When I see some of the artists perform onstage, I get a little—and this is a technical term—ferklempt.


An exclusive HITS dialogue with Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow

by Roy Trakin

It’s hard to believe this will be the 10th Grammy Awards telecast presided over by Neil Portnow since taking over the Presidency of the Recording Academy in November 2002. His first Grammys ceremony coincided with the last time the event was held at N.Y.’s Madison Square Garden. Over the past decade, he has succeeded in boosting the show’s TV ratings and establishing the December nominations prime-time CBS special. One thing he hasn’t been able to avoid is this yearly chat with HITS’ own Grammy schnorrer Roy "Vey" Trakin.

You must be relieved that Adele will be showing up.
It will be her debut since the surgery. She’s thrilled and honored to be asked to be on the show and that it will be her first opportunity to come back and show everybody how she’s doing. We’re excited, and it’s going to be a great moment for her and everybody.

There must have been some tense moments along the way.
We were always hoping. I actually had the pleasure of being introduced to her surgeon, who is quite the expert. He’s the doctor to the stars as far as these vocal issues go, with clients like Steven Tyler, Rod Stewart and Lionel Richie. He said the last time she was in his office, he actually thought she sounded better than she ever had before. So we have high expectations, and there’s a lot of pressure on her, but she’s feeling great. What’s interesting is, this shines a spotlight on something important to our community, and that’s vocal health. There are things one needs to do to protect one’s health, and this fits in with our MusiCares mission, to walk about wellness. This is the ultimate poster child for that issue.

The number of categories shrank from 109 to 78, prompting some blowback from certain constituencies, including Jesse Jackson.
Any time you change something institutional, it’s difficult for people who are affected by it. It’s still a little early to evaluate its effect. We still received more than 17,500 entries this year, which is commensurate with the largest we’ve had, last year. And our membership numbers are up. As far as the process, we’ve had entries submitted for the first round ballot. Some of the more niche genres, like Latin Jazz, are more integrated into the main Jazz category now as part of a larger constituency. Until we know the final winners, it’s hard to do a full analysis, which we’ll do after Feb. 12. Categories haven’t been eliminated; they’re just eligible as part of other ones now. We raised the minimum amount of entries to keep a category alive from 25 to 40. We didn’t just focus on the smaller categories, either. We also looked at the gender-based classifications we’ve had in the past. There’s a movement in our culture not to make that an element in carving out the categories. It’s really not so much about a male or female singer, but who really delivered the most amazing performance of the year.

Did Jesse Jackson have a legitimate beef, or was it blackmail?
I spoke to the Reverend and he feels I understand the issues, that I’m a fair person. A very small group of individuals from the Latin Jazz community have initiated a lawsuit against the Academy, and they have gotten his attention. And without doing a complete investigation, he went public with a few statements. Now that he’s spoken to us, he realizes that it’s not quite that simple—there are several sides to this. I think he’d like to be a voice to bring the sides together for some resolution. And I’m always looking for resolution. That’s in my nature. I welcome any voice that brings us together. Anything that takes funds away from the Academy, which otherwise would be going to MusiCares or to provide cash for a high school music department, to pay for legal representation, is not a good thing.

People are still shocked about Esperanza Spalding winning Best New Artist last year, or even getting a nomination. How did that happen?
It’s a good reminder of who we are and what we do. Commercial isn’t a dirty word. At the same time, what differentiates us from all the other awards shows is these are voted on by peers, by the people who actually make the music. They listen with a different ear. We tell them to please disregard sales, charts, popularity and marketing—it’s about what you believe to be excellence in recording. We also have a password-protected area where you can listen to the music of all the nominees. And when they do, they often abandon their preconceived notions. And I think that’s what accounts for Esperanza Spalding and Arcade Fire, for that matter. I’m incredibly proud that’s where we are as an organization.

Is there any thought to giving the public some input into the voting process?
No way. That’s not to say we’re not interested—in a world of social media and interaction, you have to be. When it comes to the awards, we very zealously guard and protect the franchise and the notion that the Grammy is a pure award voted on by peers. We wouldn’t want to chip or take away from that.

Isn’t there a thought of who’s going to be on the TV show when the committee chooses five nominees from the 20 finalists?
There is a TV committee which represents the Academy’s point of view, so we can collaborate with our producers. Our nominations review committee is the one that chooses the final five nominees among the top vote-getters. The theory is that this is an overlay to assure what we do is as pristine as possible. This is a reaction to Jethro Tull winning the Best Metal Album, where things don’t fit or make sense. We’re most interested in hearing our members’ thoughts regarding who they have voted for. It’s heartening to see what comes back from the membership on its own.

Is the TV show a factor in choosing these final nominees?
It is not and should not be a factor. The determination of what would work on television is the responsibility of the TV committee, and that’s only after the final nominees are announced.

How do you feel about the nomination of Linda Chorney in the Americana category, someone who apparently used the Grammy365.com website to promote her music?
I guess I would chalk it up to the power of social networking. Grammy365.com is a members-only site. Our intention and thought was that, in today’s world, this is the way people form communities. We want to provide a service for members of our organization, and give them a chance to communicate with their peers. We wondered ourselves how this interaction between our members might affect the process. We never made our members’ information public before, so there’s never been an ability to lobby. Now that you’re part of this club, you can say to your fellow members whatever it is you want to say. We have limitations as to what’s acceptable, and in her case, she didn’t do anything to violate our guidelines. Given the listening functions we have, she apparently turned people on to her music. Apparently, enough people responded and liked what they heard to get her a nomination. We’ll continue to monitor it for abuses.

How did you get Paul McCartney to be honored at MusiCares? Did you tell him you were a fellow bass player?
Having Paul as an honoree will be a personal highlight of mine. Over the course of time, we’ve had some incredible people. For me, I identified a few people to put on my list as the most iconic, which were probably the hardest to wrangle. Two of those dreams have now taken place. Barbra [Streisand] was one last year, and Paul is being honored this year. I saw him at the Kennedy Center Honors this past year. We happened to be seated in back of each other at a State Department dinner hosted by Hillary Clinton for the honorees. I had a chance for a little banter with him. And he left a crack in the door open for us. It was clear to me we were on the radar, and the stars just lined up. I’m a pretty calm and measured guy, but when I got that phone call from Paul, I levitated out of my chair and let out a bit of a yell. I’m really delighted to say, even before the event, this will be a record-breaker in terms of raising funds, a banner year in every way, shape or form. And obviously that’s the end game. It’s what we’re about here.

What kind of tributes or special segments are planned?
We’ve added an “In Memoriam” feature during my tenure. Our board felt, of all organizations, we should be paying respect to those that we lose. I came up with the thought of a New Orleans funeral, which is a celebration of life. What we can do is bring music, something that is uplifting and feel-good. The first year we did a salute to The Clash with Steven Van Zandt and Elvis Costello when Joe Strummer passed. There will be another one this year that will rank among the most stellar we have done. We’re also doing performing presentations. Rather than read copy, they do something musical, which segues into an introduction of another artist. This year, The Civil Wars will be bringing on Taylor Swift, because they have a record together in The Hunger Games movie.

How many awards will you present on-air this year?
In the past, we’ve presented anywhere from nine to 12. It’s a television show, and has to be entertaining. There’s a balance; I think we’ve found the sweet spot. So we’ve beefed up the pre-telecast and set it in its own separate venue. We spend a lot of money on it. We have three or four musical performances and a host. Now that we’re streaming it live, last year we had almost 750k watching it, and this year, we’re hoping for a million. And set the stage for maybe taking that to the next level from a broadcast point of view.

Have you begun to think about the issues you’re going to deal with in your speech?
Hopefully, we won’t be dealing with any natural disasters or catastrophes. When those things happen, we feel compelled to comment, be healing or raise money. One never knows. What I like to do is deliver “the academy message,” what we do the other 364 days a year. I’ve had people recognize me on the street and tell me how interested they were in what I had to say during that segment. So somebody’s paying attention. They’re not recognizing me as much as they are the Academy message.

This year’s Esperanza Spalding in the Best New Artist category is dance music artist Skrillex. And coincidentally or maybe not, you’re also involved in this RE:Generation film project. Is this another Academy put?
Actually, I think it’s the other way around. The genre is explosive worldwide. You see DJs working with all sorts of artists now. I don’t know if they’re musicians, but they’re creative artists. It’s not just pushing buttons. I always want the Academy to be ahead of the curve. It’s better to be in advance. The risk is, certain things are trends and don’t necessarily last. We will see how dance evolves, but it certainly seems to be here and pretty solid. The 12,000 voting members thought, here’s someone dominant in that field and potentially a Best New Artist. We’ll have a dance segment on the show, which, the way we stage it, will be pretty extraordinary.

What are these last few weeks like before the show?
If I were an Olympic athlete, which I’m not, this would be my training. I’m dealing with diet, health, sleep, emotional and physical strength. I’ve been doing that since the beginning of November. The show is very dynamic—it can change up to the day before, and we’ve seen it change the day of. Some things aren’t in our control.

Are you still having fun?
Oh, yeah. I relish this time of year, even though it’s grueling in many ways. It really is an Olympian task for me. I take it seriously. I love and cherish it. It’s rejuvenating and invigorating and inspiring. Because, when you finish, you might be exhausted, but once that passes, this is the inspiration that drives getting into the next year. And answering the question, “How can you top what you’ve just done?”

LL Cool J is the first traditional host you’ve really had since Queen Latifah in 2005.
I don’t know if you’d call it traditional, because the role of host has evolved over time. LL has done a tremendous job on our nominations special for four years now. He’s part of the family, glue and brain trust on that show. He’s not just a musician but a TV star, one of those rare hybrids. The music community loves him because he’s come from there. The host function works best when it’s someone who has that background, empathy and connection with the music community. There are no rules about this. It’s a fresh canvas every year. We’re thrilled that he’ll be there.

Any thoughts about moving the ceremony to another venue after nine straight years at Staples?
Certainly we’re very comfortable here. They’ve been great partners. When Staples was built, AEG was very wise to have the Academy be a consultant on design. That said, we don’t have any contractual obligation to be there. My interest is always in looking at other options. Mew York City’s a great place to do this show, but the Garden has been under renovation, so it hasn’t been a viable option. But also doing it in New York carries a significant price tag difference. But I’m always interested in being back in New York. And we will look at that as the Garden takes shape. And I’m interested in other areas as well. There’s nothing to say we couldn’t be anywhere else. It just has to make sense. We’ve had discussions and meetings with other cities. We’re open to that.

Over the last few years, the Grammys have provided not just a sales, but a morale boost also for a beleaguered industry.
I look at it like Grammy Week, because there are so many activities and events that are put forward by the creative community while everyone is in town together. It truly is a celebration of music, not only in America, but worldwide, because we play in 190 countries now. We are in the forefront—the basis—for that, so it’s very important. People walk away from the week with a great feeling, no matter how tough things have been or the difficulties we’ve had. It’s a chance to think about the positive, about rebuilding and rejuvenating. And we see tangible evidence immediately following the show, in the sales spikes. What a great segue from Feb. 12 on Sunday to Tuesday being Valentine’s Day, the marketing opportunities. And we’re very proud of that. It reminds us of the art of what we do. When I see some of the artists perform onstage, I get a little—and this is a technical term—ferklempt.

Do you pinch yourself each day for having the best job in the world?
There’s no doubt about it. This is my dream job. Frankly, every job has been a dream job. From the beginning, I’ve had a chance to work with the best people, to learn a little more at each stop. What this seems to be—which is why I put my hat in the ring—is the culmination of all the things I’ve done in my life under one roof. All those skills get to shine and get their best use. For me, I wake up every day and think, I have the best job in the business, and I’m so incredibly blessed to be the one that sits in this chair at this time.
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How'd they do that? (6/15a)
We're reading the tea leaves. (6/15a)
"Variant" is a scary word right now. (6/15a)
Is there a lawyer in the house? (6/15a)
The musical tapestry we know as R&B.
Predicting the next big catalog deal.
Once we all get vaccinated, how long before we can party?
How is globalization bringing far-flung territories into the musical mainstream?

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