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Rock Hall of Fame CEO on Change, Controversy — and Whitney: ‘Other Musicians Believed She Belonged’

Greg Harris talks with Variety about recent Hall of Fame changes, like Jann Wenner's exit, and why nominees that fell short, like the Dave Matthews Band, should still be celebrating.

Greg Harris Greg Harris, president and
Mark Duncan/AP/Shutterstock

Somewhere in downtown Cleveland, along the shore of Lake Erie, Greg Harris is busy pondering all that led up to the naming of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020… and the inevitable controversies that followed. Inevitably, the inclusion of singer Whitney Houston and rapper the Notorious B.I.G.  — voted in along with Depeche Mode, the Doobie Brothers, Nine Inch Nails and T. Rex — is an issue for many. The exclusion of fan-vote favorite the Dave Matthews Band rankles others. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how the Hall might really change now that Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner has left his post as chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation.

Exhausting is what it is, but exhilarating, too, for Harris, the Philadelphia expatriate and one-time used vinyl dealer who joined the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 after 14 years as a senior executive at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. Variety caught up with Harris in the wake of this year’s unveiling.

The Golden Globes, BAFTA, the Academy Awards — they all deal with issues of inclusion and diversity within their memberships. Music seems to be a bit different, maybe better. How does the Rock Hall deal with these issues?
In terms of inductees, if you look at this year’s class, the nominations hit all genres of music under the umbrella of rock ‘n’ roll — funny because that same diversity is why the classic rock fans aren’t happy. If you look at the ballot, it comprised an equally strong ballot. Any five or six would have made for a great class. Tina Turner votes. Springsteen votes. The members of Public Enemy votes. The nominating body is diverse. If you look at the nominating committee, it has evolved over the years, and they are expressing a broad range of influences and backgrounds. It’s a lot healthier than casual fans would think. It’s a very robust and thoughtful group that represents many viewpoints, with people being added all the time, bringing in new perspectives from all eras, genres, races and lifestyle.

Whitney is sticking in people’s craws for several reasons. Looking back, it’s in the tradition of Dusty Springfield, who was also a pop interpretive vocalist who didn’t write her own material. Does Whitney fit into the Rock Hall?
To take that juxtaposition further, if you think about Whitney’s range and body of work, wouldn’t you say that Aretha Franklin has that same range? That Marvin Gaye has that same range? Should they be in the Rock Hall? Those who are questioning Whitney’s induction… there is a way of reconciling where pop or popularity fit in the equation. How does that get measured? On her merits, you need to remember the election is by ballot of her peers. Other musicians and such believed she belonged.

Speaking of popularity, Alan Light mentioned on Sirius XM that, going forward, top-selling artists and their sales would factor into the nominating process, that populism would matter more than it did with Whitney making the best case for that argument. Do you think that is the future of nomination?
In quoting that he may have made that part of the conversation, but sales numbers and chart positions are not distributed among the nominating committee. They may be referenced when someone is advocating for an artist as a way of suggesting their impact and influence. But really they must take the artform in a new direction — that is the ultimate criteria, more so than sales or charting position. Look at Nine Inch Nails as an example. They influenced so many bands after them, and did have large commercial success, reaching far beyond the club circuit to have an impact on listeners. You could access them on FM radio beyond being down on the college dials. A broader footprint means more impact.

But then there is Kraftwerk, who have equally deep, if not deeper, impact, and yet, nothing after six times. Are you sick of hearing about them and Chaka Khan getting nominated all these times with no induction? Same with Todd Rundgren?
I love that people care, that there is passion for these artists, their specific favorites. To be nominated is significant — that alone is an honor. Plus, ultimately, almost everyone who gets nominated is inducted. Being one of 16 in the universe is incredible recognition. Still, for the fans who get their hopes up each year, it is not ending the way you want it to end, and is frustrating. Still, nomination is an honor; It shouldn’t be an either/or thing. Celebrate the six who got it in, and continue nominating the others.

Mentioning as you do fans, where does fan vote count within that of the professional nominators? We ask because — and you know this is coming — the Dave Matthews Band got over a million votes this year, but, unlike their fan-vote counterparts in years past (Def Leppard, Rush, KISS, Bon Jovi), didn’t get in.
The nominating committee meets, usually in September. About 30 people, they meet in person, no phone-ins. Each advocates for two nominees, and then there is a series of voting to create a ballot. That ballot then goes out to a body of about a thousand, augmented by historians, critics, writers — that is the industry vote. Then the fan vote comes up, either through the Rock Hall’s web site or through Google, and that vote is tallied. That allows the fan to engage, participate, and celebrate their favorite artist. In the end, they represent one ballot. A composite of the top five fan votes go on this ballot. We modeled that after the Heisman Trophy voting. They’ve used that for a number of years — there’s about 947 voters for their Heisman, and the fan ballot is equal to one. It isn’t about who has the most fans or popularity. It’s understood that those who have made their livings as fellow musicians can judge their peers.

Have you seen the “Dave Matthews Band is cursed” meme?
They are not cursed. I’m happy to see that they have a wonderful following — they’re an active band with an active fan base. T. Rex hasn’t been alive since the 70s, doesn’t have an active fan base or social media presence, but their influence is far-reaching. We love that the Dave Matthews Band congratulated the new class. That was heartening. Historically, you’re right: there’s been three or four of the top five fan vote that get in. This time it was three out of the top seven.

What were the fan vote numbers?
It’s massive. Last year it was 3.3 million votes cast. This year, it was 8.2 million votes cast.

So what is your potential dream moment this year? Probably no hope of a Depeche-Doobies mash-up?
I’m blown away by the ceremony always. As I look at this list of nominees, I’m looking for cross pollination. Think about Brian May nominating Def Leppard and jamming, or Trent inducting the Cure — I love looking at connecting the threads. The cleanest one comes in how Depeche influenced Nine Inch Nails, but then you have to consider how Depeche came out of T. Rex.

How surprised are you that, for a guy who always eschewed awards, Trent Reznor got on Rolling Stone and just gushed about being voted into the hall?
It should be said that Reznor is particularly appreciative that the ceremony is happening in Cleveland this year because that is where Nine Inch Nails got started. What I love about his response is that he’s clear that these places didn’t sit well with him before, which is understandable: an artform that is antiestablishment with an establishment is immediately questionable. That he participated in honoring Robert Smith and the Cure last year, in the gravity of that, the moment to have that sense of awareness, then less the 12 months later to become part of that same pantheon — that has got to make it that you feel it even more. He comes to grips with the individuality of that which he has created, but (knows) that he has inspired musicians after him in the same way he was inspired? That is amazing. He’s in the same group of only 338 other inductees stretching from Howlin’ Wolf to Yes. If you’re a music fan, there is an immediate reckoning with yourself.

Several of the inductees — Marc Bolan, Whitney Houston, Biggie — have passed on. Have you already determined who will represent them or appear? [Puff Daddy and B.I.G.’s widow, Faith Evans, have stated they will be there with bells on.] 
Not yet. The executive producer for the awards ceremony, Joel Peresman — the president of the foundation — is working really closely with producer-director Joel Gallen. They’re looking at which honorees will be performing in what iteration, and who will be presenting on their behalf. It is great that Depeche, the Doobies and Trent are all still active. The others, who aren’t… think about when Linda Ronstadt was unable to attend. It has endless, remarkable possibilities as to how do this in the right way. Or how the Beasties were honored with Questlove, Travis McCoy, Black Thought and Kid Rock. The bigger piece of it all is that there is a great opportunity for those that the inducted artists influenced, in tribute.

Earlier in January, you lost Jann Wenner and gained John Sykes as Chairman. What does that mean to the Foundation and to the acts that get voted in?
In discussing the transition, first and foremost, it’s about recognizing Jann for decades and decades of service in creating this non-profit, educational entity. He’s one of the founders, along with Ahmet Ertegun, of the Rock Hall, as well as getting the museum built, and giving the rights to Cleveland, and making sure it is all done with the highest quality. With this change, John has been on the board for a while, but his background is about being engaged in distributing this music in connection with wider audience with MTV. He’s launching and expanding, doing that with iHeart Radio. Our story is strong. Being able to, in this next chapter, connect and reach more — he certainly brings current and connection to the present. Also in terms of distribution, sharing our message with new audiences.

What’s the connection between baseball and rock and roll for you?
I love museums. The people who are into each make everything about them — baseball, rock — important to their lives. People name their children after their idols. On the operational side of each of the halls of fame, we’re telling stories. Like any museum, they’re telling stories of all of us. Plus, there are the celebrity elements, and regular appearances. The big difference is that baseball is actually pretty much a singular corporation, and they all work together off the field to promote. Music is fragmented. Everybody has their own thing. The other difference is that the Rock Hall is, now, less of a shrine and more of an experience.