Grammys Producer on Wrangling Rock Stars, Mass Same-Sex Wedding and What Lorde Said No To
Ken Ehrlich, who is getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, opens up about 36 years of producing music's biggest night — and how MTV raised the awards show's game.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Judging by the invitations Ken Ehrlich sent out for the Jan. 28 unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he's delighted with his new neighbors in front of the Capitol Records building. "John, Paul, George and Ringo are getting company," boasts the announcement. The 71-year-old producer is being given a star — steps from the Beatles' — in honor of his 40-plus-year career bringing pop music and awards shows to TV, including producing the past 35 Grammy Awards, six Emmy shows and a slew of other specials (such as Elton John's 2005 Hurricane Katrina concert and MTV's 1993 Rock and Roll Inaugural Ball).
Ehrlich, who grew up in Ohio, got his start in Chicago, creating PBS' concert series Soundstage. He moved to Los Angeles in the '70s to produce programs for everyone from the Bee Gees to Liza Minnelli — and he hasn't stopped working since. Next month, he'll once again produce the Grammys, as well as a Stevie Wonder tribute for CBS that he'll be taping just two days after the music awards. THR caught up with him in December, as he was in the middle of planning the opening for this year's show ("Last year, I was having a conversation with Beyonce until about two weeks before …"). He talks to THR about wrangling rock stars on TV, discussing music with Leslie Moonves and last year's showstopper — the onstage mass wedding of 33 same-sex couples.
How do you decide whom to book for the Grammys?
I would love to think that the first time a lot of people see a new artist is on our show. Our audience is more diverse and includes an awful lot of people who never see other awards shows. They want to see the validation of an artist's achievement, which gives us a big responsibility.
Which artists are the toughest to produce?
They all start out tough. There's a mutual distrust on the first appearance, more on their side than mine. Certainly, the second time we work together, there's a whole new set of standards and the trust starts to a certain extent. I had a tough time with Lorde last year. The number was great and it worked out. But I had wanted to set up her performance by doing YouTube versions of "Royals." I asked her — I didn't have to — and she said no.
Who makes life easiest?
I love Chris Martin, Bonnie Raitt, Bono, Carrie Underwood, No Doubt. I love them because they're creative and they care. They put themselves out there [and take risks] when they're on the show.
When exactly did Grammy performances become so production-oriented?
When MTV came in with the [Video Music Awards]. We began to work with artists who needed more production [elements]. The labels were doing great and they paid all the expenses. Unlike other shows, [the Grammys] can bring in resources from the labels, and up until now, we've been able to make that work.
Where do you draw the line in terms of what an artist can do?
We're starting to see — and it's an area we need to stay away from — the branding of in-show stuff, putting a car onstage [as product placement]. We just don't go there.
Who else has a say in the rundown, and can they make you change things?
About 10 days before the show, I always go to see [CBS president] Les Moonves. He sits there and says, "Tell me about the show." I try to give a little background on each act. It takes about 45 minutes. There have been times where he has said, "I don't like that," and I change things. One year, Norah Jones was hotter than anything and the first thing I said was, "I'm opening with Norah Jones," and I went through the rest of the show. He said, "Great show, but don't open with Norah Jones. Nobody knows who she is." He was right. The music business knew, but no one else. I opened with Simon & Garfunkel — they were the backup — and it was an amazing opening. Norah had a great night winning so many awards, but that show wouldn't have been as good if she had opened.
In 2014, you had 33 same-sex couples marry during the show. Is there room for more issue-oriented presentations on the broadcast?
The marriage ceremony really opened my eyes personally as to the power of the show. It gets a conversation going. We've tried to do things like it in the past, but never as successfully. It would be irresponsible of me to say that's what this show is supposed to be about, but when there is an opportunity to get people to think about things, I think we should.