Recording Academy’s Task Force for Diversity Was a ‘Disheartening,’ ‘Stifling’ Experience, Say Members

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John Parra/WireImage for NARAS

In the wake of the bombshell allegations included in the legal complaint from ousted Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan — which includes allegations of sexual misconduct among many other improper practices — there’s more than a little sense of “Wasn’t all this supposed to be fixed two years ago?” After former Grammy chief Neil Portnow’s ill-spoken 2018 comment to a Variety reporter that female musicians and executives need to “step up” in order to advance in the industry, the Academy launched a Task Force for Diversity and Inclusion, headed by Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff and populated with top industry executives — and brought Dugan as the new chief executive to enact its recommendations. The Task Force submitted its final report last month (read it here).

Not six weeks later, the Academy is embroiled in a scandal that makes “step up” seem like a speeding ticket. Dugan’s crushing legal complaint, released Tuesday, accuses the Academy of decades of corruption at the top: sexual misconduct from two top executives —including news of a rape allegation against Portnow, (which he said in a statement was investigated and resulted in his exoneration) that, if revealed earlier, surely would have deprived him of the year-long exit he was allowed. Other allegations include improprieties in Grammy nominating procedures, millions of dollars in annual legal fees to outside law firms connected with top Academy executives, and an overall “boys’ club” atmosphere that largely excludes women and minorities and keeps power — and financial control — centered on a primarily white, male, older power base.

The Task Force seemed to be one of the few advances the Academy has made in the two years since “step up.”

Yet two members of that Task Force, who chose to remain anonymous, called the experience “disheartening” and say that, unlike the Academy’s sudden attempt to sideline Dugan, its efforts were blocked more by bureaucracy and obstruction.

“As an Academy Inclusivity Task Force member I saw the inner workings & lack of transparency. The board voted down our recommendation of Ranked Choice Voting,” wrote John Legend manager Ty Stiklorius tweeted Thursday, referencing a system in which voters rank candidates on a ballot in order of preference. “They have not implemented our recommendations but used us as a pawn.” Also on Thursday, the Task Force issued a statement demanding that it “implement all of the changes in the report that we delivered — without any delay.” It says it will be reconvening in 90 days and “expects to hear progress from the Academy by that time.”

While Dugan told Variety last month, before her ouster, that 17 of the report’s 18 recommendations had been “implemented” — a word that seems to have a slippery definition in this context — executing and sustaining them is another matter.

“It’s been a completely unproductive waste of time with zero results,” one member expounds. “Not one of our proposals has been [executed] and people eventually just stopped showing up.”

The member says that over the course of the Task Force’s existence, only a small percentage of its 50-plus hours of meetings were not attended by top Academy officials — often Portnow, top executive Chuck Ortner and former Board chair John Poppo — and that its claims and efforts were not taken seriously or allowed to move forward.

As one insider puts it, “They’re looking over [the Task Force members’] shoulders, and not letting them do sh–.”

In light of those claims, Portnow surprisingly referenced the Task Force in his Wednesday statement denying the rape allegations — which he confirmed were the subject of an “independent investigation by experienced and highly regarded lawyers was conducted and I was completely exonerated” — as an example of his stated efforts to promote diversity at the Academy.

“After making the ‘step up’ comment during the 2018 telecast, for which I have apologized and deeply regret the offense caused, and understanding the power of listening and lessons learned, I took action,” he wrote.  “I proposed, and the Academy created an independent Task Force to review the state of diversity & inclusion across the organization. After presenting the Task Force plan and proposed study of the organization to the board, the group was created to implement change. Task Force Chair Tina Tchen made a presentation to the full Board during a May 2019 meeting.”

And yet sources say that despite Task Force members’ repeated efforts to compel Portnow and other Academy officials to leave the room, they objected. Perhaps worse, the Task Force meetings were held at the Recording Academy offices — an environment described as “stifling” and “awkward.”

However, one Academy insider disputed the member’s account, saying that the Task Force had a significant impact internally, at least early on; that Academy staff was “intimidated” by it, acted on its proposals, and that Academy executives were often needed in the meetings to advise on procedure and answer questions. The insider said that most Academy staffers usually spoke only when spoken to.

“The Task Force was running the show,” the insider said. “They were totally suspicious of anyone from the Academy, and [staffers] needed to choose their words carefully, because they’d jump down their throats.”

The insider also claimed the Task Force as the impediment for many of its proposals, claiming that the Academy was ready to go public with several items last spring but was held back at the last minute because “the Task Force said they weren’t ready.” Conversely, another Academy observer suggests that it was the Board that delayed release of the results by six months.

The person also pointed to the traditionally slow-moving processes of non-profits and government-style organizations — the Academy is both — as a source of frustration for the Task Force.

“I think the slowness of it was more about the process,” the insider says. “They thought things would change immediately, and didn’t realize there is a cycle to everything. [Relatively speaking], it was moving extremely fast, but the proposals need to go to the Board and there’s a timeline. There was some frustration as they learned the Academy’s timetable and schedule.”

However, that account is disputed by a second member of the Task Force, who points out that its role was to present recommendations: Implementing them can only be done by the Academy, and therein lies the rub. This member speaks of being given what amounts to a bureaucratic runaround at nearly every turn.

“It was like pulling teeth to even get information from them,” the member says.

This member was incredulous at the claim that the Task Force members said they “weren’t ready.”

But the biggest frustration of all was a sort of circle game where the Academy claimed that its Board did not have the power to implement the recommendations, pointing to the regional chapters across the country, which nominate and elect the main Board members — the member described the process as an “incestuous circle, and there’s no oversight.”

Instead, Academy executives pointed to then-incoming president/CEO Dugan, who, they said would have the power to implement the changes herself. This was supposed to happen at a meeting in the fall, “but they asked for more time.”

On December 12, as tensions between Dugan and the Board were reaching a crisis point, the Task Force released its report: a detailed, critical and clear-eyed analysis that lays out a number of sweeping recommendations for changes. In the bigger picture, its recommendations include restructuring and setting diversity goals for transforming the makeup of its Board of Trustees — the ultimate power at the Academy — to “ensure that music creators from the broadest range of ages, backgrounds, genders, genres, crafts, and regions are fully represented within the organization’s leadership,” ensuring gender parity on Awards and Governance committees, publicly reporting on the demographic composition of its workforce across different levels of seniority, and increasing outreach to diverse communities, which include key initiatives for female producers and engineers. It also sets goals for execution and accountability of those and other directives. (Read the full report here.)

Speaking with Variety on the day the report was released, Dugan, in retrospect, apparently tried to use it in an effort to shore up her own doomed efforts to further the Academy reform she thought she’d been empowered to enact. “The big takeaway from the report and our actions is restructuring the board, which hasn’t happened in 62 years, and the transparency that’s coming from the Recording Academy, the clear setting of goals and being accountable for those goals — the changes that must happen immediately to implement diversity and inclusivity at every committee. That goes to race, gender, genre, and even regions, so it’s quite complex.

“I’m oddly happy with report because it is what it purports to be,” she continued. “It’s genuine, and we were ready for it because we’ve been working on it for a long time — the question is how we sustain it. I’m pleased because it shows a great tone for the Recording Academy.”

A month after the report was released, Dugan was placed on administrative leave. By that time, the Task Force had dissolved, its mission — the report — completed.