Grammys: Recording Academy Chief Says Noms' Surprises, Diversity Are "Reflection of the Times"

Michael Kovac/WireImage
Neil Portnow

Neil Portnow talks about changes in this year's nominating process and the multicultural crop of nominees.

For Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow, receiving the Grammy Awards nominations list from the Academy's accountants at Deloitte Touche can be just as nerve-wracking as it is for prospective nominees.

"I've had some very surprising years where I've given up crystal-balling it, because it's hard to know," he says. And then there are the years where he knows the Academy will get bashed by some who feel its 13,000 voters are too stodgy in their choices. He predicts this will not be one of those years.

This year, Portnow tells Billboard, he could have leapt in the air with joy when he saw the nominations in 84 categories, many of which reveal a voting body more in touch with current tastes than in years past, in part because of concerted efforts by the Academy to diversify the membership. "I was very pleased," he says, calling the nominations "a wonderful reflection on our organization and how relevant and in touch and savvy our voting members are."

Jay-Z leads all nominees with eight nods, followed by Kendrick Lamar with seven, Bruno Mars with six and Childish Gambino, No I.D., Khalid and SZA tied with five. The 60th annual Grammy Awards will air on CBS on Jan. 28.

Portnow spoke to Billboard about changes in this year's nominating process and the multicultural crop of nominees.

This is the first year you allowed online voting. What effect did that have on the nominations?

We don't get specific details from Deloitte, so I can't give you hard facts, [but] you think about our 13,000 members: They're on the road, they're in the studio 24 hours. They're out of the country on tour. The convenience factor is very significant. The reason it took a while to get it done, besides security, is we wanted all the bells and whistles so it was efficient and user-friendly. There's no question that it has a positive impact and makes it more appealing, convenient and accessible.

The Recording Academy also added a rap nominations review committee this year to evaluate the final selections in the rap categories. How does that work?

What the committee does is a fine-tuning process. It's not starting from scratch. They don't have the authority to create the nominations; they have the ability to take the voters' perspective and fine-tune it and make sure it is representative of the highest level of recordings in any given year. Because the volume of recordings and submissions in the rap categories has exponentially increased over the years, we felt it was a good time to do that. It's consistent with what we're doing with other genres with a similar volume of submissions.

In the eyes of the industry, part of the reason for instituting the rap nominations review committee came after Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won best rap album in 2014 for The Heist over Kendrick Lamar's favored good kid, m.A.A.d city.

I don't know if instituting the rap committee was a result of that particular outcome that year. We've had these committees instituted for quite some time. We have 13 of them. Our awards and nominations committee reviews every aspect of the awards process every year. In terms of the rap committee, this is the year we got around to [adding it]. That being said, I think having that committee certainly had a positive impact in creating nominations that I think are going to be universally very well received.

The four categories in the general field -- record, album, song and best new artist -- are very diverse, including the first Spanish-language song to receive a song and record nod. What specific steps has the Recording Academy taken to recruit voters thatled to this outcome?

There are three elements: Number one is we have made a concerted effort to make sure the voting membership of the Academy is representative of the creative community. We've got 84 categories. Are we well represented with membership from all of them? Are we engaging them? Are they participating? We look at that regularly, and to the extent that we find there are areas that need more attention, we'll do that. Because we're set up as a chapter system in 12 cities, we're on the ground in those places. We've sent key staffers out to talk about the awards and the process. We're very consciously wanting to be a diverse membership and have people engaged. [Number two,] the online voting in many ways levels the playing field to the extent that it's convenient and accessible to everybody. The third piece is we very successfully hit the nail on the head where music is today in 2017 and 2018 with respect to genre and culture and society. Hip-hop and urban music are proliferating across the world.

This is the first year a largely Spanish-language song, "Despacito," has been nominated for record and song of the year. How significant is that?

It's a reflection of the times, something we're very proud of. I would say that we have to be careful in the sense that [the nominations] didn't happen solely because of its enormous popularity and acceptance. That's undeniable, but through the lens of our folks who listen to that record as a musician or a producer and listen to all those elements that got fused together and the production elements, the instrumentation and the diversity there, from a craft standpoint, it's an extraordinary record.

In the general categories, some pop names that might appeal to mainstream 25- to 54-year-olds aren't there, and the nominations skew young. Is that a concern when you're putting together the broadcast?

We have a history of introducing our audience to someone they've never heard of when they're watching the Grammys. If you get an Esperanza Spalding as a best new artist, that's a discovery moment. I love that. Everyone we would probably want to book on the show is likely to have a nomination someplace, and even if they don't, we have no rule that says you must be nominated to have a slot on the show.

There are a few surprises: Most pundits predicted Ed Sheeran would get nominated in the general categories, for example, and no one pegged Childish Gambino for so many nods.

There always are, and we know we can't make everybody happy. We always try to recommend to people, to the extent that there's a quote-unquote shocker, that going back [and] looking through the lens of who's making these particular decisions and evaluations is helpful. It's a very different lens than a fan or someone who goes to a lot of different concerts or someone who's very active on a streaming service. This is a different optic. As good and as popular as somebody's song or track or album may have been in any given year, for those people who are their peers, they might look at it a little differently. 

Was there anything that shocked you about the nominations or that was cause for concern?

No, I wasn't that jarred. As always, there are some surprises, and I wonder how that might have been determined. I'm not losing any sleep whatsoever [over] the outcome of where we end up this year. I think I'll sleep really well.

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.

comments powered by Disqus