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Recording Academy President Sings Praises of Organization’s Efforts Outside Grammys

While the industry is just days away from celebrating the Grammy Awards, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow likes to remind observers that his organization’s multifaceted mandate is more than just an underscore for music’s biggest night.

Speaking from his expansive, instrument- cluttered office in Santa Monica, Portnow points to the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. “It’s on the ground, and it’s something that lives,” he observes. “It’s not one night, three-and-a-half hours.”

Portnow’s off-handed remark acknowledges that the glittery Grammy Awards show, mounted annually at the Staples Center and telecast live to millions on CBS, tends to overshadow the 24,000-member Academy’s year-round efforts in public education, charitable work, and lobbying on behalf of the industry.

Opened in December 2008, the Grammy Museum in L.A. Live is the organization’s most visible year-round presence for both Angelenos and tourists, with its mix of permanent interactive exhibits, original and touring attractions, and live events that include panel discussions with accompanying performances and film screenings.

“We’ve created another approach to music education for the Academy,” notes Portnow, who is embarking on his 15th year as the organization’s leader. “When you have an on-the-ground facility that’s open [daily], you have the ability to have a place to do, or talk about, all these things. That, combined with [museum director] Bob Santelli being a former educator and teacher, with the energy and vision that he brings to it, has made it a hub of all our music education efforts.”

In the past year, the Grammy Museum lengthened its reach beyond L.A. for the first time. In March, it opened a branch on the campus of Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., which features a deep focus on the music of the region. Around the same time, the Grammy Museum Gallery opened in a 10,000-square-foot space in Nashville’s Musicians Hall of Fame.

The Grammy Museum, which has an international presence thanks to its online programs, will soon launch its first brick-and-mortar effort outside the U.S. with a project in China. “We’ve started essentially a joint-venture company there with a not-for-profit music organization,” Portnow says. “We formed a separate company to explore opportunities for the Grammy brand and for cultural exchange. That will be three separate museums in three cities in China over four years.”

While the Grammy Awards are the most recognizable public face of the Recording Academy, the organization’s annual MusiCares benefit dinner and concert is a more intimate but no less glamorous affair that supports the needy in the music community. This year’s event, honoring Tom Petty and featuring a host of tribute-paying peers, takes place Feb. 10, two days before the awards show.

“We’re in the largest venue in the city that it’s possible to have a dinner in — the Convention Center. We’re in that 3,000-seat range,” Portnow says. “If you look at a graph, every year the revenue has surpassed the previous year. Last year was a record for us — we had well over $7 million for the night. The challenge is, how do you keep that going? It’s not easy, but fortunately what went before helps what goes forward. If you’d had Bob Dylan in the past, you can ask any artist, and they’ll feel a sense of importance about this night.”

A smaller annual event raises money for the Musicians’ Assistance Program fund, which provides support related to substance abuse and addiction. Last year’s tribute concert for Smokey Robinson filled the 2,300-capacity Novo by Microsoft club at L.A. Live. Portnow says that benefit has its own flavor, “almost like an extraordinary 12-step meeting.”

MusiCares’ high-profile fundraisers and smaller events like intimate house concerts facilitated by the Academy address the charity’s expanding mission.

“We’ve been widely acknowledged over time as the Red Cross of the music industry,” says Portnow. “Over the past few years we’ve had some natural disasters — Hurricane Katrina; the recent floods in Louisiana; Nashville, when they had that terrible situation. So over the years we’ve created an infrastructure and an ability to react to natural disasters. That’s new in the past decade.”

On a governmental level, the Academy has long been active in lobbying and mounts a bipartisan music caucus in Washington to promote dialogue about the industry’s concerns. While Portnow says he’s taking a wait-and-see approach about the new administration — which purportedly is considering deep cuts in arts funding — he sounds a positive note about other elements of its potential agenda.

“We’ve heard comments about regulation,” he says. “Is this a good thing or not a good thing for the government to be in the business of regulating industry? Our industry suffers from government regulation on lots of levels, whether it’s consent decrees, or the [performing rights organizations] that are regulated, or copyright laws, and so on and so forth, which are all antiquated. Frankly, we believe these are nonpartisan issues. There’s nothing about fair pay that sits on one side of the aisle or the other. There’s nothing about being compensated fairly for work that’s proffered that’s a partisan political issue.”

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