Neil Portnow, president/CEO of the Recording Academy, will step down from his post when his contract expires, sources tell Billboard. Portnow, who has served as the head of the organization that produces the Grammy Awards since 2002, has a deal that runs through July 2019, the sources said, meaning a new leader should be installed by next summer.
“The evolution of industries, institutions and organizations is ultimately the key to their relevance, longevity and success,” Portnow, the longest-serving president in Recording Academy history, said in a statement confirming that he will not seek an extension to his current deal. “Having been a member of the Recording Academy for four decades, serving as an elected leader and our President/CEO, I have not only witnessed our evolution, but proudly contributed significantly to the Academy’s growth and stature in the world. When I had the honor of being selected to lead this great organization in 2002, I vowed that on my watch, for the first time in our history, we would have a thoughtful, well-planned and collegial transition. With a little more than a year remaining on my current contract, I’ve decided that this is an appropriate time to deliver on that promise. Accordingly, I’ll be working with our Board to put the various elements in place that will ensure transparency, best practices, and the Academy’s ability to find the very best, brightest, and qualified leadership to take us into our seventh decade of operation. I truly look forward to continuing my role leading the Academy in the year ahead, and to continuing the pursuit of excellence and the fine missions we embrace and deliver.”
The decision comes at a time when the Academy has been facing increasing public pressure and backlash amid a number of scandals, many of them self-inflicted. Portnow himself has been at the center of several of them, beginning the night of Jan. 28, 2018, when he said in an interview following the 60th Grammy Awards in New York City that women needed to “step up” if they wanted to be better-represented in the music industry. The comment came in response to the fact that — despite a list of nominations that was widely praised for its diversity after years of criticism — Alessia Cara was the only woman to receive an on-stage televised award at the Grammys this year.
Portnow was swiftly criticized by artists and executives alike, with high-profile artists such as Kelly Clarkson, Iggy Azalea, Katy Perry, P!nk, Halsey and Charli XCX all condemning his words. Days later, a publicly-circulated petition that called for his resignation received more than 30,000 signatures, while an open letter signed by more than a dozen women executives in the music industry also urged his resignation, saying that Portnow was “part of the problem.”
In response, Portnow apologized, saying “I regret that I wasn’t as articulate as I should have been,” and added, “I remain committed to doing everything I can to make our music community a better, safer, and more representative place for everyone.” On Feb. 1, Portnow released an open letter of his own announcing that the Academy would establish an independent task force to address “where we can do more to overcome the explicit barriers and unconscious biases that impede female advancement in the music community.”
That announcement did little to stem the tide, however, and the open letter would prove to be the first of three letters signed by high-ranking industry figures that called for change at the Recording Academy. On Feb. 5, six high-ranking women music executives — Universal Music Group executive vp Michele Anthony, Sony Music executive vp of business affairs Julie Swidler, Universal Music Publishing Group CEO Jody Gerson, Atlantic Records co-chairman Julie Greenwald, Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone and Roc Nation COO Desiree Perez — wrote a letter that called the organization “woefully out of touch with today’s music, the music business, and even more significantly, society,” though it stopped short of advocating for Portnow’s ouster. Three days later, an additional letter signed by 38 male music executives, including Paradigm’s Tom Windish, SB Projects’ Scooter Braun and Q Prime’s Cliff Burnstein, among others, called on the organization to address “structural flaws” that “have led to systemic issues in the selection of nominees and winners for the awards.”
On March 6, Billboard reported that Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, would lead the task force. The full, 16-member committee, revealed May 9, includes the likes of Anthony, Swidler, now-former BET CEO Debra Lee, ASCAP CEO Elizabeth Matthews and Lionfish Entertainment CEO Rebeca Leon, as well as artists and songwriters including Common, Sheryl Crow, Andra Day and Jimmy Jam.
Internally the Academy’s trustees and staff stood by Portnow, who was well-liked within the organization and well-regarded for his demeanor and management style, as well as for his ability to boost the Academy’s profile and revenue through philanthropic and fundraising endeavors, including in his role as president/CEO of the MusiCares foundation. And, sources have told Billboard, many saw the establishment of the task force as a positive move overall, one that could open the door for long-overdue changes to the structure and processes surrounding Grammy voting and the Academy’s operations at large.
However, a fourth letter, written May 21, brought about another round of bad press for Portnow and the Academy. In the letter, former MusiCares vp Dana Tomarken accused Portnow of steering money away from MusiCares in order to fund a deficit created by this year’s Grammy telecast shifting from its longtime home in Los Angeles to New York City for 2018. Tomarken, who was fired on April 16 after 25 years at the Academy, also alleged that Portnow was behind a deal to hold the MusiCares Person of the Year event at Radio City Music Hall instead of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which resulted in a drop in fundraising to $1 million in 2018, down from $5 million the year prior.
Tomarken’s letter, released a week ago today, coincided with the Academy’s board of trustees’ annual meetings in Hawaii, which also were taking place last week. Portnow’s decision to step down arrives after the conclusion of those meetings.
Update (12:56 pm): This story has been updated to include a statement from Portnow regarding his decision to not seek an extension to his current contract.