Smooth-running org translates to successful Grammys

A banner congratulating Neil Portnow in his first year on the job hangs over the desk in his Santa Monica office. It’s a bright reminder that, as comfortable as Portnow has become in his job as president of the Recording Academy, he’s only been there 13 months.

“Early in the job I settled into a good pattern, and when I realized I was getting two or three hours less of sleep each night and it didn’t bother me, I was in a good place,” Portnow says. “The adrenaline was making up for the absence” of shut-eye.

He wishes he could hang another banner at the entranceway to the Acad’s building, but he knows Disney already has rights to “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Portnow’s employees back up his assessment, and rather than being a fortress in the shade of the freeway, the offices have been opened up for events to the local community, with the hopes of doing more music-oriented gatherings in the office’s courtyard.

“I have found Neil to be very open,” said Daniel Glass, president of Artemis Records, whose artist the late Warren Zevon is up for five Grammys. “I felt last year’s cermemony at Madison Square Garden was a warm one and I have to believe that’s a sign of his administration.

That’s a distant cry from the C. Michael Greene years, which had its bright spots financially and in terms of gaining respect for the Grammy Awards, but a reputation for being insular and shady.

Greene’s tempestuous 13-year run came to a crashing finale that included an $8 million buyout package, and the words tossed around at the end of his tenure were hardly pleasant — discrimination, hostile work environment, harassment, inaccessibility.

Portnow, hired 90 days before the February 2003 Grammys were held in New York, returned from Gotham energized by the focus of the kudocast that featured a number of Grammy moments: Eminem performing “Lose Yourself” and a Clash tribute led most prominently by Bruce Springsteen.

“We need to go beyond the obvious,” Portnow says, noting that aimhas led this year to a funk tribute pairing OutKast, George Clinton and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Last year’s big change was the inclusion of an in memoriam section, which the previous administration had opposed and which Portnow, as a layman watching the Academy Awards, felt was a consistently moving portion of the program.

Last year also included tributes to Maurice Gibb and Joe Strummer; this year, the Acad will have to decide among Johnny Cash, who Portnow says was treated wonderfully in a CMA tribute, June Carter Cash, Warren Zevon, Barry White and Nina Simone.

“Like funerals in New Orleans for musicians, it’s a celebratory moment,” he says. “While we’re paying our respects, its still about the music. It’s about standing out from the pack.”

Last year’s kudocast pulled in 24.9 million viewers — the Grammys’ fourth largest aud in a decade. A substantial number of Grammy winners and show performers saw retail spikes, none bigger than the one for Norah Jones, who took home five trophies. Her “Come Away With Me” sold more than 621,000 in the week after the ceremony — a 330% sales increase.

Once the curtain falls on the 46th annual Grammy-cast, Portnow focuses on overseeing 12 regional offices serving more than 18,000 members; a Producers & Engineers Wing; the advocacy group the National Coalition for Music Education, which the Acad co-founded; as well as the MusiCares Foundation for people in crisis; and the arts-based education org, the Grammy Foundation.

For the most part, the Recording Academy stays clear of lobbying efforts and advocacy. This year’s Grammy broadcast, held Feb. 8 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, will find the Acad speaking against illegal downloading of music.

A public service announcement will debut the night of the awards that Portnow says aims at educating the public. The PSA will point viewers to whatsthedownload.com that further educates music consumers.

The Grammys will also be trying out a new venue, the L.A. Convention Center adjacent to Staples Center, where they will stage the pre-telecast ceremony, in which about 90 awards are given out. Idea down the road is to create a separate show that a different Viacom channel may be interested in airing. (CBS handles the regular broadcast).

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more