The Recording Academy’s newly named president and CEO Deborah Dugan says she plans to approach the job leading one of music’s most influential organizations with a Zen Bhuddism beginner’s mind.
With this Shoshin approach, the former (RED) CEO told reporters Wednesday (May 8) following her appointment’s official announcement, she will “listen and learn in the beginning and look at the organization and say, is it relevant and respective of the artist community to which it serves?”
It’s a simplistic proposal to the complicated problems that have faced the Academy in recent years. Most notably, last year’s Grammy Awards ceremony was plagued with complaints of alleged biases resulting in gender and racial disparities among the winners and performers. The problems quickly heightened immediately following the ceremony when current CEO and president Neil Portnow said that if women wanted greater representation at the show, they would need to “step up” in the industry to make it happen. That sparked a firestorm of criticism that resulted in The Academy’s formation of a diversity task force to help improve parity of all kinds in music.
Complaints of unfair gender imbalance have also plagued the organization from the inside. Earlier this year a former vice president of the the Academy’s charitable MusiCares and Grammy Foundation initiatives filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination based on her age and gender, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and more. Notably, Dugan will be the Academy’s first female president and CEO, while few women have ascended to top ranks at the organization: Ruby Marchand is the board’s current vice chair under chair John Poppo, while Laura Segura Mueller serves as vp membership & industry relations. The sparse list of former top female staffers includes three ex-senior vps (Diane Theriot in awards, Kristen Madsen in foundations and Nancy Shapiro in special projects) and two former chairs of the board of trustees, Leslie Ann Jones and Christine Albert.
Even for taking the role under such circumstances, as she prepares to start the position in August, Dugan said she she has had an open door and is “already having great, great conversations and listening to many opinions. She continued, “I feel like strong opinions are very, very good because it means people care and that’s what I’m feeling just from the get go.”
Dugan did note a “larger conversation” that’s been going on about “women and diversity in music,” saying it is very important to her how the organization uses its “platform to affect positive change.” She added, “That is one of the questions I’m most excited to answer in this job.”
Dugan brings with a unique mix of experience to her new role. She joined (RED) as the Bono and Bobby Shriver-founded non-profit AIDS organization’s CEO in 2011, previously serving Disney Publishing Worldwide and EMI/Capitol Records in executive roles with experience as a Wall Street mergers and acquisition attorney before then. She also currently serves as co-chair for the storytelling nonprofit The Moth.
“Music and social justice are no strangers — in fact, they can work in perfect harmony,” said Bono in a statement. “We’ll miss Deb at (RED), but after helping the team raise more than $600 million for the fight against AIDS, she’ll always be part of the (RED) band and I look forward to seeing what she’ll do in her new role, cracking the ceiling and helping the Recording Academy crack open a new future in the process.”
Keeping that beginner’s mind approach, Dugan refrained from offering any “sweeping judgement” about the Academy or problems facing the organization. Instead, she focused on the positive.
“I’m excited to bring new perspective,” she said. “I’ve had an unconventional path, I feel like I’m quite millennial-minded and I just love music and know that it touches us all…. I think you’ll see from of my work at The Moth and at (RED) what I do is try to amplify many voices in a world that often crushes them. And so I am just looking at this new opportunity as a service: how to be relevant and reflective of the artists community in a time of rapid change.”
Promising a “straightforward, open and transparent” style of work, Dungan concluded with what felt like a mission statement reflective of the challenges ahead.
“I intend to do everything I can to make the Recording Academy, the entertainment industry and our society more inclusive and more equitable,” she said before quoting German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “‘Without music, life would be a mistake.’ And I’m glad we’re on this path together.”