Grammy Chief Neil Portnow on Nominations, Jay-Z’s Big Look, Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles Snubs

Neil Portnow
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

In his role as chairman and CEO of the Recording Academy, Neil Portnow doesn’t control the nominations — that’s an elaborate process involving 13,000 voting members — but every year finds himself in the at-times awkward position of having to answer for them. Considering how the 2018 nominations, which were announced Tuesday morning, turned out, at some point today he may find himself on the receiving end of a startling amount of invective from enraged fans of Ed Sheeran (who was expected to be a frontrunner but received just two nominations) and Harry Styles (who received none), to name just two. Yet he’s been the boss since 2002 — his first Grammys were in 2003, the last time they were held in New York — and has had plenty of practice at every aspect of the role, so part of the fun of speaking with him is seeing just how diplomatically he handles tough questions. Below, he talks about the diversity of the artists nominated in the main categories, Jay-Z’s big look, and the comparatively smaller looks for Sheeran and Styles. The Grammy Awards will air live from New York’s Madison Square Garden Jan. 28 on CBS.

The Grammys are in New York for the first time since 2003 — how’s it going?
This week we really begin in earnest — once the nominations are announced we’ll have an all-hands, lengthy internal meeting with our producers and start determining the details: what the content is and what the show is going to look like. All of the other elements have been in the works literally for months and months — because we’re in New York for the first time in 15 years, we are in every sense reinventing Grammy Week, everything is going to be quite unique and different from L.A. The MusiCares [Person of the Year ceremony, honoring Fleetwood Mac], which traditionally has been a dinner, is going to be a concert at Radio City Music Hall; the Grammy Museum will have its Leonard Bernstein 100th anniversary exhibition at Lincoln Center, the main awards are at Madison Square Garden, and there are a few others that haven’t been announced yet. I think if you have an opportunity to be unpredictable, it’s a good and wise thing to do.

We couldn’t help but notice the top four categories are quite diverse — you could almost start a #GrammySoDiverse hashtag. Obviously you don’t control the nominations, but do you have an opinion on that?
I like that [hashtag], let’s get that going! Actually, I do [have an opinion]. I think there are a number of elements that contribute to having a slate like we have this year. Number one, top of the list, let’s remember how we get to these nominations: It’s a voting process by approximately 13,000 voting members: They are the professionals who are making the music, and they represent all 84 categories across the board, right down to the chapter level, at the 12 cities that have chapters. Second, the results are reflecting the music of the times —hip-hop and urban music is pervasive in our society worldwide — not just in America. So when that continues to be evident and evolve, this is a reflection of that. And the third element is that we introduced online voting for the first year this year, and if you think about our voting population, they’re working musicians — and where are they? Working in the studio or touring, so being liberating from a paper ballot to an online one is a positive step forward, because it enables more people to participate and it’s a more achievable process. I think you put those together and that’s what you get, and we couldn’t be more proud of where we wound up this year.

Do you think it’s partially a reaction to the “Oscars So White” movement of 2016?
I honestly think that our community — musicians — really listens with their ears more than their eyes or anything else. So if you put our voters in a room with a blindfold, I think our community is very open-minded and thinks about music in a universal more holistic fashion, but our voters in particular are thinking about the craft. So I don’t know that there’s a movement here as a result of criticism and difficulties in the film or TV industry — I just think this is how our highest level of professionals feel about music today.

Obviously you don’t control the nominations, but it’d be interesting to get your opinion on some of them. Jay-Z leads the nominations with eight — why do you think he’s getting such a big look so late in his career?
Again, I think maybe it’s down to the blindfold test. Listening to an album in its entirety is part of what our voters do for this category — considering it as a body of work, as a statement. And when you think about what went into the making of that record, the production elements and the stories being told and the vulnerability and how personal and open and vulnerable so much of it is, that’s rare for most artists. He’s one of those [veteran] artists who’s making music as good or better as he ever has.

Similarly, a lot of people predicted that this year would be a two-man battle between Kendrick Lamar and Ed Sheeran — Lamar has seven nominations, but Sheeran has just two, both in the pop category. Any thoughts on why that happened?
I think it’s the challenge of trying to create objectivity out of something that’s inherently subjective — art and music. I think we have to put this through the lens of our voters — it’s not the fans, it’s not about who had the most hits or the most sales or chart success, it’s the craft, right? It’s gonna come down to five in each category, so hard choices have to be made. In my opinion there’s not one Grammy [category] that’s more important or valuable than any other — they just represent different elements of the craft. In terms of Ed and the recordings he made, certainly our voters thought highly of him and he is nominated [for two awards]. In terms of where he’s nominated, that’s our members’ call and I have to respect that.

Would you say the same thing about Harry Styles, who was expected to get a big look and ended up with no nominations?
I think Harry’s situation might be a little bit different. He’s in a unique situation — he’s not new because he’s had prominence as a member of an incredibly successful worldwide phenomenon, One Direction, with a huge fan base. Now he’s stepped out of that world and is creating his own personal vision, and musically it’s quite different, even in terms of image and the audience. So one could maybe say it’s a transitional period, and for our voters the question is, has he reached the level of excellence that at this point would merit a nomination? It didn’t happen this year — but [he could have lost out] by just one vote. It’s a democratic situation, and I can’t tell you there wasn’t support within the membership for the work that he’s doing, and that’s just where things stand this year — he seems to be the kind of artist who will have a long career.

For the second year in a row, a relatively obscure rock band has received two nominations — last year it was Highly Suspect, this year it’s Nothing More. What accounts for that?
First of all, one thing we’ve done to have more expert voting is to reduce the number of categories that a member can vote in — it used to be 20, now it’s 15. So if you’re a voting member, you have to think a little harder about where am I putting my votes and where do I really understand the music? The idea is to steer people closer to their expertise — those voting in that category are true experts. [For an album or artist] to get to the committee portion of the process, it still has to make the top 20 [finalist shortlist], so even though those bands might seem obscure, they clearly rose through the clutter to get to that point and then through the committee overview, and through that subsequent process managed to rise to the top 5. So that band may not be as obscure as it seems. If this decision were made by a committee pulling it out of thin air that would be one thing, but the committee is working off of the membership’s initial choices.

Do you sit in on the committee meetings?
Oh yes, absolutely. They go on for several days, rooms and rooms of people, hundreds of people participate and I’m there and wandering and poking my head in and getting a sense of each one.

Then can you explain how the late Leonard Cohen, a Canadian folksinger, got nominated for best rock perfomance and best American roots performance?
(Laughs) I invite you to listen to the record all the way through! That came up in one of the rooms I was in, and we heard the album — and that’s one of those challenging situations where to put objectivity around it is really difficult — and given the categories and definitions and guidelines we have, that’s where it landed. We wish he were here to enjoy it.

But we’re very proud and pleased by the results — we think it’s a great reflection on our culture and society, and it’s gonna make for a very exciting Grammy Week.