The Grammy Awards nominations are always a cascade of joy and tears, but this year is exceptional for a number of reasons. After 40 years with Ken Ehrlich at the helm, the show has a new executive producer, “Corden” vet Ben Winston; the Recording Academy has a new (albeit interim) chief, producer-songwriter Harvey Mason, jr.; and, oh yes, they’re trying to figure out how to stage Music’s Biggest Night during a pandemic.
Mason, who never expected to be running the organization, has had an unprecedentedly challenging year and has risen to the occasion, distributing more than $20 million in COVID-19 relief to the music community via the Academy’s charitable MusiCares organization, and has worked hard to diversify the Academy’s staff, membership and its outreach to the music community. He has led with a strong and sympathetic hand in an unimaginably difficult time.
But the subject on many minds Tuesday was the nominations, which had the usual balance of predictability vs. actuality — with one jaw-dropping exception: In the biggest snub in memory, The Weeknd, who dominated popular music this year, was somehow completely shut out of nominations. While the Grammy nomination process is intentionally democratic and run by its nominating committees, Mason is the one to speak for it, and although his many of answers were in response to questions about The Weeknd, similar responses would follow questions about most other artists as well.
Variety caught up with Mason to talk about the nominations and progress on the show so far.
How do you feel about this year’s nominations?
Overall, I feel good, we’re excited by the diversity and all the different genres, especially in the “Big Four” categories. I think voters really had a wide variety of people they liked this year. It’s always interesting, year to year, to see what the trends are, so we think there’s a lot of excellent music and we think it provides us with a platform to have a great awards show.
I have to say I’ve never seen an album get completely shut out of the nominations that was anywhere near as big, both commercially and critically, as The Weeknd’s “After Hours.” How does that happen?
Y’know, it really just comes down to the voting body that decides. We have eight nomination slots to fill in [the “Big Four” categories: Best Album, Song, Record and New Artist], five in others, and the voters vote for their favorites. It’s really interesting, though.
Is it the same committee voting on all of the top four categories?
I can understand how he could have been shut out of a genre category — the Pop committee could have said he’s R&B and the R&B committee could have said he’s Pop. But this is unprecedented. Does it put the nominating process into question? Are there plans to revise it?
We look at it every year and make tweaks and revisions to the process; we did it this year, last year, we’ll do it next year. And I don’t think this calls it into question, honestly. The process is there so we can continue to monitor excellence. I was in the “core room” this year [which decides the Big Four] and I observed, and the people that were in it are music professionals — they are excellent, at the top of their craft in songwriting and producing, and there are a lot of artists. They were critically listening to every song that came across their desks — or virtual desks — so I don’t think it shows a flaw in the process. I think it’s actually… as you get a nomination, you start to really appreciate the process, where you’re saying, “I really made it through a strenuous and thoughtful process,” to get to who are really the deserving nominees for that given year.
How big is that committee?
I believe this year was 20 people or so.
Since you were in the room, do you feel that all of the releases got a fair shake?
Oh absolutely, all the records get the fairest of fair shakes. We listen to all the music — even an album, you’re listening to almost the whole album, it takes I don’t know how many hours. It’s a long, arduous process and people take pride in it. The people in that room care: there’s no agendas in there, there’s no “let’s snub this person” or that person. It’s about. “Let’s try and find excellence.”
Also, you have to remember that committee can’t vote on something that’s not there. They get a list of the 20 top vote-getters from the general voting field, and at that point they listen and talk about who to push forward as the final eight. So it’s really a two-step process.
Was The Weeknd on that shortlist?
We never talk about what’s on the shortlist, so I’ll leave it at that.
One more question about The Weeknd: Can you ever remember a bigger record being shut out of the nominations?
I can’t ever remember a time when we’ve had 23,000 entries — that is the most entries we’ve ever had. I can’t remember a time when we’ve ever had this much range of genres and different types of musicians and music all in the [top four] categories. It’s actually amazing.
How’s the show going? Do you think you’ll have an audience, even a small one?
We’re still kind of on the fence, it really depends on what the medical professionals tell us we can do, and what the leaders of the city of L.A. and California allow us to do. We definitely have a location in Downtown L.A., we have live performances, live awards, great hosts. It’s gonna be a show that’s different from the other awards shows that have happened at this point, we’re going to determine as we get a little bit closer what we’re going to do with our audience, but we have some really cool and special things that are coming together for our show.
Is it still going to be at Staples Center?
It’s in and around Downtown L.A., is what we’re saying now, as we’re still trying to finalize the location.
How’s Ben doing, and can you say how his approach is different from Ken’s?
Ben’s doing really well. Ken did the show for 40 years and he’s master, a genius at putting this show together. So it’s definitely a different process with Ben, it’s been fun, although I feel bad that he’s entered our universe at such a challenged time. But he’s been very collaborative very cooperative, very creative, and he’s had to be fluid. We’ve changed plans three or four times to get to where we are, but I feel really good what he’s putting on.
It’s really hard to compare this show to the last 40 shows, because I don’t know who we’re booking or what Ben needs for the show. I’ll know in about two days, once the nominations come out — Ben hasn’t seen them yet, so once he does, then we’ll start talking about who we want to book and what packages he want to put together.
You’ve worked hard to diversify the Academy over the past year. Will that be reflected in the show?
I’d like to think that it would be, yes. I think you’re seeing it in the nominations themselves, I don’t think that’s lost on us — I think it’s exciting that such a diverse group of people is being nominated. We think there’s a lot of work left to do, we’re not sitting here saying, “Yeah! We did it!” This is a first step and we have a long way to go to continue to be more inclusive and more diverse and have more equitable outcomes, from everything from membership to our boards to our staff to everything we do. So honestly, I think the show will be a great first step and there will be a lot more changes to come. We launched our Black Music Collective and have had some really fruitful meetings there, and talked about some really cool initiatives that we’ll be putting into place, and also our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office. So I think that’s going to have a big impact on how we view the Academy and how to do our show, and there’s been a handful of other things that all contribute to the momentum that I feel we have right now. I don’t think by any means we are happy with where we are yet.