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"The thing about our voters is, they’re pretty savvy, with some pretty interesting insights and a good nose for extraordinary talent."

THE KING'S SPIEL: NEIL PORTNOW'S STATE OF THE GRAMMYS ADDRESS

Recording Academy Boss Gives the Lowdown on This Year’s Show
Let’s start off with the traditional Passover question. Why is this year different from all other years?
This is my tenth show, so I’m prepared for the drill, but there are always things that pop up—a crisis, a problem, an issue. I used to say it was a very fluid situation, and things can change up until the day before the show. Now, I can actually say they can change several hours before, like a couple of years ago [with Chris Brown and Rihanna]. This year is a bit of a luxury because we went two weeks early because of the Olympics last January. So, it’s been a little bit more civilized. But it was a good drill for us to get things done even sooner, so we’re in pretty good shape.

I don’t hear much carping about the nominations anymore.
For the past four or five years, they’ve been stellar, which is a testament to our voting membership, Board of Trustees and staff in terms of recruitment and diversity.

How sensitive are you to giving out awards in the midst of all the turmoil in the business, like plummeting sales and executive upheaval?
You’d have to be wearing blinders not to see, feel and empathize with the great difficulties and challenges our industry is facing. That said, what Grammy Week has come to represent is a celebration of music and the artists who create it. For me, and I hope everyone else, it’s a welcome reminder of why we do what we do. Maybe this week we can let some of those pressures take a back seat to the artistry.

Over the last few years, the show has also offered a welcome sales spike.
It’s been pretty dramatic, and we’re proud of that. Anything we can do to promote music and the awareness of music is right in the sweet spot of what we hope to provide. And that includes our own Grammy Nominees CD, which just debuted at #3 on your chart, interestingly enough, on Jive Records, where I used to work.

The promotion for the show has become viral, with the “Music Is Life Is Music” campaign on all the social networks, and the use of Rdio and Google Maps.
We’ve gone from dipping our toe in the water to being the market leader in the award show business, in terms of the integration of social media in a classy, and a very impactful, fashion. When I first came here nine years ago, the Academy didn’t even have a marketing department, which we created. We’ve also integrated a digital media department to create awareness for the Grammys the other 364 days of the year. Our ad agency, Chiat/Day, have helped us with these amazing campaigns that use disruption to create attention. I think they allow us to stand apart from the pack.

Speaking of branding, how are things at the Grammy Museum?
When you factor in the recession and the competition, it has been pretty challenging, but in spite of that, we are at a breakeven point, so financially, it’s working. Paid attendance is up dramatically. The word is out in the artist community that it is a good place to participate. We’re now talking about expanding the museum to other parts of the country and the world.

What, no Grammy restaurant chain?
You say that tongue-in-cheek, but the brand is appropriate for Grammy Hotels, Grammy Cafes, and we’re actively in conversations with potential partners to do ventures of that nature.

Are you and CBS pleased with the prime-time nominations announcement show?
We’ve done it for three years now, and we’re going to continue. We look at it as an opportunity to kick off Grammy season the first week of December. You can’t compare a press conference to a nationally televised prime-time hour of music on television in terms of impact, with 6- to 7-million viewers. It’s a work in progress that we’ll continue to fine-tune.

The one glaring left-field nomination has to be Esperanza Spalding in the Best New Artist category. Does she have some sort of nefarious relationship with the Recording Academy?
Not at all. The thing about our voters is, they’re pretty savvy, with some pretty interesting insights and a good nose for extraordinary talent. The Best New Artist category doesn’t just represent a single genre. Esperanza has performed with Stevie Wonder at the White House, and has a very interesting pedigree. She’s one of those hyphenates that can’t be defined. She’s the youngest professor ever at UC Berkeley. She emerged from the pack in an interesting way, and our voters sometimes pick up on those things.

So you’re not going with a single host again this year.
No, but if you have the date open, Roy… Only a very few are great at doing that, and their availability is limited. Unless you have someone like that, it’s not worth it. We’d rather concentrate on airing more musical performances.

Have you started to write your speech yet?
I consider my role in the show as the spokesperson to deliver the Academy message, which varies from talking about our initiatives and charities to commentary about world events, particularly in times of natural disaster. I prefer not to use this opportunity as a bully pulpit, to shake a finger at the audience for, say, pirating music. We know that doesn’t work. Finding a way to raise the issue and remind people of the value of music, which is at the core of this, is another story. I do have a concept this year that might be a little more entertaining.

A song and dance or a soft-shoe?
Maybe I’ll bring out my bass.

Does being head of the Recording Academy help you in picking up girls?
I can’t say I’ve actually made use of that. Maybe… Want to come home and see my trophies?

Instead of having a trophy wife, you’re married to a trophy.
Just call me an eligible bachelor.

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