×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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

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

More Biz

  • pharrell brain child show

    'Blurred Lines' Flares Up Again - Marvin Gaye Family Claims Pharrell Perjured Himself

    Like a zombie that just won’t stay dead, the “Blurred Lines” case keeps coming back. While the 2015 verdict, in which Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke and the song’s publisher were ordered to pay nearly $5 million to Marvin Gaye’s family for infringing upon the late singer’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up,” was basically [...]

  • WGA Agency Packaging Fight Placeholder Writer

    WGA-Agency Showdown: Role of Showrunners at Heart of Legal Arguments

    The Los Angeles courtroom of U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte was packed with well-dressed lawyers on Friday morning, eager to watch a high-stakes brawl between Hollywood’s largest talent agencies and the Writers Guild of America. Birotte allowed only four lawyers from each side to sit at each table, leaving the vast majority of the attorneys [...]

  • 700700 + Ted Turner Dedication. December

    Ted Turner Tributes Established With WarnerMedia Gift to University of Georgia

    WarnerMedia has established a scholarship, internship program and exhibition hall at the University of Georgia to be named after maverick media mogul Ted Turner. The company has gifted $550,000 to the university to create the Ted Turner Scholarship Fund, for students attending the school’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, which is also the [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Judge Leans Toward Agencies' Position in Writers Guild Antitrust Suit

    A federal judge indicated on Friday that he will allow the three major agencies to pursue their antitrust lawsuit against the Writers Guild of America. The WGA has urged U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte to throw out the suit, arguing that its actions in its ongoing battle with the agencies are protected under antitrust law. [...]

  • Keli LeeStep Up Women Network 9th

    Keli Lee Exits ABC Studios International as Disney Considers Division's Fate (EXCLUSIVE)

    ABC veteran Keli Lee has left the international arm of ABC Studios as Disney considers the future of the London-based content unit, Variety has learned. Sources said Disney has told the creative community that there “has been a re-evaluation of ABC Studios International” and that it is re-assessing “the creative direction” of the business. There [...]

  • Biggest Scandals Feuds and Apologies of

    Biggest Scandals, Feuds and Apologies of 2019

    Variety looks back on some of the biggest scandals, feuds and apologies of 2019: College Admissions Scandal Wealthy parents including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were charged with bribing school officials to get their unqualified kids into prestigious universities. Shane Gillis Executives at “SNL” hired, then fired, Gillis in September, before the new season started, [...]

  • Biggest Media Moments of 2019

    From 'Catch & Kill' to Shepard Smith: The Biggest Media Moments of 2019

    Variety looks back on some of the most memorable media events of 2019: ‘Catch & Kill’ Reopens Wounds at NBC News Ronan Farrow’s book relitigates his complaints that NBC News tried to tamp down his investigation of harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. NBC News denies the claim. The book contains new allegations against [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content