Grammy chief Neil Portnow made headlines for all the wrong reasons shortly after the show ended on Sunday night, answering 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, which reads in part:
“Sunday night, I was asked a question about the lack of female artist representation in certain categories of this year’s Grammy Awards. Regrettably, I used two words, ‘step up,’ that, when taken out of context, do not convey my beliefs and the point I was trying to make. Our industry must recognize that women who dream of careers in music face barriers that men have never faced. …
“I regret that I wasn’t as articulate as I should have been in conveying this thought,” he concluded. “I remain committed to doing everything I can to make our music community a better, safer, and more representative place for everyone.”
Well, not everyone was having it.
“Neil Portnow and the Academy are the ones who need to step up,” says Marcie Allen, founder of music-sponsorship and activation agency MAC Presents and a 24-year industry veteran. “Women stepped up creatively bigtime in the past year — just look at Lorde, Kesha, SZA, St. Vincent, Taylor Swift, Pink, Cardi B. It’s nice to see a lot of these accomplishments recognized in the nominations but it feels like there’s something else holding women back structurally from succeeding in the music business. There are still only two female heads or co-heads at major labels [Epic president Sylvia Rhone and Atlantic co-chairman/COO Julie Greenwald], there’s one female chairman at major publishing company [Universal CEO Jody Gerson], two female SVPs in creative roles at a major promoter [Ali Harnell and Debra Rathwell of AEG Presents] and zero female radio-programming chiefs at a national level, now that [former Z-100/iHeartRadio exec] Sharon Dastur has gone over to Republic Records.”
John Legend manager Ty Stiklorius, an executive producer of “La La Land” and founder of the management and experiential firm Friends at Work, said, “I didn’t go to the Grammys this year — I gave my seats to two of the founders of the Women’s March, who are also founders of the Women’s Resistance Choir. I watched it at home with my daughter and cried my eyes out during Kesha’s performance with the Women’s Resistance Choir.
“I am disappointed by remarks like Neil’s,” she continues. “Clearly many do not understand how women have stepped up — but get felt up, shut up, beat up and passed up in the process of trying to get anywhere in the music business. Recording studio environments aren’t always safe for women and there’s no accountability. Every woman writer and producer I know has been harassed, assaulted or left out of the room altogether — and we wonder why, out of the top 100 songs on Spotify, only 9% of the writers are women?”
Lou Taylor, Britney Spears’ business manager and CEO of Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group — who colorfully said on Monday that Portnow “needs to pull [his] head out of his a–“ — posted on Instagram in response to Portnow’s Tuesday walkback: “Actually, I think he said exactly what he meant!” she wrote. “His quote to Variety not much better either: ‘We must welcome, mentor and empower them’? What? Somehow I think Neil has lost touch with reality. Who is going welcome us? Who is going to mentor us? Who is going to empower us? What? Here is the reality: I wonder, if the major [music companies] were run by women, would he still have asked for the $2 million from each of them? So Neil, we welcome you to tristarteam — our team of 72 women are happy to mentor and empower you to actually be a president worthy of this creative community. To all of my female counterparts and friends, take your position because you deserve it — not because Neil says you can have it. #TimesupNeil Who should be the next Academy President?”
“The bottom line is, you have to lead by example,” Allen concludes. “Neil and Ken’s excuse about not having enough time [in the show to include more female performers] is weak: Literally no one asked for two very long segments [on the show] featuring Sting and Shaggy that could have been given to Lorde or Kelly Clarkson or several other female artists who received nominations. They need to show the industry that those female artists and producers and executives are stepping up — but we need to be given an equal opportunity.
“Representation matters — and women are ultimately under-represented, given how unbalanced the gender ratio is in music right now.”
Variety reached out to multiple top female and male label, publishing and management executives who declined or did not respond to requests for comment.