On the Eve of “Music’s Biggest Night,” The GRAMMYs Are in Crisis

“If the Recording Academy truly values a diverse membership, it must be transparent in its dealings.”
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This is a guest editorial by Mark Tavern, an artist manager, consultant, educator, administrator, and arts advocate with more than 20 years of music business experience.

Like many of my colleagues, I was surprised and upset to hear the news last week that Deborah Dugan, president and CEO of the Recording Academy, had been placed on administrative leave. In the days since, additional details have come to light, making the situation appear worse and worse.

On Tuesday (January 21), things went nuclear, as Dugan filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against the Recording Academy, alleging that:

  • The previous CEO, Neil Portnow, had been accused of raping a performing artist. That information had been withheld from board members before voting on a $750k consulting fee he’d receive even after he had left his job in disgrace.
  • She was the victim of sexual harassment by Joel Katz, the Academy’s general counsel and former board member.
  • The organization maintained no staff attorney but instead chose to overpay outside law firms by millions of dollars.
  • Rampant conflicts-of-interest exist among those outside law firms, Academy board members, and the artists they represent.
  • Board members received payments in connection with the work they were supposed to be doing as volunteers.
  • Academy employees had leveled multiple accusations of racial discrimination.
  • The nominating and voting processes are rigged, with secret committees, conflicts-of-interest, and self-dealing taking place throughout, often to give preference to white artists over their non-white counterparts.
  • The allegations against her by a subordinate were fabricated in retaliation for bringing all of this to light.

The GRAMMY Awards are the public face of an organization with a vast constituency. Voting members include a wide variety of music business creators: songwriters, performers, instrumentalists, producers, engineers, and others, including writers, art directors, and designers, who reflect the music of all types and across all genres. But over the years, and as musical tastes have changed, the Academy has found it challenging to keep up with change, often facing criticism surrounding every aspect of their operation, including the awards show, its voting practices, and the direction of its charity, MusicCares.

The Academy is no stranger to controversy, and despite the many complaints that have been leveled against it—some rightly—the fact remains that its awards remain meaningful, especially to the creative community. However, that meaning is based on trust, and these newest allegations have created a crisis on the eve of “Music’s Biggest Night.”

Dugan was hired to replace the organization’s former head, Neil Portnow after he offered a tone-deaf response when asked to comment on why Alessia Cara—who won for Best New Artist—was the only woman to accept an on-screen award during the 2018 show.

Portnow’s suggestion that women need to “step up” showed an utter lack of awareness as to the barriers to success faced by women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, or any of those who are outside the white-male-dominated membership of the Recording Academy, and the extent to which it should work to improve opportunities for everyone else. The insinuation that women—and by extension, anyone who is not a white male—have only themselves to blame for their lack of advancement is patently ridiculous, if not outright offensive.

As a professional member of the Recording Academy, I shook my head at this position. The organization was paying lip service to diversity and guilty of creating a situation that distracted from the work it should be doing to improve and promote the needs of all of those working in the music business.

The Academy did something positive and moved quickly to hire Tammy Tchen, former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, to form and lead a committee focused on ways to change the Recording Academy’s culture. As I watched these positive developments, I hoped that the organization could move on from such stupid and hurtful comments—and the environment they both reflect and create—to find a way to make changes that would benefit all those in the music business, regardless of who they may be.

I hoped that her appointment—together with that of hit producer Harvey Mason Jr. as chairman—would mean leadership was now in place that would face these issues head-on. I hoped they’d work in tandem to make the organization pay more than just lip service to those outside of its traditional membership.

[Disclosure: I worked with Harvey on multiple records when I worked at RCA, and I worked with his father, who was part of the jazz group Fourplay when the group was signed to RCA Victor. I have never worked with Dugan.]

A source with first-hand knowledge of the events tells DJBooth that Dugan had already begun to address what Tchen's committee had recommended, including identifying a veteran industry attorney to oversee Academy governance given the conflicts of interest and financial mismanagement Dugan had identified. The source went on to say that “the misconduct charge is predictably convenient to get [Dugan] out of the way and humiliate her in the process."

Sadly, Dugan and Mason Jr. are now locked in a bitter public fight during a week when the focus should be on celebrating creators. Dugan was explicitly hired to make changes to the membership and focus the organization on being more inclusive. Yet, it appears she was kicked out for attempting to do precisely that. Her ouster raises a lot of questions, none more critical than whether elements of the organization remain entrenched in their desire to maintain the status quo. With her discrimination complaint now public, it appears that it is true.

In fact, in the email in which Dugan blew the whistle on this behavior to the Academy’s HR department, she wrote:

“In my efforts to successfully resolve the many outstanding lawsuits facing the Academy that I inherited, one of the claimants characterized her experience of our organization’s leadership as ‘it’s a boy’s club and they put their financial interest above the mission….’ At the time I didn’t want to believe it, but now after five months of being exposed to the behavior and circumstances outlined here, I have come to expect she is right.”

These allegations are explosive, this story is still developing, and I fear what may yet come out. As each moment passes, and each new detail comes to light, what trust the Academy has, both amongst its members and with the public, becomes more and more difficult to maintain. If the Recording Academy truly values a diverse membership, it must be transparent in its dealings, especially when embroiled in a scandal that risks destroying whatever remaining trust it may have.

Mark Tavern is an artist manager, consultant, educator, administrator, and arts advocate with more than twenty years of music business experience. In addition to running his own management company, he currently teaches music business at LaGuardia Community College and before that at the Institute of Audio Research. Prior to 2012, Tavern worked at major record companies including Universal Music Group, SONY Music Entertainment, and BMG Entertainment. As an A&R Administrator with such labels as Island, Def Jam, RCA, and RCA Victor, he took part in more than 200 recordings, a dozen Broadway cast albums, and numerous reissue projects, including the GRAMMY®-winning 24-CD box set The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition. Visit his website for insider tips about the music business, and subscribe to his newsletter to get a free ebook: Listen Up! A Simple Guide To Getting Heard On Spotify.

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