Neil Portnow responds to Grammy Award critics

Every year, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow faces a barrage of criticism about the Grammys — they’re too commercial or middlebrow; there’re too many categories; the cut-off date for eligibility is too early (Aug. 31 for 2009), making the ceremony seem dated to some. Call it the terrible too’s.

But every year Portnow (he’s been in the job since 2002) absorbs the blows with equanimity. Unlike his predecessor, the controversial and occasionally abrasive C. Michael Greene, Portnow’s motto would appear to be “hit me with your best shot.”

On the notion that the nominees in the major categories are chart-topper heavy: “I think it’s a mistake to equate sales and success with excellence,” he tells Daily Variety without a trace of irony. “We have a pretty interesting history with album of the year, whether it be ‘Oh Brother Art Thou’ or Herbie Hancock (‘River: The Joni Letters’) or (Robert) Plant and (Alison) Krauss (‘Raising Sand’). These were not top-selling pop hits.” The albums did receive a considerable post-Grammy bump, however, with “Oh Brother” selling close to 8 million copies since its 2002 release.

On the almost bewildering number of categories (109 this year): “We are more inclusive than any other process,” he explains. “Look at the other shows: the American Music Awards or the Country Music Awards or the People’s Choice; they’re very genre-specific or very pop-oriented. We represent music from every genre there is; and, from my humble opinion, every Grammy is equally valuable and well-deserved.”

Given all the doomsaying regarding the state of the recording industry, with album sales down in the double digits (12.7%), even while overall sales are up 2.1% (with singles, music vids and digital downloads thrown into the mix), you’d never know it from all the lavish bashes being thrown around town during Grammy week. It’s the one time during the year when Academy members can let their hair down and celebrate each other’s contributions, as opposed to figuring out how to resuscitate a flagging business.

One of the biggest tickets, the MusicCares Person of the Year benefit (this year’s honoree is Neil Young), has grossed an average of $3 million-plus, proceeds from which are used to help musicians in need. Perhaps the most coveted invite is Clive Davis’ star-studded soiree the night before the Grammys, which, as of last year, has become affiliated with the Recording Acad (it’s now called the PreGrammy Gala) and has become a showcase for handing out the org’s Industry Icon Award. The first year, in 2005, it went to Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegan; this year Universal Music Group chair and CEO Doug Morris will hold court.

While Portnow takes pains to point out that the Recording Academy is not just about patting itself on the back on its biggest night of the year, the revenue generated from Grammy week, and the license fee the Academy receives for the telecast, goes a long way toward servicing its 18,000 members and mainting its 12 offices across the country. Equally important, he says, is the non-profit’s advocacy, music education, archiving, preservation and charity effort

And while the ratings prognosticators have gone on record to declare the ratings underwhelming for the primetime “Grammy Nominations Concert Live!” show initiated in 2008, with live performances this past December by the likes of Maxwell and the Sugarland, Portnow takes a glass-half-full approach.

“My thinking was, and (CBS) and the producers agreed, that we should do something different to separate ourselves from the pack,” says Portnow. “Between the first year and the second, we averaged between 6.5 to 7 million viewers for something that’s brand new. We’re very pleased with it.”

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