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Grammys Producer Ken Ehrlich on Neil Portnow’s ‘Step Up’ Comment, Exit: ‘We’ve Listened’

Longtime Grammys executive producer Ken Ehrlich has spoken to Recording Academy president Neil Portnow just about every other day since the Jan. 28 awards show. The two have worked together for some 15 years so they are close, but not to the level of near-familial as the last three months have been.

“He’s held up better than I expected,” says Ehrlich, speaking to Variety minutes after the Recording Academy announced that Portnow will not be seeking another term. “To be able to weather something like this… he was certainly profoundly affected.”

“This” constitutes the comment that Portnow made on Grammy night in response to a question about the few women to receive awards on the broadcast — Alessia Cara was the sole standalone female winner, for best new artist — that women should “step up” in order to better their representation in Grammy categories. The outcry from the greater music business, which included calls for Portnow to step down, seems to have sparked some introspection on the Grammy partners’ parts. Ehrlich says: “I think we’ve listened.”

At the core of the issue are genuine systemic biases on the executive level and also a trend away from female artists in overall consumption. But there’s no doubt the revelations of pervasive sexual harassment in the entertainment industry has amplified the conversation. Reasons Ehrlich, who’s to say that Portnow wouldn’t have stepped down on his own volition even without have made those “unfortunate remarks.” But, adds the TV veteran, “Certainly in the climate that we live in right now, it exacerbated what was maybe a more fundamental issue.”

Four months after that fateful night, Ehrlich still defends choices that were made during the broadcast, noting that he recently counted and the number of male to female performers on the 2018 Grammy Awards was 17 to 15.

Here’s how the social awareness issue was addressed, according to Ehrlich: “I don’t want this to sound defensive, even though it is, but we really tried this year. Once we got informed by people like [Universal Music Publishing Group chairman] Jody Gerson and [Atlantic Records chairman] Julie Greenwald about the #MeToo movement, we put that piece in the show with Janelle Monae going into the Kesha number literally six days before the show. It’s not easy to change a show in five days before and we made some drastic changes for that to happen. There was also a Las Vegas statement, the YouTube performance and the Camila Cabello moment speaking to the immigration issue… It was probably the most socially aware show we’ve done in years and I had high hopes it would be recognized. What happened in the aftermath is that it got lost.”

As for what might happen during next year’s Grammy Awards, now that Portnow is exiting his post (in July 2019) and that a female task force has been established to look into issues of gender parity, “That’s the question I can’t answer,” says Ehrlich. “I am cognizant of the criticism and I think there are points that were made this year that are germane and probably need to be addressed.”

As fas as potential successors to Portnow, and whether the Recording Academy should next be run by a woman, Ehrlich pleads the fifth, but is careful to remind the industry that “Neil was hired to undo some of the things that had been done before, and he’s made some pretty remarkable progress in terms of what he came into. Even speaking with him this morning, it was the first time we talked since the board meeting, he was upbeat. His primary concern is for the future of the organization.”

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