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The Grammys May Be Over, but the Recording Academy Scandal Isn’t

It’s been one week since the Grammy Awards, and for many people it’s taken a week even to begin to process all the things that happened in the deranged ten days leading up to the show, let alone try to figure out where things currently stand.

And while the Academy is certainly behaving as if the scandal that engulfed it in the days leading up to the Awards is over, it isn’t. In fact, the Academy seems to be in worse shape than it was before it expended untold thousands of dollars and work hours trying to reform from the “step up” controversy of 2018. And less than three weeks after it placed its new president/CEO, Deborah Dugan, on administrative leave, ostensibly for “misconduct” toward an employee (but more likely because her agenda for change was too sweeping for the slow-moving organization), many unanswered questions remain.

Dugan’s bombshell complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleges “egregious conflicts of interest, improper self-dealing by Board members and voting irregularities with respect to nominations for Grammy Awards”; millions in “exorbitant and unnecessary” fees paid to outside law firms; that her emails were being monitored and shared with Academy executives by her assistant; and not least, two serious allegations of sexual misconduct against senior Academy executives. In response, the Academy has made statements promising to finally act on the recommendations of its Task Force for Diversity, denied accusations of corruption its nominations process, and has made unspecific blanket denials of other allegations.

But many unanswered questions remain. Variety has heard several instances of members of nominating committees acting in their self-interest or being involved in decisions from which they should have been recused. The Academy has yet to explain why it outsources virtually all of its legal work — paying $15 million over the course of four years to just two firms, which happen to be connected to top Academy officers — and why such a practice is appropriate for a not-for-profit organization; or why it also allegedly pays those same two attorneys, Joel Katz and Chuck Ortner, six-figure salaries and expenses. And according to several legal sources, the Academy’s self-regulation, self-policing and concentration of power is uncharacteristic of most not-for-profits.

To recap this twisted saga for those not following its byzantine details, on Jan. 16 — ten days before the Grammy Awards — the Recording Academy placed Dugan on administrative leave, accusing her of vaguely defined “misconduct” against a senior female employee, which seemingly amounted to some possible verbal abuse. Four days later, Dugan’s attorneys hit back with her bombshell complaint to the EEOC.

The complaint knocked the Academy — which clearly was not expecting such an incendiary response — back on its heels. That night, a small but definitely noticeable 3.6-magnitude earthquake was felt across Los Angeles. To some, it conjured visions of Academy execs thinking, “Yes! Please, give us an earthquake! Any distraction from this!”

Then came more punches, this time from the Academy’s Task Force for Diversity, which in its report last month said the Academy’s governance and nomination-review committees “had historically not been comprised of diverse members” and listed 18 recommendations for reform, 17 of which were immediately implemented by Dugan in one of her last moves as president/CEO.

On Thursday, the Task Force issued a statement expressing “shock and dismay” at Dugan’s allegations and issued a statement demanding that the organization “implement all of the changes in the report that we delivered — without any delay.” It said it will reconvene in 90 days and “expects to hear progress from the Academy by that time.” One member, John Legend manager Ty Stiklorius, tweeted about the Academy’s “inner workings and lack of transparency,” and that “They have not implemented our recommendations but used us as a pawn,” an account that was elaborated upon to Variety by two members.

After three days of flailing for a response, on the Friday before the awards, Recording Academy Awards chief Bill Freimuth categorically denied the allegations of nominee “rigging,” saying in a statement to Variety: “Spurious allegations claiming members or committees use our process to push forward nominations for artists they have relationships with are categorically false, misleading and wrong. This process is strictly enforced with everyone involved and has no exceptions.” Then on Saturday night, toward the end of a crushingly long 50-minute speech at the Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Gala, Diddy called out the Recording Academy. “Black music has never been respected by the Grammys,” he said. “I’m officially starting the clock: you’ve got 365 days to get this sh— together.”

But on Grammy morning the Academy launched a counter-offensive of their own. At 6 a.m. Pacific time, they led with a letter to members from Board chair and acting CEO Harvey Mason Jr. promising to implement the Task Force for Diversity’s recommendations — the same recommendations Dugan had begun to implement a month earlier — and then at noon the Task Force said it will cooperate with the Academy.

And then, news broke of Kobe Bryant’s death, and it all seemed small by comparison.

Still, during the show, host Alicia Keys started by acknowledging the elephant in the room — “Let me be honest with y’all, it’s been a hell of a week, damn” — without really saying anything about it. There were faint (and perhaps coincidental) echoes of Mason’s letter in her comments — diversity, realness, inclusivity — and her jokey take on Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved,” which included the line “It’s when people do nothing that the bad guys win.”

That statement, from one perspective, could be viewed as hypocrisy after Dugan’s multiple allegations against the “Boys’ club” running the Academy. From another, it could be viewed as an outspoken, world-famous artist, who happened to be holding the mic before an estimated 18.7 million viewers on Music’s Biggest Night, putting its organizers on notice and subtly hinting at what she could have said.

But since then? Not much, really. On Wednesday, after the requisite Don’t-Rob-the-Artists-Of-Their-Moment pause, Dugan’s attorneys tried to rally with a call for her reinstatement and for her to be released from the provisions of her contract that requires her to arbitrate her disputes privately — “The Academy intentionally brought this dispute to the public’s attention … The public and the music industry have the right to know what is going on behind closed doors at the Academy” — but the Academy fired back with a statement of its own (“We remain extremely disappointed in how she is choosing to handle the situation and strongly disagree with many of her claims”) and both sides retreated.

Realistically, the best Dugan can hope for is a better settlement than the insulting one sources say she was offered just before the dispute broke into the open. (Her complaint alleges the settlement was originally in line with the $8 million sources say her contract guaranteed, but was abruptly withdrawn and replaced with a much lower one.) Despite the withering allegations she has leveled against the Academy, it was always an outsized fight and few individuals below a Peter Thiel-level tax bracket could afford to engage in a drawn-out legal battle on this scale. Likewise, the Task Force, which has no power to actually enact or enforce the recommendations for diversity its report made, has chosen to take the Academy at its word and use the moment to further that agenda. And unless a deliberate effort by the Academy to cover-up the allegations of sexual misconduct — odious as they are — can be proven, those allegations are against individuals, not the organization itself.

The show is over, both sides seem to have spent all of their ammunition, and despite the gravity of Dugan’s claims, no angry mobs have rushed the glass doors at the Recording Academy’s Santa Monica offices. The Academy has slipped back into its default, decades-old crisis mode: Make some blandly forceful statements and wait for the storm to pass.

Will it? “It feels like we were just saying things like this two years ago,” one insider says, “but if half of what [Dugan alleges] is true, there’s got to be a big change. The way the Academy has handled this, and the way it’s behaving, are an embarrassment to the music industry. And that’s saying something.”

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