UPDATED: One of the many remarkable things about first time Grammy executive producer Ben Winston and Recording Academy chief Harvey Mason jr. is that they basically haven’t stopped working since the show ended on Sunday night. Winston opens our chat by saying, “Oh, I’m straight back at it — I’ve done three ‘Late Late Shows’ since Sunday” — he says, referring to his day job as executive producer of the James Corden-hosted show — adding, “and we’re doing the ‘Friends’ [remake] soon.” In the same spirit, Mason says, “We’re very proud and pleased with the show — but we’re not sitting here in lawn chairs congratulating ourselves. On Monday morning we got right back to work, looking at the Grammys and talking about how we can make the experience even better and grow the Academy and enhance our mission. We don’t stop!”
Anyone reading this presumably watched the show and is aware that it got some of the best reviews in its history — the Los Angeles Times wrote “The best Grammys in memory may have just revived the awards show,” although Variety was a bit more circumspect — as well as some of the lowest ratings, although that has been true of all awards shows in the past year, as well as an arguably flawed television ratings system. Head here for a recap of the show’s highlights, which included performances by Taylor Swift, Megan Thee Stallion, Harry Styles, Cardi B, Dua Lipa, BTS, Lil Baby, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak and many others, as well as a surprise appearance from Beyonce, who tied and then broke the record for most Grammys received by a female artist. If you’re already familiar with all that, after noting Winston’s credit to his team — who spoke with Variety before the show — which he called “the greatest production team I could ever have,” and take some vicarious relief in the fact that he’s scheduled a vacation for late in May.
(Note that these interviews were conducted separately over Zoom on Thursday afternoon, but merged below for readability. Please note: Ben Winston originally inaccurately stated he had spoken with Wolfgang Van Halen; he actually spoke with a rep for Wolfgang Van Halen. The quote has been corrected below.)
Ben, how do you feel about the show, four days later? What worked, what you might have done differently?
Ben Winston: I feel really good, I think whenever you’re doing a live show for that long, you are always nervous in the leadup to it, no matter how much you prepare — and we prepared a lot — but when you step off the cliff on live television, you have to be ready for anything. So truthfully, the moment you go off air, it’s just a sense of relief: “We did the show we wanted to do and there weren’t any mistakes and everyone turned up” — because people say they’re gonna be there, but you never know! But I can look at that show and be proud of it from start to finish.
Were you concerned about Beyonce and Jay-Z not showing up?
Look, you never know who’s gonna be there until the night, right? I had been told they were coming a couple of days before, but they’re the biggest icons in the world so until people walk through the door, you just don’t know. But I was so happy they were there, and I’m so happy that my first Grammys got to have that historic moment of tribute to her, in such an amazing way. So did I punch the air when that happened, when she was onstage and Trevor darted in and announced that it was a [she had tied the all-time Grammy record for most wins by a female artist], and then she went on and won it a half hour later? Yes, that was a wonderful moment of everything coming together in a really beautiful way. The fact that all of those stars aligned for that moment was probably my biggest moment of excitement.
When the camera flashed on them for that first moment, almost casually, everyone was like “WOAH! Was that Jay and Beyonce?!”
(Smiling) Well, we did that a little bit on purpose. They were seated to one side, and we did that lovely steady [shot], it was really innocuous — I think we even put it in a mid-break, just to go, “Hey guys!” It started with Taylor and then you see Dua and the Harry and then, “Hey! There’s Jay and Beyonce!” and then we just cut to a break. “Wha?! What just happened?”
Harvey, what did you think?
Harvey Mason, jr.: I was really excited and very proud and happy with it — I thought it was one of our best shows. I think the ovewhelming sentiment is appeciation to the artist community. I was really thrilled that so many people came out to celebrate and perform and accept their awards. It’s been a really tough time and it’s not easy to do that, so I’m really excited that we had so many people there, and that so many people came to perfom. I thought the performances were incredible — you see the choreography and staging and planning that goes into them, and there were so many different genres of music represented and great diversity. I was really pleased with the look and feel of the show, and, again, thankful for the support of the artist community.
Ben, was there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Winston: (Long pause.) I don’t mean this in big-headed way, but I don’t think there’ s a single moment I wish we’d done differently, and that’s very rare — I think that’s one of the only shows I’ve done that I can say that about, and I’m a cynical Brit! But those performances were what the artists wanted to do — we staged and helped and directed in the ways that we could, but I can take very little credit for the performances. Like, Taylor did that creative [treatment for her performance], that magical forest, I thought that was an absolutely sensational performance from her and I just loved the world she created. I think the Grammys have sometimes asked people to do things in the past, and I think sometimes those moments have been absolutely brilliant. I wasn’t like that; it was more, “Hey, what do you want to do, Cardi and Megan? I would love it if you did ‘WAP.’” Maren Morris says she would like John Mayer to join her — “I would love that.” It was very much doing what the artists wanted to do, because they know what makes them better and best much more than I do. It was more about us facilitating their vision.
It seemed like you wanted to switch up the look and feel of the show every hour — from the quick succession of performances early on to the bigger production numbers to social justice, and so on. Was that the idea?
Let me put it this way: James Corden hosts the best parties you’ll ever go to. He is the ultimate party organizer — when he moves into a new house, when he got married, his 40th birthday. I once said to him, “Your parties are always the most fun — why?: And he said, “I make something different happen every 45 minutes,” whether it’s barbeque or entertainment or whatever. And I actually thought about that in this show — that we needed to bring something new every 45 mins to 60 minutes, so it was very much structured and scheduled like that, so people wouldn’t feel like it was getting boring. And I think the greatest compliment I’ve gotten was people saying, “I always watch the Grammys but I never watch it all — and this time I watched it all.” I had the running order on my wall for four months and tweaked it every day.
It also felt like there was often a subtext. Like, the show did not start off somber or sad, but it did start off quietly, with Trevor Noah explaining what the night would bring and setting the mood, and that’s a hard line to tread: to be respectful without being a downer. Was that something you thought about?
We thought about everything. I’m not saying we always got it right, but everything you saw was carefully thought out. We were very aware: A load of famous people giving out gold statues to other famous people… that’s probably a lot of what has made people go off awards shows this year, and that’s something that we don’t necessarily need. So we were very careful: We weren’t gonna start off with a big bang and fireworks and pyro. Everyone would ask, “Who’s opening?” And I would say, “Harry is, but Trevor is going to set the tone for the night.”
Harvey, after the divisiveness in the country of the past year, it felt like diversity was a key theme. Was that intentional?
Mason: We’ve always tried to champion diversity, but I think there’s been even more effort in the past year and a half: We’ve had new leadership, we’ve put some new programs in place and really focused on some things, and I think those are starting to bear fruit. There’s still work to do there, but I do think it was reflective of the community that’s making this art.
Ben, are you going to reveal how much of the show was live? It seemed like there were varying degrees, like I definitely heard guitar parts when Alana Haim was not playing, although the drums and vocals certainly were live.
Winston: But they had a band behind that red screen! There were four or six musicians playing with them. [Director] Hamish Hamilton said, “Let’s put them in the middle of the room,” and I was like, “Are you sure you want to do something that complicated in the first part of the show?” And he said, “Yes, it’s great,” and I’m so glad I listened to him. We couldn’t move the entire band into the middle of the room because then we wouldn’t have been able to get the cameras around.
But how much was live? I’m never gonna say. (Laughter) Partially because I feel like it would be unfair to the artists, but it was a lot of live music, and the joy to me is that you’re not sure what was and what wasn’t — so it’s like we’ve done our job.
The Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B performances were pretty much the centerpiece of the show and so elaborate — starting off with old-school showbiz and then wild graphics and then a giant bed and a giant shoe! Whose vision was it?
Their creative teams — we can take no credit for it. It was their teams for each of their performances, and I think it was both teams combined for “WAP.” We helped, but the credit for that imagination goes to their teams.
You said before the show that all of the performers would have to “come to us,” meaning the convention center — and BTS, who recorded their performance in Korea on a set made to look exactly like yours, came up with an innovative way to stick to that rule.
I don’t know how much they want me to say about this, because it’s down to [COVID-era] immigration and things like that, but yes, the idea was that everybody was going to come to L.A. But with certain artists, as the day got nearer — and I’m talking very near — we realized that not all of them were going to be able to come. That didn’t mean that we didn’t want them on the show, so we had a decision to make, but it wasn’t always 100% that they we going to be in Korea. There’s a story there that I’m not sure I’m allowed to go into, but ultimately we realized that they weren’t going to be able to come, and although we were hugely ambitious in terms of what we tried, I was always very aware of the safety of people traveling and of how many people would be coming — and they don’t travel lightly! (laughs) — and I never wanted to be the reason that anybody took risks they shouldn’t have taken, and that is ultimately more important than a TV show.
So about four months ago, we booked BTS for “The Late Late Show,” and they didn’t tell what they were gonna do — they just said, “We’re gonna film a performance in Korea and we think you’ll like it.” And what arrived in my email was one of the most unbelievable things I have ever seen in my life. They recreated, brick for brick, our entire set: James’ area where he does hie interviews, the performance, space, the signage outdoors — and we hadn’t sent them anything! We didn’t even know it was happening. And so, when I was talking to their amazing team — and I think BTS and their team are up the with the most talented people in the world — I said, “Is there any way you could do what you did for the ‘Late Late Show,’ and our viewers will think you’re there but then you’ll open the doors and be in Seoul.” And it was absolutely amazing: Within five or six days they sent me a photo of our set in Korea, and I just couldn’t believe the attention to detail. Because that way, it’s not like they were sending in a music video, which I really didn’t want to do — and if you look at it, they’re singing live and it’s all shot in one go, I think there’s only one cut in it, so they even bought into the concept of what we were trying to do. I thought their performance was sensational and I think they were really happy to do it — all the messages I’ve gotten from the group have been really happy. I love them — I’m a proper BTS fan.
The appearance of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak as Silk Sonic felt a little random — was there anyone else, apart from John Mayer, who wasn’t directly related to the awards you considered?
I thought Silk Sonic were amazing, I was so delighted we were able to get their first musical perfomance with us. I think everybody we wanted to perform, on the whole, was there. We were a bit cautious with some of the older artists this yer — we’ve actually gotten a lot of credit it for it being such a young show, but part of that is because we were very aware of COVID and safety. But yeah, I think we got the show we wanted to get.
Harvey, your speech was different from the president’s speeches in past years — you called for the community to work with the Academy to make change. Those were things you felt needed to be said?
Mason: I didn’t want to do the traditional tuxedo-behind-the-podium speech. I wanted to be able to hopefully reach both our community in the music industry and also the people watching, and hopefully that’s what I was able to get across: that we’re listening, we’re listening to all of our constituents, whether that be labels or artists or songwriters or people on the road and everyone. We hear things that need our attention and we’re aware of the things people think we should be looking into, and I wanted to acknowledge that. We’re making transformative changes to the Academy, and I also wanted to say yes, we give out awards and honor excellence and have amazing performances, but are also serving our members through [the Academy’s charitable wing] MusiCares and supporting education through the Grammy Museum and supporting advocacy through our work on Capitol Hill. So that was the point of the message: We hear you, there’s room for improvement, and we’re going to work urgently to get better.
Ben, do you think the “In Memoriam” segment, which is always a challenge but especially this year, was successful, even though many fans seemed to think that Eddie Van Halen didn’t get enough of a moment?
Winston: We had the idea for it for a long time, because I thought it was great that we could go from Little Richard to Kenny Rogers to John Prine, and it could be brilliant musicians playing for each other, and I think it really resonated with people. The regret I have is that I think 970 names were submitted for “In Memoriam” this year, and you can only put… usually it’s 35 to 45 and this year we did 60. I wish we could have done more.
As for Eddie, we had a call with [Van Halen’s son] Wolfgang’s rep before the show, and I asked if he’d be willing to come on and play. He said he didn’t really want to do that, and I offered up eight or nine guitarists who maybe could. But instead, he felt like we should play a video of Eddie himself, because nobody could play like him, so that’s what we did. I would have loved for it to be longer than it was, but Eddie was the only person in the whole “In Memoriam” to play their own music, with no other faces being seen. I felt that was an appropriate tribute to him, but if Wolfgang didn’t, I’m sorry about that, of course — it’s such a horrific thing to lose a parent. We did the best that we felt we could.
Okay, time for the other tough question: the ratings. You said before the show that TV ratings do not reflect the way people watch television today because they don’t include streams and social media and other platforms, and you knew they would be down, and they were.
Look, I said loud and clear before that I was expecting the ratings to be down even further than they were, because it isn’t the way that people view television anymore, and I think it’s a way for articles to cause mischief and be cynical. But actually, the multiple millions of digital impressions and YouTube views and videos that have been watched and shared all over the world is a better indication of [the show’s viewership] than what the Nielsen rating are. I’d also point out that 13 million people watched the Premier Ceremony [where the bulk of the awards are given out before the main show] on Grammy.com. 13 million! So we are dealing with a system that is antiquated.
There are two things I would say: 900,000 people watched on television when Corden met Paul McCartney — I directed that show — and 160 million have watched it since. Does that mean it was a failure because of how it did in the TV ratings, or does that mean people are watching things in different ways? We’re growing up in a world where my [young] daughters are not saying, “What time is this show on?” They’re saying, “I want to watch this show now” and I put it on for them. So therefore, still going by a system that doesn’t relate in any way to the way people are viewing television is destructive to the medium as a whole. So therefore, I’m not gonna get upset by those ratings in any way, because thy are only one way of watching this show. And if we continue to ignore the way people are watching television, then as producers we’ll get left behind.
Finally, you paid tribute to independent venues, which have been hit so hard by the pandemic, by having people from them give out awards. What’s the reaction been like?
The Station Inn [in Nashville, one of the featured venues] called the other day and said their website crashed after the show because they were so inundated with T-shirt and hat and merch sales. The response from the venues has been beautiful, I’m so pleased that we had them there. Billy Mitchell [from the Apollo Theater in New York, another featured venue] said it was one of the greatest nights of his life, that he was able to present an award to Beyonce. And then to see Rachelle [Erratchu, from the Troubadour in Los Angeles, another featured venue] presenting Harry with his award, she was smiling ear to ear when I saw her backstage. I hope it reminded people of the great work that venues do, and how when we’re able to support them we will — because they’re going to need our support early.
Harvey, do you think Ben will be back as executive producer next year?
Mason: I haven’t discussed it with the board or even with Ben, but he did an absolutely amazing job and I’m so pleased that he was our producer for this show. One of the really cool about things about him is that you really feel like it’s a collaborative approach. I never felt like I didn’t run the show — I felt like we worked together to make it. Obviously Ben is a professional television producer and the best at it, but he was always inclusive of me and our committee and staff to make sure it was the show that we wanted to put on, and that we were pleased with it. So the feeling for me was always that the Academy was respected and that Ben was the consummate collaborator, and so thoughtful and creative and brought a new energy and vibe to the show.
Obviously a lot of things had to be changed for COVID considerations, but do you feel like the show has been reinvented for a new era?
Mason: I think you can say that, and I think Ben absolutely brought something that hadn’t been done by us or any other awards show that I’m aware of. The performances in the round were special, the host interaction was unique and rethought. Ben has done a masterful job of taking what the Grammys have been and building on it.