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Grammys’ New Leadership Team Vows to ‘Be Better’ Amid The Weeknd’s Boycott and Diversity Challenges

“We have to be more relevant, we have to be more reflective,” Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. tells TheWrap

The Recording Academy has had a busy year and a half. Between pushing for more diversity in its membership and at the Grammys, overhauling its controversial anonymous nominating committees, helping a music industry that had come to a standstill and searching for a new CEO after a messy departure in 2020, the Recording Academy finally installed a new leadership team that suggests the organization is prepared to turn over a new leaf.

On Tuesday, the Recording Academy appointed Valeisha Butterfield Jones and Panos A. Panay as its co-presidents, with Harvey Mason Jr. moving from president and CEO to simply CEO. And the leadership team in its announcement emphasized a priority on diversity, growing the Academy’s footprint and embracing the needs and desires of its evolving membership.

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“The makeup of this group shows we are absolutely forward thinking. We are a new Academy, as we’ve been saying. We are positioned to be able to adapt and move at the speed at which the industry is moving,” Mason told TheWrap in an interview on Tuesday. “We have to look at what we’re doing, we have to be better, we have to be more relevant, we have to be more reflective.”

The group continues to face some high-profile issues, including a looming arbitration hearing with former CEO Deborah Dugan, who was ousted last year just days before the 2020 Grammy ceremony. (Mason had no comment on the matter). The Recording Academy also moved to eliminate the anonymous voting committees that helped select nominations after criticism from pop star The Weeknd and others after he was completely snubbed from this year’s Grammys despite widespread acclaim for his “After Hours” album.

Even with the changes, The Weeknd previously said he would still boycott the Grammys ceremony.

But Mason acknowledged the criticism from top artists over the Grammys — but suggested the awards play only one role in the Academy’s work. “We want to be representing all different artists from all different communities. We want to get this right, and it’s very, very important that we do. But taking a step back, the awards are one piece of this Academy,” he said.

“The awards, if you look at it from an overarching perspective, the awards enable us to do the work that we do, so if you’re an artist and care about the community and love music and are concerned about the future of music and are concerned about making sure there’s a next generation that comes into this industry, making sure we’re getting a fair wage for our art and making sure we’re looking out for the less privileged creators,” he said.

But Jones, a former Google exec who worked on Obama’s 2012 campaign, and Panay, a former SVP at Berklee College of Music who founded the Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship, also touted the Recording Academy’s progress so far. The organization has reached gender parity among its leadership ranks, is working toward aggressive goals to reach the gender parity in its membership by 2025 and is working on initiatives to improve diversity throughout the music industry.

But Jones and Panay also touted the Recording Academy’s progress so far. The organization has reached gender parity among its leadership ranks, is working toward aggressive goals to reach the gender parity in its membership by 2025 and is working on initiatives to improve diversity throughout the music industry.

Here’s more from TheWrap’s interview with Harvey Mason Jr., Valeisha Butterfield Jones and Panos A. Panay (this interview has been lightly edited for clarity).

How does the makeup of this leadership group represent a new direction for the Recording Academy? And what all do you see as your biggest priorities moving ahead?

Harvey Mason Jr.: The makeup of this group shows we are absolutely forward thinking. We are a new Academy, as we’ve been saying. We are positioned to be able to adapt and move at the speed at which the industry is moving. In the last few years it’s changed quicker than ever. Music that was being made two weeks ago is sometimes not even relevant next week. In order for us to be able to continue to keep up with that and make sure we’re leading and able to service our members and industry at large, we have to be structured and positioned in a way that we can efficiently move, adjust and reform. That’s something we’ve been working on at the Academy for the last 18 months. I think this recent announcement and the positions that we’re talking about today really reinforce that.

Valeisha Butterfield Jones: It’s so rapidly changing industry and we have to keep up with the pace. As we assembled this leadership team, we wanted to be forward thinking and innovative and also with a bias for action. As something Harvey always says, going beyond ideas and strategies and always taking the next step into the future. As I think about Panos’ great background and experience, I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of this group. We are going to operate as a unit. I know Harvey always uses a basketball analogy to reference things, but it’s true. We see each of us bringing so much uniqueness and talent background, and all the work that we’ll be doing together as a unit, so we’re just really proud of the work we’ve accomplished over the last year and a half, but we’ve only scratched the surface. So we’re really looking forward to scale and move with more speed into the work that now needs to get done.

Panos A. Panay: This is a modernized, structured team for a very different industry. We are committed to keep growing the Academy and keep being the advocate and the supporter of all of our members, and personally our priorities are frankly to listen and learn from my new colleagues, this incredible team, Valeisha and Harvey and the rest of our team, and our members. I think Harvey has demonstrated with his leadership in the last year or so his ability to not only listen but to modernize things. We’re here to accelerate that rate of change that he started once he took on his role on an interim basis and now a permanent basis, and we’re here to keep hitting those pedals even faster.

Harvey, when we last spoke in March 2020, you had some strong comments about how the music industry won’t be able to adapt to the coronavirus. Now as concerts have begun again and many artists are booking dates, how would you gauge the recovery efforts of the music industry, namely the smaller artists and independent venues that have been hurt the most?

Mason: It’s a long road to recovery. There was so much damage done to so much music people. Loss of opportunity, loss of work, loss of health. And we find people scrambling to pay their bills, people that have had struggles mentally in the mental health space, addiction. All these things have come as a result of COVID and exacerbated back then. And as we talked back then, I didn’t see a way the music industry could go through this unscathed. I saw this was going to have a profound impact on everything that we did as an industry, and it did just that. I see a light at the end of the tunnel. I do feel optimistic because music people are resilient. We’ve been told our music sucks for a lot of years or told we’re never going to make it or you can’t sing, but we keep singing, and we keep making music because that’s just what we do. We see the future as being bright.

There’s going to be a resurgence of people dying to hear music, so I think live music is going to come back in a big way. I think we’ve seen an explosion of creativity from the people in our space because we’re also very sensitive creators, and we do reflect what’s happening in our world in the last 18 months. Financial hardship, racial division and racial issues that have happened, and add to the top of that COVID. We have a lot to talk about, we have a lot to pour our heart and soul and emotion into, and that’s why you’re seeing so much great art being created right now. It’s been tough, but I’m optimistic we’ll continue to thrive and be better than we were when we went in it.

What success have you seen throughout the pandemic with the Musicares initiative?

Mason: We’re really pleased with our efforts there. We’re really proud we were able to be in a position to help our peers and give back to the industry. Between the COVID relief and the music industry, we have eclipsed $30 million. That’s the work that’s important to all three of us on this call, and the Academy at large is making sure we’re in a position to be able to do that work, expand on it and do more, reach more people, advocate for more people.

Panay: There’s a saying that to do good, you have to do well. We feel that a strong Academy, one that’s growing, not for growth’s sake but for really advancing the objectives of the mission is critical, and for me my personal priority and focus in assuming this role, as the press release says is to really find avenues of growth for the Academy in all ways.

Coming out of the pandemic, just because of the seismic shift of the industry, people in music need a strong advocate in the Academy. That’s a role we intend to play. We also believe that focusing on educating our members and really helping them grow their careers, their incomes, as well as embracing a whole new category of creator will be paramount. And lastly the way music is made, distributed, consumed, it’s changing. We want an Academy that is ahead and leading the innovation curve, and that’s a role we are planning to do.

Jones: Music is the greatest unifier. And as I think about globally as we all experienced and went through the pandemic these last 18 months, music is what saved us and what healed us and what brought us together. Thinking about our membership, how do we expand our service offerings to them, but also how do we expand our global footprint for membership, but then also even becoming better partners to our music industry peers. So a lot of our work will be around industry relations, getting into the needs of our industry, and making sure we’re meeting those needs where they are and doing the work we need to do to scale our impact.

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative back in March put out a study that said that women producers in music worked on just 2% of the top charting songs for last year, and that the Women in the Mix pledge that the Recording Academy made didn’t produce a single charting song among the artists who made the pledge. What is your reaction to that, and how are you working to adjust this disparity?

Jones: The data tells a story. Certainly we have opportunity for more women to work as music engineers and sound engineers and producers in our industry, so first we need to be hiring and employing more women but then also developing the next generation of women leaders in music. It was actually how Panos and I first met. He was a part of the Berklee school of music team and I as a part of the Recording Academy putting together the Women in Music study that the Recording Academy is doing with Berklee and Arizona State University this summer, so another example of how data is key to identify opportunities to close gaps for women.

We are disproportionality not represented across so many areas of the music industry, and I say we because I was a part of that, wanting to break in, wanting to gain access, wanting to grow in this industry that I loved so much. And the data and the study will roll out later this summer, but the work has already begun. As we think about accelerating progress, so much of what we do is anchored around women’s representation.

What sorts of changes are you expecting to the Women in the Mix program moving forward?

Jones: Once we review the survey findings and the data, we’ll better understand the needs of women in music. So top of mind for me are things like mentorship, sponsorship, job and career opportunities, financial literacy and beyond, but first we’re going to need the data to point us to where we need to start.

What led to the decision to finally eliminate the anonymous nominating committees, and do you have a response to the fact that The Weeknd still says he plans to boycott the ceremony?

Mason: The reason that it was important for us is because we are always going to look at everything we do. When I ran for chair, it was on that platform. We have to look at what we’re doing, we have to be better, we have to be more relevant, we have to be more reflective, and with that in mind, we always look at our awards process and remembering that this is a membership driven organization. So our proposals get brought to the table by our members, so when our members say we want to do this, we bring that into the organization, we talk about it, we vote on it, we do it. I don’t generally have the authority, this is how we’re going to do our voting, this is how we’re going to do it. It’s really about what the members want.

So the whole idea came from a proposal, and it’s something we’ve been discussing over the last few years, because nomination review committees were put in place to make sure we were honoring quality and respecting quality music that was being put out, not necessarily the most popular or not necessarily the person that had the biggest name recognition. Sometimes those things are the same, quality and name recognition, but most times they’re not, and we were getting people looking at categories, recognizing names and just casting a vote. So that was the original purpose for the nominating review. What ended up happening was we knew we needed to continue to evolve our membership, get them to the point that they were a qualified voting body, a body that could reflect the nominees and right winners from year to year, and we did a lot of work on our membership. We invited new people. We re-qualified our membership. 95% of our membership has been re-qualified to make sure they have recent credits within the last five years. We got into genres that we felt have been underrepresented.

They go into these areas and say we need more representation, we need more people from, whatever it is, country music, Black music, children’s music, we need you in our memberships so that when we’re voting for people in your category we have people who actually know this genre, know this type of music and are qualified. So between the changing of the nomination review and the other important is very important, the 10-3 voting proposal, which says you can vote in 10 categories across three fields. So what that does is it stops people from just browsing around or grazing from field to field and saying oh I recognize this name, I’m going to vote for them. Or vote trading, where you say you vote for mine, I’ll vote for yours. Now you have to be a little more judicious with your votes, and you have to be cautious and thoughtful every time you vote. So with those things combined gave us the ability to remove what at one time had been a very useful and productive committee structure.

Do you have a response to TheWeeknd in particular or to other artists who feel there’s a need for improvement?

Mason: I would say we’re going to continue to improve. We want to be representing all different artists from all different communities. We want to get this right, and it’s very very important that we do. But taking a step back, the awards are one piece of this Academy.

If you’re of that mindset you’ll see our only objective is of course get the awards right, of course make a good TV show, of course generate revenue, but to then turn and use that for the benefit of the entire industry. And my hope, our hope, is that we can continue to communicate that to all artists and make them understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and making sure we’re unified in providing them a place for this industry to grow and thrive and enable them to continue.

Panay: Ultimately I feel this time and Harvey as a leader ought to be judged by the actions that we’re undertaking. I feel that even this move that’s being announced today is an indication of the seriousness that this organization has with respect to advancement and change and modernization, which is absolutely critical. Look at all of the advancements that Harvey has made in just the last year.

What else excites you about your new position and working with your team?

Jones: Our doors are open for business and for partnership. Our response to the arts community is join us. We’re a new Academy. And we’re here to do the work that needs to be done, and our doors are open. We’re focused on collaboration and partnership across the industry, and we look forward to sharing with you all our progress and our impact.

Panay: Look at all the changes that are happening around us. Just as we’ve started saying that it’s getting more difficult today to make a sustainable living as a music person as a creator. On the other hand, there’s opportunities arising daily in ways that even a year ago weren’t on the horizon. What’s happening with Twitch, TikTok, Clubhouse, the global growth of music scenes around the world in China and the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, these are exciting movements, and I feel personally that on a global scale, especially coming out of the pandemic as Valeisha said earlier, music in many ways is paving the way for hopefully a more empathetic world and a different world. So what energizes me and excites me in joining this team is there’s no greater platform than the Recording Academy to not just track these changes but really be a catalyst for acceleration of positive changes in the industry.

Mason: I’m just very very proud of where we are and where we’re headed. Our goal at the Academy is to build a high-performance culture and high performance organization with real purpose, and my purpose has always been since the beginning is maximize what we can do in service of the music community and maximize what we can do in partnership with the entire industry.

Brian Welk