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Incoming Grammy Chief Promises to ‘Bring New Perspective’ to Embattled Organization

Just minutes after her appointment as the new president and CEO of the Recording Academy was announced, Deborah Dugan joined several journalists on the phone for a quick Q&A. She was just officially announced and she doesn’t start until August 1 so her answers were inevitably light on detail, but as expected from her track record, they are big on vision.

Dugan began her career as an attorney on Wall Street, rose to executive VP during her eight years at the EMI Record Group, and was president of Disney Publishing Worldwide (where she oversaw 275 magazines and more than 4,000 new book titles) before she took the top job at (RED), the nonprofit cofounded in 2006 by U2 singer Bono and attorney/activist Bobby Shriver; that organization has partnered with some of the world’s biggest brands to raise more than $600 million to help fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa. Along the way, she served as senior adviser to the Tribeca Enterprises Board (which includes the film festivals), was president/CEO of the British broadcaster Entertainment Rights, and headed legal services for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

In a statement released shortly after the announcement, Bono said: “Music and social justice are no strangers – in fact, they can work in perfect harmony. We’ll miss Deb at (RED), but after helping the team raise more than $600 million for the fight against AIDS, she’ll always be part of the (RED) band and I look forward to seeing what she’ll do in her new role, cracking the ceiling and helping the Recording Academy crack open a new future in the process.”

In recent years the organization has been hit with criticism over a lack of diversity in the Grammy nominees and winners, in its staff and in the music industry at large (the latter of which the Academy has little control over), and not surprisingly that was the subject of several of the questions below.

Can you say what your initial short and long-term plans for the Academy are?
I’m just starting and I plan to approach it with a Buddhist beginners’ mind, which is really just to listen and learn in the beginning and look at the organization and say, “Is [the matter at hand] relevant and reflective of the artists’ community which it serves,” and in the long term, of course, to get into missions, strategy and leadership issues. I don’t start until August but for now I am already having great, great conversations and listening to many opinions. I feel like strong opinions are very, very good, because it means people care, and that’s what I’m feeling from the get-go.

Outgoing president Neil Portnow has said that the Academy doesn’t control the music that’s created or the executives who are hired in most of the industry. How much influence can the Academy reasonably exert to address institutional gender and racial biases that have been highlighted recently, and where would you see that impact being most effective?
It’s a great question. I think all the issues that Neil has [mentioned] led to an important larger conversation and that is a conversation of course that we will have, about women and diversity in music, and where we take it and how we use this platform to affect positive change is very important to me. That’s one of the questions I’m most excited to answer in this job.

What’s the biggest problem the Academy is facing, and how will you deal with it?
It wouldn’t be fair to the new team for me to offer any sweeping judgment at this time. I’m excited to bring new perspective. I love music and I have had a track record of going from law to marketing to entrepreneurship, and I’m looking for the opportunity to bring all that I’ve learned to the music industry that I love. I’ve had an unconventional path, I feel I’m quite millennial-minded minded, I love music and I know that it touches us all, and I think you’ll see from my work at The Moth [publication] and (RED) is that I try to amplify many voices in a world that often crushes them. So I am just looking at this new opportunity as a service reflective of the artist community.

Many insiders have said they feel this job is too big for one person. Do you think you might hire someone from the creative community, like a songwriter or artist or producer, to serve as your number two?
That’s a great question. I don’t know all the details of the organization; of course I’m going to have to get in and have the most talented team to be fit for the purpose we have in front of us, so I can’t opine on the exact structure. I will say that where I’ve worked in the past, there are internal and external issues, there’s been occasion, in profit and non-profit industries, to have a COO that handles the day-to-day business. Again, I have no idea of the talent that’s there and I only assume the best because I feel the Recording Academy has done many a great thing, but I’m happy to be able to amplify and show people this service. To answer your question, I’ll have to wait and see, but my expertise is in having a talented team to get the job done.

Do you think the Academy needs to change its culture?
Again, I don’t know the internal workings and I don’t feel like I’m in a position to say exactly what should be changed and what shouldn’t be changed at this time. I will say that everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve had a culture of inclusivity, of diversity, of entrepreurship, of thinking big and fresh thinking. Again, with this beginners’ mind, I want to look at the Recording Academy and hopefully bring positive change. I intended to do everything I can to make the Recording Academy, the entertainment industry and our society more inclusive and equitable. I think you’ll find my style is very straightforward open and transparent, so with that I’ll say that Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake,” and I’m glad we’re on this path together.

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