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What’s going on behind the scenes at the Grammy Awards? Alan Cross explains

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WATCH: Singers Alicia Keys and Bebe Rexha, as well as TV host Gayle King, revealed the nominations for some of the Grammy’s top categories, including Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year – Nov 20, 2019

The scandal that’s tearing things apart in the back office of the Grammys might be a little inside baseball to non-industry folk, but trust me that it matters to music fans. If you ever thought that the Grammys were irrelevant and out of touch — this is, after all, the group that gave a heavy metal award to Jethro Tull over Metallica — stay tuned.

The Grammys are run by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science, a non-profit organization that’s also behind various other music industry initiatives, including MusiCares, which provides aid to musicians in financial, medical and personal emergencies.

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The academy has been under fire for the last couple of years, largely because it was seen as ignoring women and not being inclusive, especially after 2018 when Alessia Cara was the only woman to win a solo award, leading to the hashtag #GrammysSoMale. Ex-president and CEO Neil Portnow didn’t help matters when he reacted to that criticism by saying that women “needed to step up” if they wanted to earn more recognition.

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Portnow retired last year. His replacement was Deborah Dugan, a former Wall Street attorney, a VP at EMI Music, president of Disney Publishing Worldwide, and the head of Bono’s Project (RED). She was a bit of a dark horse choice, but no one questioned her experience or credentials. And with the first woman ever appointed as CEO of the academy, it was a progressive, smart and much-needed move.

Dugan came in with a mandate for change. The academy needed an enema. Over her first five months on the job, Dugan uncovered a number of irregularities, including how this non-profit had spent upwards of US$15 million on outside legal counsel over the last five years. Why? Couldn’t this work be done by lawyers already on staff?

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She also heard that Portnow — who ran the academy from 2002 to 2019 — had been accused by a foreign recording artist of raping her after a gig at Carnegie Hall in New York. Dugan says she only learned about this after she agreed to accept the CEO position. Was this why Portnow’s contract wasn’t renewed? And why was she asked to hire him as a consultant at US$750,000 a year? (Portnow denies all allegations.)

Dugan says she also learned of weird processes when it came to voting on the Grammys. She said relationships were leveraged to secure nominations and then votes were manipulated to result in certain outcomes. I quote, “[The voting process is] illustrative of the boys’ club mentality that exists at the Academy and amongst its Board members.” (None of this has been proven.)
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Sometime around Christmas, Dugan herself sent a memo to HR, alleging she had been subject to sexual harassment by the academy’s general counsel Joel Katz. (He denies anything ever happened.)

At this point, both Dugan and the academy seemed to agree that the fit was wrong and that she should step down and go away quietly. A payout of her contract was almost settled but then the academy pulled it at the last second. Talks broke down and stories began flying back and forth. One side says Dugan wanted US$22 million. Others say that’s crazy.

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On Jan. 16 — just 10 days before the Grammys — the academy announced that Dugan was being placed on “administrative leave,” saying she had created a “toxic and intolerable” work environment and was involved in abusive behaviour and bullying. The accuser who went to HR was later revealed to be Portnow’s former assistant.

With just days to go before the Grammys — which the academy likes to promote as “music’s biggest night” — all this backroom business has become very, very public. It’s exploded into a he said/she said situation that threatens to overshadow the event. On Thursday, Dugan appeared on Good Morning America to give her side of the story — concerning for the Grammys, since that’s an ABC program and the awards show has a long-term contract with rival CBS.

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Now that you know what’s going on, you may have some questions.

  • Why was this allowed to explode in the days leading up to the Grammys? Obviously, there was a lot of leveraging and bluffing, but shouldn’t lawyers be smart enough to avoid such a public spectacle at the academy’s most important time of the year?
  • How much does this current scandal tarnish the Grammys? Their reputation has taken a beating over the decades. And now we hear that the voting processes could be rigged?
  • If you’re an artist, how do you feel about the Grammys now? If you’ve ever won a Grammy, is that accomplishment forever tainted?
  • How should Alicia Keys, a 15-time Grammy winner and host of the broadcast, handle this situation? She’s gotta mention it, right? Right?
  • Could this affect TV ratings? There’s not an awards show out there that hasn’t seen catastrophically low ratings in recent years. The Grammys attracted a total of 19 million viewers last year, which was an all-time low.

The whole situation is a total, utter mess. Everyone’s in a panic. The academy and the Grammys may never recover.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play