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The Grammys’ New Guard on ‘Big, Bold Changes’ In the Recording Academy’s Future

On Grammy night, they're under the spotlight. But the academy's leadership is working tirelessly and — despite some growing pains — progressing toward stability and much-needed evolution.

At the intimate, largely outdoor ceremony for the 63rd annual Grammy Awards in March, Megan Thee Stallion won best new artist — and paused her emotional acceptance speech to let the sounds of Los Angeles traffic pass by. Harry Styles performed “Watermelon Sugar” before a room filled mainly with crew while Billie Eilish, grinning ear to ear, bopped along in the wings. Artists walked the red carpet in their most glamorous get-ups, but at the ceremony, stars like Taylor Swift and Doja Cat added matching masks to their formalwear.

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When the Grammys return Jan. 31 to Los Angeles’ former Staples Center — newly named the Crypto.com Arena — with Trevor Noah hosting and a full audience, the show onscreen will certainly look different. But it will be different behind the scenes, too. It will be the first awards produced under the Recording Academy’s new organizational structure: Harvey Mason Jr. as CEO and co-presidents Valeisha Butterfield Jones and Panos A. Panay, whom Mason appointed in late June, shortly after his own transition from interim to official CEO.

And that’s just one of many notable Grammy firsts this year. This will be the first show since the Recording Academy eliminated the nomination review committees earlier in 2021, ending a 30-year practice in which anonymous members determined the final slate of nominees in 59 of the awards’ 84 categories. It will be the first since the academy implemented an inclusion rider to set benchmarks for increasing diversity and equity in both on and offstage positions. And it will be the first with all Big Four categories — album, record and song of the year, and best new artist — expanded from eight to 10 nominees each, resulting in recognition for artists including Taylor Swift and Kanye West.

“Perhaps, in the past, we would have waited for the next awards cycle to make a change like this,” says Mason of the last-minute Big Four expansions in particular, which were just made public when nominees were announced Nov. 23. “But we’ve been hearing from our members loud and clear that they don’t want us to wait for big, bold changes.” The decision, he told Billboard at the time, was made without knowing which artists would benefit, in an effort to “cast a wider net” and “create opportunities for more creators to be recognized.”

Mason, Butterfield Jones and Panay know that all eyes are on them — not only when it comes to the Grammy Awards, but the future of the Recording Academy as well. They are charged with a tricky dual task: instilling a much-needed sense of stability following years of tumult (including short-lived president/CEO Deborah Dugan’s firing and her subsequent since-settled lawsuit) and achieving an equally necessary evolution at the academy, meeting the changing demands of its membership and the greater music community.

Mason adopted a divide-and-conquer approach. In his 16 months as interim president/CEO, he saw that a solo leader arrangement wasn’t serving the academy — or him — best. “I had 15 direct reports. I knew that was not efficient,” he says. “So I thought the [CEO and co-presidents] structure made sense, and the next goal was to find the right talent to fit those slots.”

Harvey Mason Jr.
Harvey Mason Jr. Yuri Hasegawa

He didn’t have to look far. Mason promoted Butterfield Jones, who joined the Recording Academy in May 2020 as its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer after four years as Google’s global head of inclusion and a previous stint in the Obama administration. “We’d established a great working relationship really early on in the time we spent together,” says Mason. “She had just an amazing approach to getting things done and interacting and collaborating with people, which I thought made for a perfect president.” He was initially less familiar with Panay, the Berklee College of Music senior vp global strategy and innovation and founder of booking website Sonicbids, who served on the Recording Academy’s innovation committee and had been a contender for the CEO job himself. “We needed somebody that was completely entrepreneurial and came from the business side, as well as having experience in that educational sector,” says Mason. “So Panos was a no-brainer.”

In their new roles, Butterfield Jones will oversee membership, awards, advocacy and related initiatives while retaining her prior DE&I responsibilities; Panay also serves as chief revenue officer and is tasked with finding new financial resources and partnerships for the academy, with an eye toward global expansion.

Since those appointments took effect mid-August, the trio have immersed themselves in academy business. Though staffers haven’t returned to the organization’s Santa Monica, Calif., headquarters, the leaders have daily Zooms, weekly calls and in-person meetings. They also meet for the occasional meal: A few Sundays ago, Panay, who moved to the United States from his native Cyprus when he was 19 (and spent much of the pandemic in his home country), grilled octopus, cod and vegetables for an outdoor feast at his house. “I’ve never tasted a home-cooked meal like that in my life,” says Mason.

Speaking with Billboard over Zoom in November, the trio repeatedly stress that how the academy and awards were run in the past in no way dictates how things will be done in the future. “Everything is always up for review,” says Mason. They’ve put several initiatives in place to encourage communication with their constituency, including increased outreach to the academy’s 12 chapters and community listening sessions on Zoom. Mason — a well-regarded producer and songwriter and a five-time nominee himself — has asked members to email, call or text him directly, and every week he personally reaches out to a wide range of artists to check in.

“We’re out there, we’re listening,” says Panay, who is also a former booking agent. “This is an industry that is moving fast. This is a world that’s changing. So our commitment is to continue to listen, continue to evaluate thoughtfully and make responsible decisions that represent the values of this organization.”

Valeisha Butterfield Jones
Valeisha Butterfield Jones Yuri Hasegawa

The Grammy Awards return in January after this year’s more intimate show, which catered to nominees and focused on innovative performances. What elements from March’s reimagined show are you taking into 2022?

HARVEY MASON JR.: I think we’ll take as much as humanly possible because it was really well done, was unique and had a lot of heart. One of the big downfalls from that [though] was we weren’t able to have an audience, and that’s harmful because not only does it change the energy and the celebratory nature of the show, but it also affects us financially. If we’re going to continue to do the work we do in Washington, D.C., to have MusiCares thriving and building a safety net for music people, education and [the Grammy] museum and advocacy, we have to generate revenue [from ticket sales].

How will the inclusion rider, which you developed with online social justice organization Color of Change and the law firm Cohen Milstein, affect the show?

VALEISHA BUTTERFIELD JONES: This year, the Grammy Awards production was a very diverse set. However, we wanted to introduce a tool and a method by which we, as an organization, could hold ourselves accountable and ultimately be a model for the industry. Something that was very important to Harvey, Panos and I was that we were creating ways to drive systemic change — because one day we won’t be here. Behind the camera, you’ll see more gender diversity, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people and persons with disabilities working. But we’re looking in front of the stage, too. We are making sure that we are reflecting the diverse music community that we represent.

Panos, as chief revenue officer, part of your mandate is to find new sources of revenue beyond the Grammy broadcast and deal with CBS, which accounted for 54% of the academy’s revenue last year. What are your plans to diversify revenue?

PANOS A. PANAY: There are multiple areas. I believe that there is a lot of room for expansion for us in the education sector. That is ultimately how we elevate and give opportunity to people. The skills that our collective members have — we have 24,000 incredible creators — are desired by countries around the world because creativity and imagination are in need everywhere. The other area is global expansion. We like to say here at the academy, talent is evenly distributed around the planet, but opportunity is not. I don’t like us to demarcate based on somebody’s passport or someone’s language or somebody’s place of origin. We are here to illuminate talent, no matter where it lives. This is the most recognized brand in music around the world, so that gives us permission to expand responsibly.

Does that mean you are looking to monetize some of the educational offerings the academy has in order to bring in revenue?

PANAY: I think so. We’re looking at everything that we’re doing and trying to figure out the best way to approach all of it. Whatever we do, it has to be consistent with our mission and ultimately consistent with the values that this organization has. Revenue generation for us is not an end. It’s a means toward advancing the mission of what we’re doing. It’s important at this early stage that we don’t jump into things just because they might be revenue generators.

Panos A. Panay
Panos A. Panay Yuri Hasegawa

The current deal with CBS runs out in 2026. How much of your revenue would you like to see coming from other sources by then?

MASON: By the time the CBS contract runs out, we’d like to see diversification around that. In the next few years, we’ll be working with our partners on figuring out how to structure our next opportunity for our telecast and our show. But we’ll also be doing a lot to find new ways to monetize. I don’t think we’ll set down a goal for you today as to what percentage we would like to see in five years, but know that it is a major focus and a priority for all three of us.

In addition to declining ratings, this year awards shows have had to contend with how to handle artists’ problematic behavior offstage. Louis C.K. and Marilyn Manson, both of whom have been accused of sexual misconduct, are Grammy nominees this year. What is the academy’s policy on their eligibility?

MASON: We don’t regulate whether or not they can submit their music, and we’re not going to tell our voters who to vote for. But beyond that, looking at the platforms that we do control — our website, our socials, our TV show, our Grammy events — those are things that we will evaluate based on the health and safety of our membership and our music people and what we’re hearing from those communities. We’ll pay close attention as we go forward.

The genre-screening committees — which comprise around 350 creatives, music experts and executives — came under criticism this fall for removing works, including those from Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile, from the genres in which they were submitted and reslotting them elsewhere. Why shouldn’t an entry stay where the label or the creator of the work thinks it belongs?

MASON: You’re seeing genre lines blurring. You’re seeing people switching from song to song as to what [their music] sounds like. With the screening committees, we’re listening and making sure that we’re paying attention to that, because if not, we’re just stereotyping everything: “Oh, this person makes these types of songs, they should go in that category.” The committees are made up of the artist’s peers. They’re evaluating and deciding, “Does this fit within the confines of the construct of what this category means?” Those definitions are created by our members that are ratified by our board. If we’re opening it up to just anyone to decide where they want to submit, there could potentially be problems that come along with that. But also, you have to remember that we are looking at the process and how we do everything is always up for review.

The committees include label executives and managers — some of whom may have competing artists — not just creative peers. Are you looking at reevaluating the constitution of the screening committees?

MASON: We’re looking at everything, and we will consider any alternative that is brought to the table by our members. We don’t want anyone to be upset. We’re not in the business of pissing off artists. We want to acknowledge greatness. We want to do it in a way that we believe is most fair. Is it an exact science? Absolutely not. This is subjective. It’s not math or basketball. We’ll keep working on it. We’ll keep trying to do our best and we’ll try and get this right.

Valeisha, you oversaw the last round of invitations to prospective Grammy voters, part of the organization’s ongoing effort to increase diversity. This round, 83% of the 2,710 music professionals you asked to join accepted. Do you know how many voted in the first round?

BUTTERFIELD JONES: The membership acceptance rate is the highest that we’ve had in several consecutive years. To me, that signals relevance, real trust being established with the music community and, ultimately, folks saying, “We want to be involved.” We’re 60% there on our 2025 goal of 2,500 new women members. We saw a huge uptick this year in voter turnout. Our get-out-the-vote efforts are so vital, and we’re being very intentional this year around participation because we removed nomination review committees.

MASON: Submissions are higher than last year by a couple of thousand. The voting for the first round was up double digits year over year.

The academy launched a Songwriters & Composers wing this year, similar to the Producers & Engineers wing. Is that a step toward a songwriter of the year Grammy, like the producer of the year awards?

MASON: I think it was, and I don’t think it’s a bad idea. Shining a bright light on the songwriters makes a lot of sense from an academy standpoint.

Your longtime chief advocacy and public policy officer, Daryl Friedman, recently left the academy after 24 years. How do you envision that role going forward?

BUTTERFIELD JONES: Advocacy and public policy is a passion point for me. I spent years in D.C. working in a presidential administration, and there’s so much opportunity for us to advocate for music creators here in the U.S. and beyond. In addition to our federal advocacy efforts, there is huge opportunity at the state level to unlock access and funds for music creators and music economies across the United States. A lot of work to dive into there to ultimately make sure that the music creators in different states have access to education and resources that they need.

PANAY: It’s important that, as we are looking to advocate for music creators, our efforts on [Capitol] Hill are also about informing lawmakers that all these shifts in technology ultimately don’t just impact the consumer side of things, but they impact the very livelihoods of creators. So taking a much more active stance in those conversations is going to be part of our focus as well.

You began looking for your first in-house counsel six months ago. What’s the status of the search?

MASON: It’s a process that has taken some time because there are a lot of stakeholders, a lot of people that will be interfacing with this person. We have come to the end of the process, and we’re almost at the point where we can name someone.

Harvey Mason Jr.
Harvey Mason Jr. Yuri Hasegawa

One of those stakeholders is Joel Katz, who has been your general counsel for decades. [Dugan accused Katz of sexual harassment in her EEOC complaint, a claim he denied.] What will his role be after the new person is in place?

MASON: He has been working with the academy for over 30 years, and he has been critical in us negotiating our last two [CBS] television contracts. What has allowed us to do what we do is the income from that show. As we move forward, Joel will continue to play a role in certain elements of the academy.

Your jobs must, on some level, feel like waging a never-ending PR battle. The community will be thrilled with one action, like getting rid of the nominating committees, then come after you — say, about how the screening committees work, or when The Weeknd didn’t receive any nominations this past year, or this year when a snubbed Machine Gun Kelly tweeted “wtf is wrong with the Grammys.” Does that distract from the work?

MASON: It’s not distracting, it’s understandable. People that make music are passionate people inherently. These [projects] are their babies. When they get upset, it doesn’t affect us or offend us. Getting this right is the priority. The perception of the academy and our process is important because it allows us to do the work that we want to do. Having input from the community is important. Sometimes it might be nice not to hear it always in the press; maybe it’d be nice to get a phone call or a text. But regardless of how we get it, it’s important that we evaluate it and find out actionable steps on how to be better. At the end of the day, when our members and our community say, “We’d like to look at something differently and we think there is a new way of doing this, it’s better,” we listen, and we move.

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2021, issue of Billboard.