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Recording Academy Narrows Search to Replace Neil Portnow

Shortlist is said to consider only CEO-level candidates, reducing the chances that a woman will be installed.

Grammy Awards 60th Annual Grammy Awards,
MJ Photos/REX/Shutterstock

The Recording Academy has narrowed its pool of candidates to succeed outgoing chairman/president Neil Portnow to a shortlist of “three to five” finalists, with the Academy now focusing exclusively on executives at the CEO level, sources tell Variety. The next Recording Academy chief is expected to be named in late May, with Portnow staying on through the transition period, although it was unclear how long that period might last.

The CEO requirement, if accurate, would seem to eliminate many previously speculated candidates for the post. Candidates met with the Academy’s Board of Trustees and its executive search firm Korn Ferry over the past few weeks, and while sources say that the list includes at least one current member of the board — thought by many to be vice chair Ruby Marchand — neither she nor chair John Poppo have held top-level posts in the industry. Marchand is a longtime international A&R exec and was most recently senior VP of revenue and repertoire assurance at Warner Music Group’s WEA, while Poppo is a veteran engineer/producer.

Another source says the Academy is seeking someone who can run the organization “for the next 15 years,” which would seem to rule out further speculative candidates: Former BET chief Debra Lee, 64, who had often been discussed as a front-runner, is apparently no longer under consideration.

Reps for the Recording Academy did not respond to Variety’s request for comment.

According to an insider, the Recording Academy is looking for its next chief executive to have business acumen to run the $60 million operation, which includes not just producing the annual Grammy Awards, but also growing a membership of 22,000 and overseeing 12 local chapters.

The source adds that the decision to look only at chief executives doesn’t bode well for female candidates. Indeed, the Fortune 500 list of 2018 CEOs included only 24 women, or 4.8% of the total number. It also runs counter to hopes that the next chairman of the Academy will be a woman.

Many feel the Academy must have a female chairman after the uproar that surrounded the low female representation at the 2018 Grammys and Portnow’s unfortunate comment after the show that female artists and executives need to “step up” to receive greater recognition; there is little question that Portnow’s decision to exit his post, which he is slated to do in July, was influenced by that statement and his frequently criticized reactions to it.

While the 2019 Grammy winners and show featured a substantially stronger female presence, a single year’s improvement will not solve the problem, which the Academy formed a task force, led by former Obama White House official Tina Tchen, to help rectify. Speaking to Variety in February, Tchen said, “One of the things we’ve learned over the last year is that the recording industry, like other industries, has got a problem with diversity and inclusion … in every corner of the workplace.”

Yet even if the next Recording Academy chairman is female, “They’re not going to put a strong woman, like a Michele Anthony [Universal Music Group exec VP] or a Julie Swidler [Sony Music exec VP of business affairs and general counsel], in that job,” one source told Variety. “It’s going to be the same old white men calling the shots,” a scenario that could also include a female chairman heavily influenced by the Board of Trustees.