Recording Academy President on Why Music Is ‘Much More Inclusive’ in Diversity

Neil Portnow
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Compared to the mercurial Michael Greene, whom he replaced as president of the Recording Academy in 2002, Neil Portnow is a portrait of calm and stability. He’s overseen dramatic growth in the Academy’s reach and influence, not to mention revenue-generating sources for the organization beyond the Grammy telecast, such as the Beatles’ 50th anniversary special in 2014, and the Frank Sinatra 100th anniversary special that aired this past December.

He’s also witnessed tectonic shifts in the industry since he started out as a record producer in the ’70s, both in the way music has evolved but also in how it’s consumed and measured in terms of success, which spills over into all forms of media.

In the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty scheme of things, last year’s Grammys experienced a six-year low in terms of ratings and overall viewership (about 25 million viewers, down 13% from the year before). But at the same time the ceremony experienced a spike on CBS.com by 133% among unique users, and a 40% boost in live streams on CBS’ and Grammy’s websites. At the time, Nielsen Social ranked the ceremony as the biggest social entertainment program of the 2014-15 TV season, with more than 13.4 million comments on Twitter.

“I think the model of analytics and measurement for what constitutes success are definitely different (from before),” Portnow tells Variety. “The fact is, though, with 25-plus million viewers, we are the juggernaut. There’s nothing remotely close to us in terms of music on television.”

This year’s performance line-up offers a little something for everyone, with such artists as Adele, Sam Hunt, Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, Justin Beiber and Chris Stapleton set to take the stage, and tributes to the late B.B. King as well as Lionel Richie, this year’s MusiCares honoree, also in the works. And Portnow doesn’t care how people watch, as long as they pay attention.

“The reach and the breadth is not only broader for people who may not be sitting in their homes watching a television screen,” he says, “but the opportunity is far more on a worldwide basis. A couple years ago we out-rated the Oscars. I think we are the gold standard when it comes to that kind of programming.”

A similar yardstick applies to the way music is consumed, with album sales down by 6% in 2015 from the year before, but total consumption up by more than 15% due to streaming, and a 92.8% increase in songs streamed on demand through audio and video platforms.

Yet despite the ability to create and access music in more ways than ever before, it’s become harder and harder for musicians beyond the Adeles and Taylor Swifts of the world to make a living at it.

“Interest in music is stronger than ever,” explains Portnow. “The availability of music and the mobility factor is a great boom to consumers and fans, and ultimately ought to benefit the people who make that music. The difficulty is the business model has not evolved in a way that creates fairness for the creators.”

While the Recording Academy has been lobbying for years to initiate legislation that would better compensate artists for music that is streamed, broadcast on radio and played in bars, clubs and restaurants, it has redoubled its efforts as of late by creating a political action committee, the Grammy Fund for Music Creators, intended to raise money from the Academy’s 14,000 members to support politicians sympathetic to their cause. Its first-year fund-raising goal is $100,000, according to a report in the New York Times.

Portnow views fair compensation, and the complexity of the issues therein, as the No. 1 issue facing the recording industry in this day and age.

“We’re in an industry where the ownership and the rights to the works that are created can be multiple, so that’s very confusing,” he explains. “It doesn’t make sense that we’re so highly regulated based on ideas and fears and issues from decades ago. All of that has to be morphed and shaped and reformed so there’s a light at the end of the tunnel that allows the creator to make a living by the sale of their music. Yes there’s touring and merchandising, but at the core of it music has a value; it’s a commodity and it ought to be fairly compensated.”

With all this talk of diversity, or the lack of it in terms of the Oscar race, Portnow can take pride in the fact that the music biz has always existed as a rainbow coalition. “The music community really is much more inclusive because of the nature of the collaborations,” he says. “Also because of the nature of the proliferation of influences of one genre into another over time. It’s the history of how music has evolved from the very beginning.”

And if the Grammys have not always kept up with the times in terms of recognizing artists in their prime, such as Dylan, the Stones, Elvis Costello and Bob Marley, this year’s nominees — in the album category alone — not only point to diversity with a capital D, but are a fairly accurate snapshot of the current musical landscape.

“We ought to be a microcosm of the music that’s made in any given year,” says Portnow. “We’re proud to be able to be representative that way. It’s the great melting pot, without a doubt.”

The week leading up to the Grammys has become chock-full of events — including the Recording Academy’s Producers and Engineers Wing’s special yearly honor, presented to producer Rick Rubin on Thursday at the Village Studios in West Hollywood, and the annual Clive Davis bash set for the Beverly Hilton on Sunday. The MusiCares event, which raises money for musicians in need, keeps raising the bar every year in terms of funds raised. Last year’s event, perhaps the hardest ticket to procure in its history, honored Bob Dylan, who gave a speech for the ages, and raised a record $7.2 million.

With Richie on tap as this year’s Person of the Year, the singer-songwriter-producer has a tough act to follow.

“Every year has just been unbelievable, and you kind of go to bed thinking, ‘How are we going to top this?’ ” says Portnow. “That certainly was true the night Barbra Streisand was honored; it was true the night Paul McCartney stepped off the stage; the night Bruce Springsteen auctioned off his mother’s lasagna and a motorcycle ride. With Lionel, he’s a very competitive person, so one of the things in his mind is, ‘I want mine to be a record breaker.’ As we’re sitting here today, we’re just about where we were at this time last year in terms of tables and ticket sales. It’s very possible that we’ll have another record breaker this year.”