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Grammy Chief Can’t Fix Sexism in Music Biz by Himself – So Let’s Get to Work (Opinion)

In a break with recent tradition, we actually got through two entire workdays without an open letter calling either for Neil Portnow’s resignation or a complete overhaul of the Recording Academy.

For three solid weeks, the Academy and Portnow, its chief, have weathered a firestorm of criticism — more than a little of it delivered by this publication — for the low representation of female artists in this year’s Grammy Awards, and by extension for the low representation of female executives in the music industry and for the sexism that sadly has been a hallmark of the business since… well, forever.

Portnow’s ill-worded post-show comments to a Variety reporter that female artists and executives need to “step up” in order to get ahead in the music business became the flashpoint for an already-sensitive situation, and his two attempts to walk back those comments and his announcement of the formation of a task force designed to promote “female advancement” have done little to calm things.

Then this afternoon industry pundit Bob Lefsetz, whose website has become an unlikely forum for many sexually harassed women in the music industry, let fly with a broadside advancing the not-uncommon position that Portnow should step down and be replaced by a woman. Hits previewed the cover of its forthcoming issue featuring the faces of “the rising wave of women in the industry.” And conversely, today Billboard published a 1,700-word article — which reads at times like an off-the-record commentary from a member or members of the Academy’s board, although sources deny any input — extolling Portnow’s extensive accomplishments in his 15 years as the Academy’s president, citing figures showing that 2017 was low on female artists eligible for awards, and essentially saying the Academy board plans to stand by their man.

With both sides doubling down, it certainly could be argued that the last thing this situation needs is another person weighing in. However, there’s a middle ground that no one seems to be advocating.

Getting rid of Neil Portnow will not solve sexism in the music industry: While his responses to the situation have at times made matters worse, much of the criticism he’s receiving is for longstanding problems for which he is not to blame, and over which he has little to no control. His position is indisputably powerful and he could do much to further female representation in the Academy and at the Grammys (and, after the past three weeks, he will have to). But Portnow answers to a board of trustees; the Grammy nominees and winners are chosen by committees and voters, respectively; and it’s not as if he could magically undo decades of sexism in the music industry or suddenly conjure dozens of female music producers or recording engineers.

The people advocating for change should not stand down either, because this perfect storm of gender-related problems — the low number of female Grammy nominees and winners and performers on the show has dovetailed with the Harvey Weinstein scandals, a defiantly misogynist American president, #MeToo and multiple women coming forward with sexual-harassment accusations against male music executives — provides a rare opportunity for real change.

Here’s a crazy idea: What if everyone worked together to make the change that all agree is needed?

What if one or more representatives from each group of executives who wrote public letters — the female executives who called for Portnow’s resignation on Feb 1, the female label and publishing execs who called for change on Feb. 5, and the male executives who on Feb. 8 said “Now is the time to lead” — were invited to join the Academy’s task force, and took ownership of the change they want to see?

While they’re at it, why don’t we all take a look at our businesses and ourselves and ask what kind of change is within our power to create — and are we walking that change like we’re talking it?

And before anyone else calls for Neil Portnow’s head, it’s worth taking a look at how much the Grammys and the Academy have changed under his watch.

When he took over in 2002, the Grammys were just 13 years past Jethro Tull beating out Metallica for Best Heavy Metal Album. The five previous Album of the Year winners had been Bob Dylan, Santana, Steely Dan, the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack (which consists primarily of decades-old folk and country songs) and one forward-looking outlier, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” The year before, in 2001, the Best New Artist went to Shelby Lynne, who’d released her major-label debut in 1989 (an irony the winner did not fail to mention in her acceptance speech: “Thirteen years and six albums to get here”). Rap categories had only been introduced in 1995. And Portnow’s predecessor, Mike Greene, had resigned amid accusations of harassment and abuse from a female employee.

As the Billboard article notes, in the past 15 years 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; raised millions for the Academy’s charitable organization, MusiCares (this year’s Person of the Year event raised nearly $7 million, last year’s more than $8.5 million); and been a strong advocate for the music industry on Capitol Hill.

Yet just as importantly, under his watch, the Grammys have come into the present. Its membership has become much more contemporary and forward-looking, and consequently so have its nominees. 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. In a sad irony, the year after #GrammysSoWhite, the 2018 nominees list was by far the most racially and musically diverse in Grammy history — a reflection not only of streaming’s influence but also that of a more active membership — yet that diversity came at the expense of female nominees, and it’s also likely that the diversity canceled itself out. For example, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar were both nominated in several categories; one wonders how different the winners’ list might have been if Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran had gone head-to-head for Album, Song or Record of the Year.

We might be in a different place today if, on the day after the Grammys, Portnow had responded to the #GrammysSoMale criticism by saying, “We hear you and we’re going to fix this gender imbalance,” instead of waiting 36 hours to say, “Our industry must recognize that women who dream of careers in music face barriers that men have never faced. We must actively work to eliminate these barriers and encourage women to live their dreams and express their passion and creativity through music.” It might have helped if he or someone from the Academy had addressed the low number of female nominees when asked about it before the show, instead of declining to comment at all. There could have been more female nominees in the big categories — plenty were eligible, even if the usual suspects (Beyonce, Adele, Taylor) were off-cycle — and there should have been more female performers on the show.

But how many of the things Portnow is being criticized for are actually within his and the Academy’s control, and how many are a reflection of the Grammy voters, if not the industry as a whole? How much of that change can we make?

This issue is not going away — nor should it, until it’s addressed in a meaningful and ongoing manner. But with respect to the heartfelt and articulate and justifiably angry words that have been aired in the past three weeks, it’s time to stop typing and start acting.

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