Today, the Recording Academy has confirmed what must be the worst-kept secret in the music business: The Grammy Awards are returning to New York for their 60th anniversary show, which will take place at Madison Square Garden on January 28. The awards will be broadcast on CBS for the 46th consecutive year.
To say that the announcement has been a long time coming is an epic understatement: The awards have been held in New York just once in the past 19 years. The Grammys had basically alternated between Los Angeles and New York for much of their history. But after a public spat between then-Academy chief Michael Greene and then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, the awards decamped to the then-new Staples Center in 1999 — which was designed with awards shows in mind — returning to New York only in 2003.
While discussions had taken place sporadically since Neil Portnow was appointed Academy president in 2002, things shifted into high gear early last year after Julie Menin named head of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new media and entertainment commission. Sources say she was a motivating force for the city, rallying sponsors ranging from Adidas to management consulting/professional services company Accenture to cover the substantial expenses of staging the Grammys at the Garden.
“As a native New Yorker and lifelong supporter of the city’s vibrant arts scene, I couldn’t be more excited to return in 2018 and celebrate 60 years of honoring the best of the best in recorded sound in the world-class venue that is Madison Square Garden,” said Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow in a statement (for more, see Variety’s interview with Portnow below).
“We welcome the Grammy Awards back to New York City with open arms and we look forward to continuing to partner with a music industry that supports access and empowerment in the arts,” New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “Madison Square Garden is extremely honored to host the 60th anniversary of the Grammy Awards when they return to The Garden for the third time in their history,” said James L. Dolan, executive chairman, The Madison Square Garden Company. “It is very exciting that Music’s Biggest Night will be hosted by the country’s most iconic city from historic Madison Square Garden, and broadcast on America’s most watched network,” said Leslie Moonves, Chairman and CEO, CBS Corporation.
To announce the how’s return to New York, the Recording Academy worked with creative agency TBWA\Chiat\Day and director Spike Lee on a film called “NY Stories,” featuring New York artists sharing New York musical stories. The film takes viewers on a musical tour of the city, from The Apollo Theater in Harlem to Jay Z’s Marcy Projects in Brooklyn.
“I’m honored to be a part of this homage to the city I love, that is welcoming the 60th anniversary of the Grammys into its big warm arms,” said Lee.
Rumors of the move began circulating last summer, then The New York Times reported the news late in November, and it was all but confirmed by the time the Awards took place at their usual home in Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Feb. 12. But for a variety of reasons, as Recording Academy chairman (and native New Yorker) Neil Portnow explains below, it was not until today that the news could be officially announced.
Why did the official announcement take so long?
It’s a tremendous process. Remember it’s Grammy week, and within that week are a multitude of events and each one has its own venue and unique elements, and in order to be at a point where you can make it official you want to have a good portion of that figured out. The anchor of Grammy week is of course the telecast, which is an arena show, and it’s not booking that venue for a night or two — we lock out a building for sometimes beyond 10 days, and because of the business these venues are in, they have commitments well in advance with sports teams and regular events, like in New York you have the [Westminster] Dog Show. In L.A., because this is our home, they have accounted for that — the teams go on “Grammy hiatus” out of town because we need the building. Also, Staples is configured in a certain way, with a certain amount of seats and suites, and every seat is a revenue piece for the Academy. Any time you change the model you change the revenue component, and we’re a not-for-profit [organization], so it’s not like we can go out and start another business.
And it’s a significantly higher cost to produce the same week in New York as it is in L.A., and then you’ve got the elements of the shortfall and that’s where a host committee comes in and additional sponsors and all of that. So to get all of those details ironed out, particularly with a venue like Madison Square Garden, really was time consuming and frankly it took longer for all of us than we might have wished. But now we can officially say we’re coming and it’s happening.
Who were the prime movers behind this effort?
Of course, it’s primarily the Academy that initiated the idea. My first year at the Academy, 2003, was the last time the show was in New York — trial by fire, right? I’ve always had a desire to have the show in New York since that time, and over the years we’ve had exploratory conversations, and sometimes they’ve heated up sometimes they’ve cooled off. I will tell you that when the recession hit [in 2008] I actually stopped the conversations because I felt it was an impossibility in that economic climate. But as soon as we turned the corner on that last chapter I re-engaged. You’ve gotta remember the core of this is the venue, because unless you’ve figured that out, it’s like building a house without a frame. CBS is of course a partner; they don’t have quite the same active role in making it happen but they will have a tremendous role in rolling it out, and they’ve been very supportive. Obviously Madison Square Garden is critical, and the city with its relatively new music and entertainment agency — with their commitment and strong desire to see this cross the finish line, they put their hand up and helped to create a host committee and introductions.
Does the prestige of the event make it worthwhile for Madison Square Garden to basically shut down for nearly two weeks? What’s in it for them?
Look, there is no greater show in music, with more prestige and more eyeballs in terms of viewers. If you look at the numbers, we have 3-4 times the viewership of any music show on television, plus the international viewership as well: we’re broadcast in almost 200 territories, so it’s a worldwide proposition. Think about who performs at the Grammys: the biggest and the best of the present and the future, the most important legacy artists, everybody’s under one roof. If you’re a venue owner there’s very little that tops the value of that from a commercial point of view. And for Madison Square Garden to be a beacon for all of that, activity is a nice feather in their cap. The city has done the economic-impact studies, they’ve seen what it has done for L.A., so there’s tremendous upside for the economy of the city and the state, and it’s also a shot in the arm for the East Coast music industry. For all of those reasons it makes sense and I think our venue partners realize the value of that.
Are you confident in the city’s ability to host all of the events during Grammy week? Do you plan to hold events in other boroughs, like Brooklyn and Queens?
We will have the same core Grammy Week events that we have here: Musicares and the [official Grammy] afterparty and the pre-Grammy gala that we produce with Clive Davis, the Producers & Engineers Wing event, a nominee reception, all of those. Some of them may look a little different, I like the challenge of mixing things up and this is a perfect time to do it. As for the other question, we have had some conversations about doing things in other boroughs and we’re very interested in that, so it’ll be a matter of getting the core events settled and then [address those] with the remaining bandwidth, both human and financial.
Can you say more about how you might mix things up?
I think it’s just a little premature because I don’t know yet! Until we can zero in and make a commitment I don’t want to misstate anything, but I suspect some of them will look a little different and be formatted a little differently.
You’re a native New Yorker. How long did you live here?
I was born in Manhattan in Lenox Hill Hospital and lived on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side for a number of years, and when my folks had enough resources to get out to the suburbs we moved to Great Neck [Long Island]. But I always gravitated back to the city to see jazz at Birdland or the great shows in the Village, and ultimately I moved back to the city and lived in Murray Hill. My music career began there, I’d be meeting with publishers and trying to sell my masters every day, and then I got my first job at Screen Gems [music publishing] and then at RCA. I was transferred to L.A. in 1979 or so and have been out here ever since, but I am very much a New Yorker and always will be.
Does this open up the possibility for the show to be held in other cities, like Nashville or Chicago or Miami?
Actually there was a Grammy show in Nashville many years ago, and the Latin Grammys, our sister organization, has moved its show quite a few times; we’re kinda joined at the hip so we understand how that works. There are a lot of challenges about this particular show that make it not easy to travel on a regular basis, but in the right situation and the right time, all things are possible.
We hear the Grammys will be back at Staples in 2019.
At this time we really are focusing on New York and that’s what we think is appropriate. That said, we’ve had a wonderful partnership with [Staples Center owner] AEG. Staples has been our home and we’ve enjoyed great success and a great relationship there, and as we move forward we’ll be addressing those issues as well. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about AEG and Staples and this is in no way a reflection on that relationship, this is just an opportunity to do something unique and special and different on our 60th anniversary.