Interview by Phil Gallo

The first Grammy Awards ceremony on Neil Portnow’s watch was in 2003, the year of Norah Jones’ triumph and a great “Grammy Moment”—Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Little Steven saluting The Clash’s late founder Joe Strummer.

Once that show finished, Neil, a Brooklyn kid, started thinking about returning, finding a way to alternate between the East and West as had been done from 1971 through ’98.

“The question was when and under what circumstances we would return,” says Portnow, the Recording Academy’s CEO and President. “When the recession hit in 2008, it wasn’t a good time for us to be thinking about a move like that. Once things started to recover, then looking forward I thought it would be really great to combine a return to New York City with a milestone for us. We knew we would need a fair amount of time to figure this out so we started a couple years out.”

When the 59th Grammy Awards were staged at Staples Center in February, most Grammy insiders had started using “when” instead of “if” in talking about the return to the Garden, though it wouldn’t be until May that the move—which came to pass only after extensive negotiations with the city of New York—was confirmed.

“The city is at the very core of everything we do: Logistically, they have to make it all work,” says Portnow, who doesn’t single out any individual or event that set the move in motion. “The whole week [of events] has to be exported. The approach to do something like this has to be methodical.

“In Manhattan, you’ve got all the same components—street closures, all the security issues, a different set of unions than in L.A. that requires different policies and procedures, load-in. The city was able to be helpful in various ways.”

The Academy has the Garden from 1/21 to 1/30; Radio City Music Hall, where the MusiCares gala honoring Fleetwood Mac will be held, is empty starting 1/19. Locations for other Grammy-week events have yet to be announced, though Portnow says all will be staged and quite likely will see additions. 

“We’re engaging with the city in those conversations and the idea of raising funds to deal with those costs. It’s not simply that the Academy decides to write a check—we figure out ways to mitigate that cost.”

Once he had a deal to return to New York, Portnow created a wish list for Grammy week and the show itself. Items on that initial wish list are not limited to midtown Manhattan, where the two main events will be held. There was plenty of hopping between boroughs on that list, and he believes they’ll be staging events outside Manhattan.

“Part of the early dream I had was to use some iconic venues, and when you change things up, it creates opportunities. And sometimes people put their hands up and say there’s something they’d like to do or sponsor during that week,” Portnow says. “There are a few things that will be new and unique for the New York experience. It gets down to bandwidth in terms of human capital and finances.

“It’s not quite scientific, but we do know everything in New York has higher costs, even if you just do an event in a hotel ballroom. A dinner is incrementally higher. Let’s say it’s a very significant amount of additional cost to do the same things in New York that we do in L.A.”

For the show, his wish list includes New York icons—specifically people, venues and repertoire—noting that “there’s a big agenda when we don’t have these other flavors. Certain things will make a lot of sense, but that really takes shape most concretely once we have the nominations.”

The week the Grammy troika spoke to HITS, the haze we all found ourselves in following the shooting at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest Festival and Tom Petty’s death had yet to lift. That same week, Manhattan’s acting U.S. Attorney unsealed federal terrorism charges against three men who plotted attacks on the city in 2016 at, among other places, concert venues.

For security at the Garden, Portnow says they’ll employ the venue’s own security force, hire additional personnel and bring in the NYPD, state police and federal authorities, including the FBI.

“The safety of our talent, performers and our audience is always the top priority,” he says. “Security procedures get reviewed on a day-by-day basis leading up to the event, so whatever the state-of-the-art level of security winds up being when we get to Jan. 28, that’s what will be in place.”

The other element of the show that will have to wait until the last minute is the “In Memoriam” section. This year has seen the 2017 MusiCares Person of the Year Tom Petty die, as have rock & roll progenitor Chuck Berry and 2001 Album of the Year winner Walter Becker of Steely Dan. Portnow calls it “a difficult dilemma,” noting that the Academy’s running list of artist and industry deaths is topping 600 these days.

 “If we get 5% of the people we lost mentioned on the show in some way, shape or form, that’s good,” he says. “But that’s the reality. Very hard decisions have to be made. It’s a sad comment that it’s early October and there could be more sad situations even beyond what we have. We won’t know how we’re treating that until we get a lot closer.”

Neil with CBS exec Jack Sussman and Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich during their recent HITS cover shoot; stay tuned for profiles on the latter two very soon.

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