Why Recording Academy Trustees and Staff Are Standing by Neil Portnow

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Neil Portnow

Despite the backlash over the president-CEO's "step up" comments, it looks like he will continue to lead the Grammys for some time.

Weeks after the circulation of a public petition calling for the resignation of the Recording Academy’s president-CEO Neil Portnow and three letters signed by high-profile industry executives demanding an immediate and transparent revamp of the Academy’s membership and voter infrastructure, the Academy’s board of trustees and staffers are standing behind the beleaguered executive, sources tell Billboard. 

Using the word "surreal" to describe the climate sparked by Portnow’s ill-worded comment about women needing to “step up” and the relative scarcity of women recognized at the Grammy Awards, board chairman John Poppo sent a letter to the trustees in the days immediately following the telecast. Poppo thanked the board for its leadership and support of Portnow, whose latest contract runs through 2019. According to the non-profit organization’s 990 filings for the IRS, Portnow earns a base salary of $1.014 million but received total compensation of $1.6 million in both 2015 and 2016. His duties also include serving as president-CEO of MusiCares.

Well-liked internally and known for his calm demeanor and deliberate management style, Portnow has helped significantly boost the organization’s profile and revenue. Among the Academy’s financial, cultural and philanthropic accomplishments under his leadership: negotiating a $600 million agreement in 2016 that will keep the Grammy Awards on CBS through 2026 and the addition of new Grammy specials (including this year’s spring salute to Elton John); creating an online listening function for voting members (with online voting inaugurated during the 60th awards); the opening of the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live in 2008 and its offshoots in Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland, Mississippi; and Nashville; raising attendance and revenues for the annual MusiCares Person of the Year fundraiser event (the 2017 gala honoring Tom Petty raised a record more than $8.5 million, while the 2018 edition earned nearly $7 million, and MusiCares has dispersed nearly $60 million since its 1989 inception); establishment of the Grammys on the Hill lobbying day, as well as a strategic alliance with the Recording Artists’ Coalition to promote artists’ rights on Capitol Hill; and creating the annual Music Educator Award in 2014.

In total, the Recording Academy posted revenues of $83 million in 2016. That’s up from the prior year’s total of $78.6 million, according to its 990 form for 2016, the most recent year on file at the Guidestar website, which tracks non-profits and charities.

But there’s another reason insiders are backing Portnow as criticism flies over the representation of women at the Grammys: The Recording Academy can only work with the content it is given, accepting entries online from its members and registered media companies, including record labels. As such, arriving at an effective solution to gender, racial or other imbalances at the award show also starts with label and A&R executives hiring and signing more female executives, artists, songwriters, producers and engineers.

Also, trends in music tend to work in a cyclical process. Owing to the ongoing rise of rap — a male-dominated genre — on streaming services in 2017, the top portions of the Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts were claimed by hip-hop artists. Per Nielsen Music, no woman in a lead role ranked in the top 10 of Billboard’s top artists, top Billboard 200 albums and top Billboard Hot 100 songs year-end tallies. Only eight female soloists ranked among the top 40 artists of the year. Additionally, a recent study from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism showed that from 2012 to 2017, among the 600 most popular songs, only 22.4 percent were performed by women and that 2017 hit a six-year low with female artists comprising 16.8 percent of the artists on the top charts.

Grammy wins are cyclical as well. While many carped about #GrammysSoMale this year, there have been years when women were the big winners. Lauryn Hill took home five awards in 1999, which was also a strong year for other female stars such as Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Madonna and Dixie Chicks. In 2010, Beyoncé broke Hill’s record with six wins and then Adele followed suit with a half-dozen Grammys in 2012. Adele added five more Grammys in 2017, including wins for album, record and song of the year (a feat she first achieved in 2012). Reviewing the short list of today's top female superstars, Adele and Beyoncé were between albums last year, while Taylor Swift did not release Reputation in time for the 2017 chart year and subsequently her album will be eligible for Grammy contention at the 2019 event. With the possible exceptions of Lady Gaga and Lorde, there were no female artists as established as the year's most-nominated male artists: Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and the night's big winner, Bruno Mars. 

Coinciding with the first industry-spawned letter's circulation, the Academy announced the establishment of a new task force to review and redefine its role in fostering female inclusion and advancement in the music industry. The task force’s duties should also include reviewing the Recording Academy’s track record in hiring and promoting women within its senior executive ranks.

In 2013, then-vp member services Nancy Shapiro was the highest-ranking female on the Academy's senior management team after the exit of predecessor Angelia Bibbs-Sanders in 2010. Shapiro was later appointed as senior vp special projects in 2015 when the Academy integrated its advocacy and membership divisions under Daryl P. Friedman, chief industry, government and member relations officer. The Academy’s current senior executive team includes vp marketing communications Neda Azarfar, vp membership & industry relations Laura Segura Mueller, MusiCares vp Dana Tomarken and Grammy Museum COO Rita George.

Meanwhile, nine of the top 12 executives at the Recording Academy, as listed in the latest 990 tax form, appear to be male. In addition to Portnow and Friedman, the tally includes CFO Wayne Zahner, executive in charge of production/chief business development officer Branden Chapman, chief marketing officer Evan Green, senior vp awards Bill Freimuth, chief information officer Richard Engdahl, chief human resources officer Gaetano Frizzi and managing director of digital media Kevin Colligan. The women listed in leadership roles or as key executives on the form are Shapiro, Azarfar and controller/managing director of business affairs Charlotte Williams.

One thing the task force will not be reviewing is whether Portnow should retain his position. That is a matter for the board of trustees, which sources tell Billboard is standing by him for now. According to the Recording Academy website and the latest 990 form, women comprise roughly 25 percent of the trustee board — not including vice chair Ruby Marchand and chair emeritus Christine Albert.

Portnow had two years remaining on his existing contract when the Recording Academy extended his deal for another three years in December 2014. The move carried him well into his second decade at the nonprofit organization. Initially named president of the Academy in 2002, Portnow was promoted to president-CEO in September 2007. His multi-faceted career prior to that includes stints as a bass guitarist, A&R executive (EMI America Records), a senior label executive at the Zomba Group (including Jive Records and Zomba Music Publishing) and president of 20th Century Fox Records. Besides Portnow, just one other person has helmed the Academy as president-CEO: Michael Greene, elected chairman of Academy predecessor NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) in 1986, was appointed the first president-CEO in 1988. His 14-year reign ended in 2002.

Portnow’s 15-year tenure hasn’t been free of controversy: In 2011, Steve Stoute, founder-CEO of marketing agency Translation and the new startup, United Masters, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to complain that the Grammys were out of touch. In that open letter to the Academy board, Stoute listed three examples to support his claims: jazz artist Esperanza Spalding winning best new artist over Justin Bieber; Steely Dan taking home album of the year honors over Eminem and jazz legend Herbie Hancock winning the same category over Kanye West. More recently, critics again accused the Grammys of being out of touch when Beck’s Morning Phase beat Beyoncé’s self-titled set for album of the year in 2015. Those denouncements erupted once more last year when Beyoncé lost again in that category to Adele.

In 2011, the Recording Academy announced that after a nearly two-year review (the first in its history), the number of Grammy Award categories would drop from an unwieldy 109 to 78, effective with the 54th ceremony. Aimed at making the Grammys more competitive and prestigious, the awards restructuring included the elimination of the separate female and male performance categories in pop, country and R&B.

The impact of that change might be a good place to start for the task force and the Academy’s board of trustees in light of current petitioners’ complaints about the lack of female nominees (only 9.3 percent received Grammy nominations in recent years, according to the USC Annenberg study). As of this recent awards season, the total number of categories presently stands at 84.

Sources tell Billboard that the head of the Academy’s independent task force will be announced shortly. Given the heightened industry criticism of the organization’s slowness in making progressive change, some will contend that the pending announcement as well as the group’s initial game plan should have been announced by now. At this point, however, the task force will have at least two months to convene, review and present its findings and solutions either before or at the next semi-annual board of trustees meeting in May.

Generally, after that spring meeting, any changes to the awards or voting processes, the addition, deletion or redefinition of categories and new board officers and board members are announced if it’s an election year. Last June, for instance, the Academy revealed its decisions — effective with the 60th awards — to introduce online voting, establish new nomination review committees for the rap, contemporary instrumental and new age categories and include songwriters among the parties eligible to receive a Grammy for album of the year.

It may have taken an unfortunate comment to force needed change. But this “surreal” situation represents a golden opportunity for Portnow and the board of trustees to reshape the Recording Academy into the more relevant standard bearer it needs to be for the 21st century music industry. But the proverbial clock is ticking. The entry process for the 61st Grammy Awards begins in July.

This story first appeared on Billboard.com. With additional reporting from Billboard staff. Mitchell is a former national trustee of the Recording Academy.