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Grammys’ Next In Line? Five Candidates Who Could Replace Neil Portnow

The Recording Academy chief steps down from his post in July 2019.

Roseanne Cash, Hilary Rosen and Debra
REX/Shutterstock, CNN

While his past few months have been embroiled in controversies over female representation and MusiCares, there’s no question that Neil Portnow will leave big shoes to fill when he steps down from his post at the helm of the Recording Academy and Grammy Awards in July of next year. During his tenure, Portnow has negotiated a $600 million agreement that will keep the Grammy Awards on CBS through 2026; brought the voting process online and thus modified and activated the voting body; and been a strong advocate for the music industry on Capitol Hill. Just as importantly, under his watch, the Grammys have come into the present: Despite complaints that the Academy seems out of touch, it has come a long way since Steely Dan or the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack won Album of the Year: The past five Album of the Year winners have been Bruno Mars, Adele, Taylor Swift, Beck and Daft Punk — mostly conservative and mostly white, yes, but at least there was no Steely Dan or 70-year-old folk songs. And in a sad irony, the 2018 nominees list was by far the most racially and musically diverse in Grammy history, but that diversity came at the expense of female nominees.

Dozens of names have been bandied about in the weeks since Portnow announced his departure, so we’ve compiled a fantasy candidate list of our own, based on insider speculation, gossip and instinct. Under the circumstances, it would be a great surprise if the next chairman of the Recording Academy were not a woman, thus, all of our candidates are female (pictured above, left to right: Hilary Rosen, Rosanne Cash, Debra Lee).

Rosanne Cash
Is it crazy to think an actual recording artist could lead an academy that’s based on them? (Sorry, we don’t count Portnow and predecessor Mike Greene’s musical careers as a precedent.) If the Motion Picture Academy and various film guilds can let so-called creatives take the lead, so could the Recording Academy — at least if there’s a candidate like Cash, who’s proven to have the statesman qualities necessary for the job and an abiding interest in the intellectual property issues that seem likely to vex the industry for years to come. It doesn’t hurt that she’s music royalty (yes, she’s the daughter of that man named Cash), but what she’d really bring to the gig is the deep engagement that shows up in everything from her Twitter account to her testimony before Congress about artists’ rights. The biggest arguments against Cash might be that she’s already taken many political stands, and whether she could channel her passions about the business into policy. However, it seems likely that the vast number of musicians in the Academy would welcome one of their own — and people might actually listen to the Academy leader’s annual speech during the telecast (especially if she sang it). — Chris Willman

Debra Lee
The chairman/ceo of BET Networks announced last month that she is stepping down from that role. Lee began her career at the Viacom company as its first VP and general counsel in 1986, rising to president/coo in 1996 and becoming chairman/CEO in 2005. Lee is already involved with the Academy’s recently organized Diversity & Inclusion Task Force and has been prominent in the Times Up movement as well; she has been named to several boards looking to improve their own diversity, including Twitter. The Harvard Law School graduate also has Capitol Hill experience, serving as a clerk to a district court judge in her early days in D.C. — Roy Trakin

Ruby Marchand
Given the inherent conservatism of the Recording Academy, it is not outside of the realm of possibility that the organization will move to install someone from the inside to succeed Portnow. A logical choice might be Ruby Marchand, who was elected Vice Chair at NARAS three years ago. She was previously vp of the academy’s large New York chapter. Marchand is a nearly three-decade major label veteran; as Warner Music International’s vp of A&R, she has long held an artist-friendly job with global reach. If she were to be selected for the job, it would be a move with some precedent: In 2002, after former academy cjhief Michael Greene resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment and other improprieties, the trustees brought in one of their own: fellow board member and Zomba Group senior vp of West Coast operations Neil Portnow. — Chris Morris

Hilary Rosen
While the former head of the Recording Industry Association of America is said to be cool on the prospect of taking over for Portnow — and did not immediately respond to Variety’s request for comment — it is difficult to think of a candidate with deeper experience in both the music industry and Capitol Hill. As a partner at the communications firm SKDKnickerbocker, she is already a veteran strategist who works at the intersection of communications, media and politics; the firm has a Women’s Advocacy practice that has worked to protect birth-control rights, marriage equality and other causes. She was chairman and CEO of the RIAA and served at the organization from 1987 to 2003; she is the former Political Director and Editor-at-Large of HuffingtonPost.com; early in her career she worked on Capitol Hill for Sen. Dianne Feinstein and New Jersey governor Brendan Byrne; and she is currently an on-air contributor at CNN. She was also a founder of Rock the Vote, which mobilizes young people to get involved in the political process.— Jem Aswad

Julie Swidler
As EVP and General Counsel for Sony Music since 2008, Swidler is known as a fair but fearsome negotiator, helping to keep acts from Bruce Springsteen to Beyonce in the fold. A proven diplomat, in recent years she has overseen the company’s negotiations with streaming services and the extension of its agreement with the Michael Jackson estate, among many other roles; she’s also the only woman to receive the Grammy Foundation’s Entertainment Law Initiative Service Award. In accepting the 2016 ELI Award from Clive Davis – her boss at Arista and RCA from 1999-2008 – Swidler quoted Joni Mitchell’s ode to David Geffen, “Free Man in Paris,” talking aobout “stokin’ the starmaker machinery behind the popular song” and dealing daily in “dreamers and telephone screamers.” Bonus cool factor: She was the lead lawyer for the 1994 Woodstock festival and even joined Crosby, Stills & Nash onstage. — Paula Parisi