. My wife can’t do it anymore. She used to sit in a room with me. I watch the country shows, the BETs…
WARREN Do you watch and say, “That sucks, I do that better”?
EHRLICH I am very proud of what we do, but a lot of our staff people work on these other shows, too. The other shows think they can be like us by hiring our people. There are times when I look at them and I go, “Oh, shit, I can’t do this now,” because they did it but they didn’t do it well. Or sometimes I say they did it pretty well.
I’ll give you an example. What the American Music Awards did in November with Celine Dion singing Edith Piaf‘s “Hymne a L’Amour,” to honor the victims in Paris, that was unbelievable. It was moving, people were crying. God, it was good. And I can’t do that now.
People often complain about the length of awards shows. Has there ever been talk of shortening the Grammys?
PORTNOW We wouldn’t want it shorter. As a business proposition for the network, it’s a good length; it maximizes their commercial potential, their financial potential.
EHRLICH Maybe in a few years when I get a little older and I can’t stay awake.
PORTNOW Yeah, we’ll stop the show at Ken’s bedtime.
BARNETT It’s kind of like the Super Bowl. It’s never going to be shorter than it is. It seems to get longer and longer, but it’s worth the wait, right?
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 2 issue of Billboard.