Portnow accentuates the positive

Music biz is still producing, Recording Acad chief says

While Recording Academy president Neil Portnow can still bask in last year’s Grammy Awards rating bonanza, he knows other challenges will face his organization in the wake of this Sunday’s 53rd annual awards ceremony.

CBS’s 2010 kudocast garnered a huge 35% gain in viewership. Portnow attributes the lift, which saw the biggest Grammys audience in years, to a number of factors — the appearance of Taylor Swift and other young stars, increased tune-ins as a result of recession belt-tightening and some harsh winter weather — but he puts the show’s salute to the late Michael Jackson at the top of the list.

“I think that particularly his fans all over the world wanted to see what a Grammy tribute to Michael Jackson was going to look like,” Portnow says. “It’s possible that some of those folks would not be our audience on a regular basis.”

As a result of last year’s ratings boom, CBS agreed to a short-term extension of the academy’s contract with the network; Portnow adds, “We’ll be back talking about a longer-term extension after this (year’s) telecast.”

Portnow says some of the Grammys’ recent boost can be laid to the Recording Academy’s increased presence on the Web and social networking sites.

“Frankly, we were behind, so we had some catching up to do,” he admits. “We didn’t even have a fully dedicated department within the organization to focus on the digital world in general. It has many applications, both internally and externally. Internally, for our members, we’ve established Grammy365, which is our own in-house social networking site for members.”

He adds, “Last year, for the first time, we did Grammy Live 72 — basically 72 hours of Grammy coverage being streamed. Included in that is the pre-telecast (ceremony), where the majority of awards are given out. We’d streamed that over the past couple of years. We’re now at a point where this year clearly we’ll have well over half a million viewers of the pre-tel.”

While Portnow is always careful to acknowledge the continuing downturn in record sales, he says the industry’s problems have not impacted academy membership, which now stands at around 20,000, with some 12,000 voting members.

“As an organization, we’ve remained pretty solid,” he says. “As far as our membership, I’m really pleased to say that we’ve had no decline at all in the past couple of years. The prior year was sort of the bottom of the barrel. We don’t have huge spikes and drops…It’s a credit to the fact that our members value being part of this organization and what we do, and have kept it a high enough priority that they continue to support and renew.”

NARAS is attempting to grow new membership through its Grammy University Network, which provides outreach to potential music industry professionals in the college community via reps from the academy’s 12 national branches. “Over the past three years, that has grown well over 4,000 members,” Portnow notes, “and it involves over 300 universities across the country. That’s also keeping us young and vibrant.”

On a fundraising level, Portnow admits that the business’ plunge has made it harder to drum up support for its charitable and educational arms, MusiCares and the Grammy Foundation.

“It’s more difficult to raise money in this environment,” says Portnow. “You have to work harder. It may take more donors to get to your numbers than it might have in the past. But both MusiCares and the Grammy Foundation have not seen dramatic reduction.

“Yes, we’re more conservative about our projections, and we’re more careful about the things that we fund and the way we do it. But on the whole we’ve been able to continue to help people in the music community who need help through MusiCares, and on the foundation side we’ve been able to make some grants and to do all the programs we do for music education in the schools.”

Looking into the future, Portnow anticipates some alterations in the way Grammys are awarded may be necessary as the paradigm shifts from the physical world to the digital: “Really, our job is to follow the path wherever that goes and devise a system that fairly and broadly continues to recognize excellence. If we wind up living in a world of tracks and no albums, we’ll adjust our awards process to relate to that.”

While the industry has been rocked by a decade’s worth of change, Portnow chooses to take a page from Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen and ac-cen-tchu-ate the positive.

“There’s as much music being created as ever,” he says. “So I think it’s very encouraging that despite all the tough times, our creative community is still inspired and is still producing.”

More on the Grammy Awards
In Grammy world, it’s the year of the producer | Portnow accentuates the positive | MusiCares honors Babs | Grammy Museum gives rap its due

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