Recording Academy Chief Harvey Mason Jr. on Social Change and What the 2021 Grammys Might Look Like

Harvey Mason Jr....62nd Annual Grammy Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Jan 2020
Matt Baron/Shutterstock

To say that interim Recording Academy president/CEO Harvey Mason jr. has had a challenging first few months on the job is an understatement of epic proportions. In January, just days after taking the role on a temporary basis after former president/CEO Deborah Dugan’s controversial ouster, he steered the Recording Academy through the most tumultuous Grammy Awards in its history. In March came the coronavirus pandemic, which saw him and MusiCares chair Steve Boom leading the Academy’s charitable wing to distribute nearly $20 million to members of the music community who had been impacted by the virus. In May, the entire nation erupted into protests after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, and he led the organization’s efforts in response to it, which included participating in Blackout Tuesday and donating $1 million to Color of Change. He also oversaw the Academy’s board meetings in May — which saw several rule changes for the Grammy Awards and its process, announced early Wednesday morning — and is leading the charge for what the first pandemic Grammy ceremony might look like.

Along the way, he also worked at his day job as a producer, songwriter and studio and label owner, including ongoing work on the forthcoming Aretha Franklin biopic, the kids show “Fraggle Rock,” the television series “Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” and several artists.

Somehow, he found time to talk about all of the above with Variety — as well as the Grammy rule changes (read about those here) — on Tuesday afternoon.

Even though you’ve said that your role is not permanent and the Academy is seeking a full-time president/CEO, it looks like you’ll still be in this role for the next Grammys?
Yes. As of now, I’m committed to remaining our president and CEO until such time as we find a replacement that we’re all really excited about, and I do think that process is going to take some time. Because of the pandemic and sheltering in place, we’re not able to interview and meet and talk with different candidates. There are certain parts of the [search] process that are ongoing and they will continue, but I will stay in this position until we find the right person, and I would anticipate that that will take us through the next Grammy show.

It would be difficult to bring in a new chief once you begin preparing for the next Grammys, which will be within the next couple of months, right?
Yeah, we wouldn’t want to drop in a new leader right into the midst of all that craziness, so I think we’re going to make sure we’re thoughtful and deliberate about the steps we take to make sure we get just the right person. For now we’re going to focus on making sure our members are taken care of and we’re really shining a light on the best music of the year.

Do you have an idea of what the next Grammys might look like?
Yes. At this point, we are absolutely planning on having the show on Jan. 31, 2021 [as scheduled]. We are simultaneously developing three plans for what the show would look like: One is the traditional show the with the full crowd, two is a limited crowd, and three is no crowd, and there’s creative around all three of those ideas: how and where we would film it. But none of them involve changing or postponing the date.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to artists, managers and labels and getting a feel for how the pandemic is affecting the release of music — and as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the amount of music released has actually increased during the pandemic, so we would not want to delay our date with so much great music coming out. But I also think it’s important and helpful to have shows like this, when there’s been so much uncertainty and unrest — to have something you know is coming around every year and to know there’s a time when we all sit down together and watch great entertainment and art.

It’s going to be a hell of a first year for Ben Winston [who replaces 40-year veteran executive producer Ken Ehrlich for the 2021 Grammys].
Can you imagine? “Welcome to the Grammys, Ben!” We speak every few days and he’s excited, very creative and innovative. We’re trying to build the next evolution of the Academy, and the show will go hand-in-hand with that. Whether it’s with a crowd or not, we’re going to try to take things to the next level.

Is Ken still involved with the show?
Ken is involved, in fact he recently worked on [the Prince tribute] special for us, but he is not producing the Grammy telecast, although he is still active as a producer.

You pretty much stated the Academy’s position on #TheShowMustBePaused and supporting the black community in your letter, but is there any more you’d like to say?
The letter was something I spent a lot of time crafting and laid out our feelings [thoroughly], but beyond that I’d say that it’s a very important time and the Academy takes our position very seriously, and I feel we have an obligation and platform to help drive change in whatever small way we can, not just this week or next week but all of the way into the future. Different organizations try and find their place in moments like this, and I think because of our position with music and entertainment and black culture and the importance music plays in it, I think we have a unique opportunity and an obligation to be involved and speak out and try and help.

MusiCares recently paid out more than $14 million, basically its entire Covid-19 fund — and the Academy just gave $1 million to Color of Change. Where did that money come from?
If something comes up where our members need help, we will find the money. To directly answer your question, this money comes from our operating budget: Sometimes we leave room for rare events, like disasters and issues that are happening in our community. The Covid fund is actually almost past $20 million — we will have given away more money and served more clients in just four months than we have in a typical three-year period. So we’re very proud of what we’ve done there and we continue to raise money around it. But it’s not a binary situation where we only give money to MusiCares or to Color of Change. We’re going to continue to help people who need help and drive change through our racial equality efforts and working with different organizations.

When we last spoke six weeks ago, MusiCares had raised and distributed $14 million for its Covid-19 fund, but you just said it’s almost past $20 million — did you raise more money, or was it still being processed at the time?
It’s a little bit of a combination of both. Money continued to come in after we spoke — money that was funded and then pledged but had not been received, and we didn’t really wanna talk about that until we were secure in receiving it. And there were also some applicants who were in the queue to get paid, who had filed their applications but were yet to receive funds, and those have been fulfilled, so that’s over and above what we spoke about. We also continued to raise additional money and we got some in different regions — I’m not remembering all of them, but I believe there was an Austin fund that musicians there can access. Also, some companies offered to match their employees’ donations, and some of the match funds have started to come in. So that’s why we are where we are.

How is the effort to replenish the Covid-19 fund going?
It’s challenging, for sure, because there are so many people who need help and there’s only so much that people can give. We’ve been very fortunate that there’s been so much generosity toward MusiCares and we’re very thankful and very lucky to have received what we have received. But we continue to work to raise money through philanthropic donations and also to create programs that we hope will generate additional money on our own — TV shows, concerts [like the forthcoming “United We Sing”], things within the community — and we also continue to advocate for our community in Washington D.C. and hope we get federal relief. We’re still receiving almost 600 applications [for Covid-19 relief] a day.

And if, God forbid, there’s a hurricane or earthquake next week, would you be able to conjure relief funds for that too?
Absolutely! This is what we do and we’re not gonna stop. If there is another disaster, MusiCares will jump into action and the Recording Academy will do what’s necessary to be helpful.

How are things going with your own studio and musical projects?
The studio actually has been fairly busy. I started doing a kids’ TV show called “Fraggle Rock” that was made specifically for the pandemic — we got to do it when nobody was really making music, they were filming people at home and singing over phone lines, so that was an interesting project to work on. I just finished “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” television show, and right now we’re starting to get back to some projects that had been put on hold, a couple of things for Netflix and Universal. And on the record side, we continue to write songs and record with artists — it’s just been done a little differently, we’re doing it on Zoom, artists are usually in their homes and sending me their vocals, file-sharing and going back and forth.

So it’s been different, but it’s been a very creative time and I’ve been finding artists have been doing some really great work. They’re not thinking about touring or photo shoots, just getting back to writing and creating, so I think there’s going to be some really interesting music coming out of this time.