Female Execs From Universal, Warner, Sony Issue Letter Slamming ‘Woefully Out of Touch’ Recording Academy

Neil Portnow
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

UPDATED: In the wake of Grammy chief Neil Portnow’s unfortunate comments that women in music need to “step up” to get ahead in the industry, a second round of female executives have come forward calling for him to step down — this one including executives from the major labels and publishing groups, who were notable by their absence from a letter signed by 21 other senior female executives on Thursday.

In a letter addressed to the Recording Academy’s board of trustees and signed by six of the industry’s most powerful female executives, the executives say that Portnow and executive show producer Ken Ehrlich’s comments “demonstrate” that the organization is “woefully out of touch with today’s music, the music business, and even more significantly, society,” and say that the academy must become more inclusive and transparent. Sources close to the situation have confirmed the authenticity of the letter and shared it with Variety; The New York Times first reported the news.

“Every one of the important institutions in music have all needed to evolve, be self-reflective and change with the times,” the letter reads. “Some have been slower than others to change, but it has been happening throughout the industry. No one can afford to be out of touch. We have been held accountable by our artists, songwriters and fans. We need to reflect the core values of what an inclusive and diverse culture of music is all about – and serve as a model of leadership across the broader society.

“[The Academy], which purports to represent every area of the music ecosystem (e.g., artists, producers, songwriters, engineers) should be leaders in this evolution, and yet it has shown itself to be the opposite,” the letter continues. “We ask you, as a Board, to take this message from those who have devoted their lives to music seriously.  Neil Portnow’s comments are not a reflection of being ‘inarticulate’ in a single interview.  They are, unfortunately emblematic of a much larger issue with the [Academy] organization as a whole on the broader set of inclusion issues across all demographics – from the make-up of the voting membership and its transparency, to production of the show, to the organization’s hiring practices and more.  To be clear, if  [the Academy] seeks to reflect music’s diverse community then it must ‘step up’ and be accountable to it.

“We have seen media reports that a task force is being organized.  The only way to drive real progress is to ensure that the task force is diverse in its membership, isn’t limited in its scope to review issues of inclusion, and has the ability to effect meaningful change at every level of” the Academy, the letter concludes.  “Assuming that is the case, and as senior music executives with true commitment to the welfare of the organization and the music community, we hereby put ourselves forward for service.  We are also ready to meet with members of the [Academy] board of trustees to start discussing what additional steps might be taken, beginning now, to make inroads on the issues of inclusion and diversity.”

The letter was signed by Universal Music Group EVP Michele Anthony; Universal Music Publishing CEO Jody Gerson; Atlantic Records co-chairman and COO Julie Greenwald; Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone; Sony Music general counsel Julie Swidler; and Roc Nation COO Desiree Perez.

(Throughout the letter, the executives refer to the Academy by its previous name, NARAS, or the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.)

The letter does not call for Portnow’s departure — which may explain why the executives’ names are absent from Thursday’s letter — but it does say that his comments, which were made in response to a question from a Variety reporter immediately after the show, indicate larger problems. Portnow has twice walked back his “step up” comment and has said the Academy is forming a task force for “female advancement,”  but has fallen short of apologizing.

Representatives for the executives and the Recording Academy declined or did not immediately respond to Variety‘s requests for comment, although Portnow issued a statement later Monday that reads:

“We appreciate the points raised in this letter and welcome the opportunity to work with these executives to address the issues of inclusion, representation, fairness and diversity in our community. As we establish the details around our recently announced task force, we will seek their input and guidance.”

Shortly after the Grammy telecast ended on Sunday night, Portnow replied to a Variety reporter’s question about how female artists, who garnered a very low number of nominations and wins, can move forward in years ahead.

“[Women] who want to be musicians, engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level [need] to step up,” he said.

The outcry on social media was swift and unforgiving, and Portnow issued a statement early Tuesday morning walking back his comments. Yet those two words became a misleading focus of the real problem, which is the low number of female nominees on the ballot — despite an unprecedentedly diverse slate of nominees in terms of race and musical genre, and despite a powerful #MeToo-themed performance from Kesha and speech from Janelle Monae during the show.

As Variety noted shortly after the nominees were announced, female artists were significantly under-represented in the biggest categories.

While three of the five new artist nominees were women — Alessia Cara, Julia Michaels and SZA — solo female artists received exactly two of the 15 total nominations in the other three categories, and even that came with a caveat: Michaels’ “Issues” was nominated for song, a songwriters’ award she would have shared with four other (male) writers. That’s unlike Lorde’s “Melodrama,” up for album, which is awarded to the artist. And though SZA, Cara and Ledisi had strong showings (with five, four and three nods, respectively), three men had five nominations, six men had four and 20 men had three.

Several quick answers emerged when examining the situation. The biggest female artists and/or winners in recent years — Beyoncé, Adele, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Pink, Kelly Clarkson — did not release albums in the eligibility period, although the latter three are nominated for individual songs. Hip-hop, which dominates the top categories, is indisputably ruled by male artists. Recent albums from Katy Perry and Lady Gaga underwhelmed critically and commercially. Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings” was expected by some to receive an album nomination, but in another surprise, country music was absent from the top categories for only the second time in 24 years.

Yet other categories show how many women qualified for this year’s awards. Clarkson, Pink, Gaga and Kesha comprised four of the five nominees for Best Pop Solo Performance; Lana Del Rey was up for Best Pop Vocal Album. Cardi B, Kehlani and Ledisi scored rap or R&B noms; Alison Krauss and Maren Morris were nominated along with Lambert for country awards. Kesha, who has become a rallying figure against sexual assault for her ongoing lawsuit against former mentor/collaborator Dr. Luke, was nominated twice. And despite their high profiles, with the exception of Best New Artist, females have won relatively few big categories in the 2000s: Album of the Year winners were Adele, the Dixie Chicks, Norah Jones and Swift (and Krauss with Robert Plant); along with the above artists, Song and/or Record has gone to Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Lorde and Amy Winehouse.