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Launch pad

Kudosfest a must event for tour-bound acts

The opening of this year’s Grammy telecast will be significantly different from the first two kudosfests under Neil Portnow’s purview, but the ultimate effect may be similar.

Artists who have kicked off the last two Grammy telecasts — Simon and Garfunkel in 2003 and Prince in ’04 — have then launched two enormously successful tours.

Sunday’s kickoff will feature Black Eyed Peas, Gwen Stefani with Eve, Los Lonely Boys, Maroon 5 and Franz Ferdinand — all acts that are expected to have increased profiles in 2005, especially on the road.

“We almost never know until the last minute exactly what (we’re presenting), but this year will be different musically and conceptually,” Portnow tells Daily Variety, in the middle of preparations for Sunday’s show.

Green Day, Alicia Keys, Tim McGraw, U2 and the debut of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony as a duo have also been confirmed as performers at the 47th Grammy Awards, being held at L.A.’s Staples Center. Kanye West, with 10 nominations, will perform with John Legend, Mavis Staples, and the Blind Boys Of Alabama; Bonnie Raitt and Billy Preston will perform in honor of Ray Charles; and Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Gretchen Wilson, members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dickie Betts and Elvin Bishop will perform in a tribute to Southern rock. Also, Bono, Stevie Wonder, Norah Jones, Velvet Revolver, Brian Wilson, Keys and McGraw will perform Lennon-McCartney’s “Across the Universe,” which will be sold on iTunes to raise money for the tsunami relief effort.

“The Grammys are one great element in a launch,” says Michael Rapino, president of global music at concert promoter Clear Channel Entertainment, citing Prince’s recent tour, which Clear Channel did not promote, as an example. “Prince stole the show and reminded everyone how great a performer he is. He followed it up with a great show with a great ticket price ($61 on average). We love the eyeballs that the Grammys provide.”

The awards have been around since 1958, a year after the Recording Academy was founded. The Acad now has 12 regional chapters and 16,000 members and most recently opened a producers & engineers wing, the first of several planned wings.

The org is active in education efforts and providing help for music personnel in times of need, but its spotlight comes every February with the Grammys.

Since Portnow took over, the telecast has gone after “Grammy moments,” such as the Prince-Beyonce appearance last year, a staging that won’t happen anywhere else. This year, Portnow promises, will be no different.

Like every awards shows, the Grammys has had its ups and downs. As last year’s program was being designed, Janet Jackson’s mishap at the Super Bowl halftime show put the kudocast in a state of flux. CBS fought for apologies from Jackson and Justin Timberlake regarding the “wardrobe malfunction.” Timberlake coughed up an “I’m sorry” and made it to the kudocast; Jackson stayed away from the ceremony.

Portnow is pleased to say that neither CBS nor “any government agency” has placed any restrictions on the Grammycast. “They’ve instituted a delay which is not what I’d like to see but it’s not up to me. But from a creative standpoint, we’re moving straight ahead.”

Beyond the performances — which have consistently provoked album sales spikes for more than 15 years — last year’s show also featured the unveiling of its advocacy effort What’s the Download?, a Web site dedicated to spreading information on music, the Internet and copyrights.

Visited by more than a half-million netizens, the campaign has grown to include an advisory board of young adults and musicians (Kanye West, Mark McGrath and others) that will be meeting for the first time on Saturday afternoon.

Advocacy, Portnow says, plays a key role in the Recording Academy’s efforts during the 364 days they aren’t staging the Grammys, which will again be a part of his short speech on the telecast.

Prior to taking over the org, Portnow had been with Zomba/Jive, having opened its L.A. office in 1989 and rising to senior VP for the Zomba Group, overseeing publishing and its film-TV music operations. From 2000-’02, Portnow was also president of the City of Hope’s Music and Entertainment Industry Group. Experience with the charity groups plus his label background, he says, plays a key role in his fostering a change in attitude at the Recording Academy over the last 27 months.

“My predecessor had an agenda in terms of size that I feel differently about,” Portnow says. “It’s philosophical — quality vs. quantity — and we strive to attract the best kinds of folks. We had a campaign last year called the Hot 100 in which each chapter came up with names of people who were not members and reached out to them. It was a good recruitment tool.”

His office, too, is a reminder of how he got to this esteemed position. A string bass, his instrument as a youth, sits in one corner; a framed picture of one of his teen bands, the Savages, rests near a small version of the one-sheet for “Wired,” one of three films he music supervised in the late ’80s. There’s a collection of old radios, a framed shot of a meeting with Ray Charles and, behind a few shots with Academy staff, a snapshot taken with guitarist Buddy Guy.

Behind the scenes, Portnow has worked on ways to salute music creators in a variety of genres, bringing together music execs and performers for roundtable discussions and improving the perception of the Grammy org.

“More than anything, the changes are comfortable,” says producer Phil Ramone. “It’s more interesting in the way diversity and the thinking has grown.”

At his first Grammy Awards, in 2003, Portnow had been on the job for three months, taking over for C. Michael Greene, who left the org in April 2002 with a $8 million buyout amid charges of sexual harassment and financial misappropriation.

The org’s darkest moment — the rescinding of the new artist award to lip-synchers Milli Vanilli — happened during Greene’s 14-year run as the Grammy chief but it was under his watch that Grammys were elevated from an out-of-touch awards show to a global event. He also contributed significant changes in the voting process that started to give the awards a new credibility and bulked up the org’s bank account and its membership rolls — to 17,000 from 3,500. (Today, about 12,000 NARAS members vote for the Grammys; the org also offers nonvoting memberships.)

Recording engineer Al Schmitt, a member of the Academy since 1959 and a national trustee coming to the end of his five-year term, notes, “When I go to NARAS and talk to people there’s so much happening and it’s so open now. It used to be a tight-knit group and only a few people knew things. He’s easy to talk to, a fair human being.”

Since Portnow took over, the Grammys ceremony has been honoring those who have died the previous year, most notably honoring Clash member Joe Strummer with an all-star version of “London Calling” at the close of the 2003 show. He sees a need to prevent more awards from being posthumous.

In the summer, for example, Portnow and Quincy Jones surprised Ray Charles at his studio to present him with the President’s Honorary Award, an honor that the Academy president can present at his discretion. With Charles, they knew his health was quickly failing and that he might not make it through the year.

“He was so sharp on that day,” Portnow reminisces. “It was one of those days that I say ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this.’ We got to present the award in a unique (intimate) fashion. The best part is being able to get to people when they can appreciate it.”

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