On February 10th, 2019, the Staples Center in Los Angeles will light up with the 61st Grammy Awards — a show that contains a number of notable firsts and lasts. It will be the first show where each of the biggest categories have eight nominations instead of five, thanks to changes made this year in the interest of promoting a greater array of voices; it will also be the final show presided over by Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, who announced a few months ago that he will step down at the end of his contract next summer.
As The Recording Academy announced this year’s nominations across the 84 Grammy categories on Friday, Portnow spoke with Rolling Stone about what audiences can expect to see in the show — as well as what they shouldn’t.
This is the first show where the four big field categories have eight nominations instead of five. Do you feel like this slate of names and works is reflective of what you set out to do?
We had a couple of missions in mind, and looking at the results here, we’re feeling quite good. These are categories where we get more submissions than in any other, so the fact that there is a broader opportunity for more representation here makes sense. Clearly, it provides more opportunities for more great, talented artists to be recognized as nominees.
What were the challenges in implementing these changes? Did you get pushback?
Any time you make a change, you have systems to change. In particular, when you have a voting process, when you have technology involved — we implemented online voting last year — all the things around that have to be modified and secured. We had to explain it to people that have a certain familiarity about the things they’re doing. But we certainly had enough time to do it, so, so far it’s been very smooth.
There are a couple of big things that jump out immediately about this year’s list. One of them is the Black Panther soundtrack being a nominee for Album of the Year. Did that come as a surprise to you?
We’ve had, over the years, soundtrack albums that are specifically the soundtracks for films — and we’ve had projects like this one, which is sort of a combination of music from the movie and music inspired by the movie. At the end of the day, those people are artists and songwriters and producers and engineers. So the fact that the project itself may be focused on a film doesn’t in any way make it different from any other music that got created. I’m not particularly surprised by it. The music on that album is quite extraordinary which is why I think you’re seeing it there.
Another unusual thing about the nominees: There’s a ton of hip-hop and R&B on this list. Are you going to craft the show around that?
Every year the booking, tone and direction of the show are in many ways indicated by the nominations. Since we’re just getting those, this is when we’ll actually begin putting the show together and pulling in producers to have conversations. The show is typically a reflection of the nominations and the nominees. But the show is also a television show and our objective is to create the greatest live music event on television on the planet, happening prime time for three and a half hours. To do that, we will be trying to find a good balance.
Will there be an XXXTentacion tribute? His name doesn’t appear in the nominations, but he was a huge part of music’s story this year.
When it comes to recognizing those that we lost, I will tell you it’s a daunting challenge. We track those that we lose in our industry in any given year and then we have a process by which we go through it. Our on-air in memoriam — we’re lucky if we wind up [featuring] 10 to 15 percent of those we lose. Because it’s always hard choices. All of that is to say, I don’t have any answers for you now, but obviously artists who were prominent and well-known by the public are people who are recognized and we’ll just wind up having to see how it plays out.
Also notable is that fact that this is your last Grammys. How are you planning to mark that occasion in the show itself?
It’s part of the work in progress. Really, the primary focus is on what the musical performances are going to be and what’s the direction of the show in general. We don’t really get too deep into that until we have the nominations. Now that will be the first thing to address. As far as relating to me personally, I’m an employee of the organization — I’ve been here a long time and I’m very proud of what I’ve done and I think the organization is as well. We’ll be kicking around different ways to celebrate that. But my tenure runs through the early part of the summer, so, as they say: Elvis isn’t leaving the building quite yet.
What will you be focusing on in that period after the Grammys?
I joke with people that say after the show ‘Well, I guess you guys can all head out to Santa Monica beach and relax now.’ The reality is, given the size of the Academy, the missions and the philanthropy — MusiCares, the Grammy Museum, the Grammy Music Education Coalition, the Latin Grammys, the Latin Grammy Cultural Foundation — with all of that work we do in addition to our regular membership activities and continuing to focus on our diversity and inclusion initiatives, there isn’t really enough time in the day even when we’re not in Grammy season. So I’ll be pretty well-occupied carrying all that forward.
Last year’s Grammys were marked with major attention on some comments you had made about diversity. How do you want to address that this year? What’s the tone you’d like to set for the final Grammys?
Anybody, as we know, can have a choice of words that don’t work out to be what you hope or what you want. Certainly that was the case, and I think I addressed that at the time. What’s more important are the issues, which are significant and large ones. So the question really becomes: Are these teaching moments, and if they are, what do you do that’s tangible? The first thing I did immediately was get past the personal nature of it and look at the issues. We created a task force to look at our own organization, what we’re doing with respect to diversity and inclusion. Some of the actions we’ve taken and research we’re doing will be reflective back to the music industry as a whole. We need to move the needle. We need to make a difference. For me, the takeaway of it all is going to be that — the outcome and the legacy.
In your remarks accompanying the nominations, you mentioned that “reflection and reevalution” have been the Recording Academy’s main focuses in this past year. Do you feel satisfied with the extent you’ve met those two goals?
I think both of those things are always a work in progress. They don’t have a start and a finish. We’ve begun, and I think there’s always more to do. The minute you get complacent about anything that’s important… I think we’ve opened the discussion, created the beginning of tangible means to address it and now we have to stick with it. Ultimately it’s the industry that has to also focus on these issues.
Earlier this year, the Oscars caused a stir when it considered having an audience-voted “popular” category. Is that something you ever see happening for the Grammys?
We are always open-minded and reevaluate our process. However, at the core of our award is the fact that it’s a peer award and what makes it special to the artists that receive it — the reason artists always will talk about the dream of receiving a Grammy — is not popularity and commercial sales and marketing campaigns and chart positions. It’s because it’s an honor being bestowed by their peers and therefore deeply meaningful to them. We will always want that to be the core of what we do. The question becomes, whatever else you do that may be more commercial… To the extent that it dilutes that perception, that’d be something we have to be cautious about. But I think it’s good to be open-minded and debate things. We always want to be forward-thinking when it makes sense.
Speaking of such changes — the membership rules to the Recording Academy themselves were recently updated.
Yes, and significantly. In our history it’s probably the most significant changes we’ve made, and all with the eye toward keeping the membership very relevant, current, diverse and inclusive. This is something that’s frankly been in the works for a couple years. We implemented a re-qualification system, so somebody who was a member but wasn’t really active in making music as a full-time career can’t automatically renew. We have voting online, creating easier access. Now, this additional layer of peer review gives us an opportunity to curate the membership in a way that puts us where we need to be on many fronts. Diversity is many things, not just gender and ethnicity but also age, and we’re always interested in having a youthful part of the membership. We expect it’s going to have a great result in keeping us fresh and relevant going into the future.
I’ve heard some criticism about the requirement of recommendation letters being a little counterintuitive to the idea of being open and inclusive.
When you look at some of the other academies and how they operate, part of the intention is that membership is something that’s aspirational. It’s something you want to belong to. Our standards in the past had rather simple benchmarks… which could create access for some that maybe aren’t quite at the level of excellent and career development that make for a voting population that gives you the kind of results that you want. So this helps to address that.
Also, the recommendations can go both ways. If you want to be a member, you can find two people in the industry to recommend you. Conversely if you’re in the industry and you know people you think are qualified, it gives you the ability to reach out and say, “You’re the perfect kind of person who should be in the organization and I’m able to assist you.” We think it’s going to work well. It leaves it very open and doesn’t create any kind of barriers for someone that wants to make that application.
What’s the response from the industry been like?
We won’t see the effect of the membership change until the next cycle. But the response we’ve gotten has been very pleasingly and almost completely positive. We’re getting great reaction to it. It’s gratifying to see that people get what we’re after.