In suspended Recording Academy president/CEO Deborah Dugan’s blockbuster Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed Tuesday (Jan. 21) that includes allegations of sexual harassment, business improprieties and rape by the organization’s former chief, the most damaging claims in the long run may be about voting irregularities for the Grammy Awards.
Though putting on the Grammy Awards is not the only function of the Recording Academy, it is the one for which is it best known and through its $500 million,10-year deal with CBS that runs through 2026, the awards show provides the majority of funding for much of the nonprofit organization’s educational and philanthropic endeavors.
Some industry insiders have carped about the lack of transparency in the nominations and voting process, but Dugan’s allegations lay bare possible conflicts of interest and other dealings that threaten the integrity of the process and the very foundation of the Academy.
“Grammy voting process is ripe with corruption,” says Dugan’s complaint, describing it as shrouded in secrecy, and beset with conflicts of interest.
That process works as such: The Academy’s 13,000 voting members vote on the first-round candidates from thousands of submissions.
From there, the nomination review committees, which consist of 15-25 voting members with at least 20 percent rotating off each year, take the 20-slot lists and whittle them down to five or eight artists they feel are best representative of the list. (The list is 20 for the four main categories — album, song, record and best new artist — which contain eight final nominees — and 15 for the other categories, which have five final nominees.)
Dugan’s complaint says the nomination review committees’ members are chosen by Bill Freimuth, the Recording Academy’s head of awards, along with the board chair. A Recording Academy source says the names for potential nominating committees members start with the 12 Academy chapters submitting names. Staff genre managers and nomination committee chairs also weigh in, with a list then going to the board chair, Academy president CEO and Freimuth. A full slate is then put forth to the board, who ratify the nomination committees members.
But if Dugan’s allegations are true, they threaten to undermine the awards’ supposed impartiality and the Grammys’ credibility as a whole.
Below are a number of Dugan’s specific allegations and the Recording Academy’s response per allegation. Additionally, the Recording Academy provided Billboard with a general response: ”The allegations made by Ms. Dugan regarding the Recording Academy’s voting processes are utterly untrue. The Academy has rigorous and well-publicized protocols in place to ensure that voting is absolutely fair – and free of conflicts of interest. For Ms. Dugan to suggest anything to the contrary is simply not true… Finally, the entire voting process can be found on the Academy’s website.”
Billboard also did a deep dive into the process in 2017.
- “The Board uses these committees as an opportunity to push forward artists with whom they have relationships. Indeed, it is not unusual for artists who have relationships with Board members and who ranked at the bottom of the initial 20-artist list to end up receiving nominations,” the suit alleges.
A Recording Academy source counters that the Board has no sway over the nominations and committees other than ratifying the recommended slate of potential committee members months before the nominations come out. The source adds that the Academy deliberately excludes artists whom they feel may get nominated from the nominating committees, but are not always successful in doing so. Should a nominated artist end up on a committee, they must recuse themself from voting (more about that later)
- “The Board also manipulates the nominations process to ensure that certain songs or albums are nominated when the producer of the Grammys [Ken Ehrlich] wants a particular song performed during the show,” the suit alleges.
“Ken Ehrlich has no say in the nominations process at all,” says the Recording Academy source. “Every single year, he will tell you there are people he wishes were [nominated] who aren’t.”
- “To make matters worse, the Board is permitted to simply add in artists for nominations who did not even make the initial 20-artist list. Naturally, the members of the Board and the secret committees chose artists with whom they have personal or business relationships. This year, 30 artists that were not selected by the membership were added to the possible nomination list,” the suit alleges.
The Recording Academy source stresses the Board is not involved in the nominations process other than as voters or for any members who may be on committees. No names are allowed to be added in the four general categories—album, song, record or best new artist. However, for the genre categories, the nominations committees are allowed to add up to two entries per category. The entries must have been submitted in the original submission process and require 2/3rd’s vote by the committee members to come onto the ballot. There must be an “egregious” reason why the entry was omitted. Usually, the entries come from entries released right before the eligibility deadline or indie releases that the source says had limited marketing budgets. No one can suggest a project they are affiliated with. “They have tried, but they get shot down,” the source says. The existence of the committees themselves are not secret, but the Recording Academy does not release names of committee members. “It’s a courtesy to the members of the committees so they don’t get lobbied or blamed,” the source says.
- “Moreover, in an outrageous conflict of interest, the Board has selected artists who are under consideration for a nomination to sit on the committee that is voting for the category for which that have been nominated. As a result, one artist who initially ranked 18 out of 20 in the 2019 ‘Song of the Year’ category ended up with a nomination. This artist was actually permitted to sit on the ‘Song of the Year’ nomination committee. Incredibly, this artist is also represented by a member of the Board.”
Though the nominations are ranked by vote, the Academy source says that the nominations committee members are not provided that information and, instead, deal with a 20- or 15-name list (depending upon the category) with the nominees in alphabetical order, not by rank. If someone on the committee is an artist on the list or involved in the project in some other capacity, they must disclose their involvement and then recuse themself and leave the room during discussions involving any category for which they are nominated. “For example, if [an artist] on a nominations committee is on the selection list for best metal performance, that doesn’t mean they can’t vote in best rock performance, but they get kicked out of the room and can’t vote in any category where they have a conflict,” the source says.
- “As a result of the foregoing, it is not surprising that many high caliber artists who could have taken home the award in a specific category, have, at times, not been nominated at all,” the suit alleges. “For instance, Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande, who had been voted for by the membership, missed out on nominations in the 2019 ‘Song of the Year’ category in part because the aforementioned artist who ranked 18 out of 20 was nominated instead.”
While the Recording Academy source would not address specifics, the source said, “There’s nothing wrong with popularity—sometimes a song is popular because it’s excellent—but we ask the [nominations review committee] not to use popularity and sales figures in their calculations and go with quality of the songwriting for song of the year. It will always be imperfect because it’s accounting for taste and subjectivity, but hopefully it is the consensus of your peers in the music industry.”
Ehrlich did not respond to a request for comment at time of publishing.