Now that the Jan. 26 Grammy Awards are behind the Recording Academy, the bruised organization must figure out how to move forward in the wake of embattled president/CEO Deborah Dugan‘s allegations of voting irregularities, board conflicts of interest and financial improprieties in her Jan. 21 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint.
The biggest obstacle for Dugan, according to her EEOC filing: the academy’s 44-person board of trustees, which the organization’s top executive reports to. The board must approve most major changes the top executive wants to make. Dugan’s account paints a picture of an intransigent board that “is doing everything it can to destroy Dugan for the sole reason that she posed a threat to the ‘boys club.'”
The first decision the board faces is who will lead the 63-year-old organization. A two-time Grammy winner told Billboard that Dugan, who was placed on administrative leave, should return to the helm if her allegations against the academy are true. The way forward to “a healthier [Recording Academy] is to keep her on and reform the rest of the system,” he says. This is unlikely but not implausible: On Jan. 26, Dugan’s attorneys laid out a scenario that included her reinstatement, and sources tell Billboard that Korn Ferry, the executive search firm that handled Dugan’s hire, has not yet been retained to start a new search.
Whoever the new chief executive is, he or she will still answer to the board that Dugan says consists of some members who want to maintain the status quo, and in some cases may have incentives to do so. Trustees are not compensated, but are reimbursed for relevant expenses, including attending two annual board meetings, as well as receive two free tickets to the Grammys. For years, industry insiders have complained that the board includes some creators who draw more status from their roles as trustees than their day jobs, although to others, current board members like award-winning music supervisor Julia Michels (A Star Is Born, Pitch Perfect), top mastering engineer Emily Lazar and Universal Pictures president of film music and publishing Mike Knobloch bring significant expertise.
Right now, board of trustee elections are staggered, with no trustee allowed to serve more than two consecutive two-year terms. (A trustee can run for reelection after a year, as long as he or she serves on a local chapter in the interim and continues to be a voting member.) The current composition of the board is 35% female, and 50% of the trustees have served for three years or less, according to a source.
The scope of the chief executive’s authority was a negotiating point in Dugan’s employment contract, and it is likely to be a sticking point for any potential replacement. Currently, the president/CEO “is the senior executive officer of the Recording Academy,” according to the organization’s bylaws, whose actions are “subject to the control of the board of trustees.” Korn Ferry’s job description sent to potential candidates puts it plainly: “The president reports to the board of trustees and its chairperson.”
That means making significant change will require the incoming executive to win over the board, which multiple sources say Dugan failed to do. “As an outsider to the organization, I don’t think she appreciated its culture,” says a former trustee. “She started busting humps too fast and too hard.” As another source says, “It was like fighting City Hall. It’s not like you’re running your own business.”
Among Dugan’s most concerning allegations was that the Grammy voting process was “ripe with corruption” and shrouded in secrecy. She specifically called into question the nominations review committees, which determine the nominees on the final ballot in many categories following first-round voting by the 13,000 voting members. Under the organization’s current bylaws, however, the president/CEO cannot unilaterally change the voting process; any adjustments to nominations and voting procedures — from adding a new category to eliminating the nominations review committees — must start with a petition to the Awards & Nominations Committee (one of the national board’s eight standing committees). Only once that committee approves the change can the board of trustees vote whether to ratify it.
The review committees, whose members are not revealed, protect the process, says S-Curve Records founder/president Steve Greenberg. “The committees, when functioning as they should, keep the nominations from all just going to the artists with the greatest name recognition,” he says. “I’ve been on the [general field] main nominating committee, and I can tell you that we kept some completely irrelevant recordings by famous names from becoming finalists.” He adds: “If there is corruption or favoritism within the committees, that, of course, should be rooted out immediately.”
Greenberg suggests that the Recording Academy adopt a process more like the one used by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, which runs the Academy Awards. “The slate of potential nominees [in categories] probably should be winnowed by knowledgeable committees. Then, let the voting members narrow it down to the five or so finalists,” he says. (The Academy Awards have a music branch that selects a shortlist of 15 qualifying candidates for best original song and best original score).
The academy’s perceived cluelessness about hip-hop has been an especially thorny issue. On Jan. 25, at Clive Davis‘ Pre-Grammy Gala, Sean LOVE Combs told the audience that “hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys” as he accepted his Industry Icon award. “You’ve got 365 days to get this shit together,” he warned.
Combs’ words came as interim CEO and board of trustees chair Harvey Mason Jr. issued a memo to the 25,000-strong academy membership, pledging to hire a dedicated diversity and inclusion officer within 90 days and to create a fund to be distributed annually to organizations focused on women in music. One former national trustee says the academy also should form “a creative think tank to advise the academy on the forward creative culture of the hip-hop community.”
The Recording Academy already has made a number of moves to increase diversity, including inviting 900 music creators prequalified to vote to join in October 2018. All invitees were women and/or people of color and/or under the age of 39. In June, the academy issued 1,340 invitations to join the organization as part of a massive drive to bring in a more demographically diverse and younger membership.
“As bad as this looks, the only way the academy was going to be changed was if something like this happened,” says Grammy-nominated producer Howard Benson. “This isn’t slow change. This was the Challenger disaster. Stuff like that changes the culture at companies and is painful but necessary.” Another academy insider agrees: “This may be a blessing in disguise. Yes, it is very public, but if problems are solved as a result, then in the end it is a good thing.” She recommends forming a task force, just as the Recording Academy did in 2018 to address its diversity and inclusion issues, “to explore excessive spending and other [Dugan] allegations of self-dealing and conflicts of interest, as well as the voting issues. The Recording Academy is the one place where music business as usual cannot happen.”
Additional reporting by Gail Mitchell.