Grammy Chief Harvey Mason Jr. Talks Sunday’s Big Show, COVID Safety, Nominating Committees and The Weeknd

Harvey Mason, jr.
Courtesy of the Recording Academy® / photos by Amy Sussman

With the Grammy Awards coming up on Sunday, it’s remarkable that interim Recording Academy president/CEO Harvey Mason, jr. has time to talk with the press — although that could have been said at virtually any point in the past 14 months. Suddenly dropped into the job after Deborah Dugan’s surprise ouster in January, Mason has weathered a controversy-plagued 2020 Grammys, the pandemic — during which he oversaw the distribution of some $22 million in COVID relief to the music community by MusiCares, the Academy’s charitable wing — and then the Grammy nominations and the ever-shifting preparations for how they will hold a truly unprecedented and COVID-safe awards on Sunday. Then on Thursday, the controversy around the Weeknd’s shocking exclusion from all 2021 Grammy nominations flared up again, when the artist said he will not submit his music for the awards until the controversial “secret committees” that the Academy utilizes to determine final nominees for several awards are discontinued.

It’s no wonder Mason is planning to step down from the role in May — although he never planned to stay past that date anyway, as he said in nearly each of the half-dozen interviews he’s done with Variety over the past year, and as he says below, “Relief is not an emotion I would put to this — it’s been the time of my life.”

With that backdrop, he took half an hour — exactly half an hour! — to talk with Variety earlier this week to talk about the Academy’s next leader, the daunting preparations for a COVID-safe show, the Weeknd controversy and the awards-nomination process, and MusiCares.

The Grammy Awards will air live from the Los Angeles Convention Center on CBS on Sunday, March 14 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT.

You’ve always said you were probably going to step down in May and it sounds like you’re serious. How many candidates are currently under consideration?

Yeah, I think things are on track to have a peaceful transition and handoff of power in May. I’m not exactly sure how many people are [under consideration] right now, but we started at over a hundred and whittled it way down. There have been some interviews, it would be hard to specify how many are left — there are some new ones coming in, some dropping out, it’s in flux.

How many have you met with?

I’m not sure but more than just a few — over Zoom, though.

What kind of person do you think the next leader will be? Do you think it will be an Academy insider — you recently filled the COO and chief industry officer roles with Academy veterans Branden Chapman and Ruby Marchand — or someone from further out of industry circles?

I think it’ll most likely be someone who has some touchpoints with the Academy, I’m not sure if it’ll absolutely be an internal candidate, at this point. We’re talking with all of the above, but from what I can tell, most of the candidates have some experience with or around the Academy in some capacity, whether that’s knowledge or voting or in the industry. I don’t see any real far outsiders, if that’s a little more clear. I think it’ll be someone who is somewhat attached to the music industry and knows the Academy.

Will you continue as chair of the board of trustees?

Yes, if the trustees elect me, then I would be honored to continue. I do think the transition will happen in May, around the [annual Academy] board meetings.

A lot of people have been asking if I’m relieved or excited to be leaving, and I would have to say that relief is not an emotion I would put to this. I [will be] really happy to have a great new CEO in place but I’m also really proud of what we’ve been able to do in the past year. It has not been easy! People say, “Why would you want to do that [job]? People are just taking shots at you and threatening you and sending hate mail.” It has been challenging in that sense, but every time I talk to an artist and they’re cying because they’ve been nominated, or an artist who can be the toughest guy in the room and he gives me a huge hug because of something the Academy did, all the other stuff just melts away. What I love about doing this kind of work is being able to give back to the music community, and there’s no job in the world where you can help more people in this community than this one. It’s been the time of my life and I’m happy to hand if off in May to someone who hopefully will continue in the direction the Academy is headed.

I am not making a Trump reference here, but are you like an outgoing president, trying to shore up the work you’ve done to make sure it doesn’t get undone?

(Laughs) A lot of the work we’ve been doing is kind of built in, because it goes into our governance and our bylaws. Committees are passing proposals — it’s really codified into what we do, so I do feel confident about that, but I am also spending a lot of time making sure I’m preparing information and documents in a logical way, so there is a transition when they get in the seat, that they can say, “This is what Harvey was working on or thought about this issue or group or partnership,” and making sure that it is really well documented and explained. I want it to be clear and clean, so they can continue the momentum. That’s one of the reasons we reorganized, changing some of our processes so that when the person comes in they’re not trying to invent things that they’re not sure of.

How is the show going, and what is your role at this late stage of the preparations?

It’s going really well, thanks. My role is just to help make it the best it can be. I’m on site every day, talking to artists, dealith with script changes, staging, everything. Ben is the actual producer and I’m here to serve in a support role to him and his team if they need something from an Academy perspective. But my role is absolutely to support and make sure the Acad and our members are well represented and the artist community is happy with what’s on the stage.

To be clear, the show is taking place “in and around” the Convention Center, as you’ve been saying for several weeks, yes?

I don’t want to speak for Ben, but there are performances on the Grammy stage, which is inside the Convention Center, and I think all of the performances [both live and pre-taped] are on our stage, which is exciting — people are coming here, they’re not sending in Zoom performances or anything like that. There are some outdoor elements, “around” the Convention Center — I think there are some awards and there might be one performance.

Is this year a lot more expensive than usual?

Oh man, it costs way more! No uncertainty there, that is a sure thing. And then, of course, because we’re not able to have an audience, there’s no ticket [income]. There are a lot of things that will affect the bottom line of this show, unfortunately — the year that our community needs the most help is going to be the year that we don’t generate the usual amount from show. It’s unfortunate.

So the costs of COVID safety aren’t balanced by savings from less crowd security or anything like that?

No, it’s not even close.

Do you have any sense of how much more expensive this year is?

I don’t have an exact number, I just know it is quite a bit more expensive. The date change was expensive too, but again we felt it was really important, because we didn’t want to risk anyone’s health over a TV show. The COVID protocol is millions and millions of dollars, but there are other things in play as well: trying to do this in an environment where we have more space [for social distancing]. And when I say COVID protocol, that’s just the testing. That’s not taking into account many of the other things that need to happen: more space for artists, enough space for [the production teams], these other things end up costing money.

Can the Academy and CBS handle these additional expenses? How deeply will it impact you going forward?

It will absolutely impact us, just like it’s impacted so many other business and institutions, but the Academy is built to be able to sustain something like this and we’ve done sound financial planning in the past for reasons just like this. I keep reminding everyone that the goal of the Academy is to generate income so we can put it back into the community and the industry. So yes, we have the ability to have a year where we have a downturn, and that’s why we’ve done some of the financial structuring that we’ve done. But we also have to generate as much as we can, so we can help as much as we can. We absolutely will make it through this.

Has a lot of the team on-site been vaccinated? Do they qualify because of the relatively close contact they’re in?

I’m not sure how many have been vaccinated, but what we are absolutely sure of is the testing. You get tested before you come anywhere near the building, and once you get to the building, there’s another test. Then, there are zones you can go into — and zones you cannot — and different testing for every zone. There are a lot of steps in place to make sure that no one here has COVID, and if someone did, we would have very specific guidelines around who that person came into contact with, and what zones they were in.

I’m very proud of the show and I’m optimistic that we’ll have something very special to see on Sunday. Music is a great opportunity for people to start healing and to provide some hope. We’re not out of the woods but I think it’s a chance to have a little bit of normalcy, of people coming together and playing music. It may help and give us all that moment to unite a bit after a pretty divisive time in our country.

I have to bring up the Weeknd being excluded from the nominating process. Do you think that situation will lead to the process being revised at the board meetings in May?

We’ve changed our process many times over the years and I’m pretty confident we will next time. Our process is driven by members and the proposals they submit. There have been quite a few proposals written and submittd for this upcoming [meeting] so I think it will be discussed, as it always is.

Do you think the nominating process, and the secret committees in particular, need fixing? In an interview last fall, board member Tracy Gershon, who I believe was speaking on the Academy’s behalf, said the ultimate goal is to get rid of them.

I will say that our ultimate goal is to get to the point where our membership can determine these things, and we have been working to improve our membership’s [knowledge] and continue to evolve how we bring in new members. As our membership grows and improves, I think it will affect whether certain categories need nomination committees. The committees were put in place because we felt things were getting lost in the shuffle, a lot of really good music that came out late in the eligibility period was getting overlooked. The other thing we were finding was that some big names were using their popularity and influence to [attain nominations] in other categories that they’re not normally in, and be able to win based on name recognition. We always want to be sure we honoring excellence in every category, so that’s kind of the genesis of how those categories began. And as we start to get more refined and more diverse and reflective in our membership, I think we can see a time when the membership can ultimately have a bigger hand in choosing the nominees.

Do you think instituting ranked-choice voting (a first-choice, second-place choice, etc.) would help that process?

We’ve done a lot of studies around that, we’ve had professors and experts come and speak to us and we’ve worked closely with [the Academy’s Diversity Task Force chair] Tina Tchen, and that’s a possibility that could have an impact. I don’t know it it would result in better nominations, but it might result in something different. We’re still looking into that and it’s definitely something we’ll talk about going forward.

Do you still feel that the Weeknd’s exclusion from the 2021 nominations was by the book and just the result of the current nominating process?

Some of it was [decided by] the [“secret”] nominating committees and some was the voting body, because some of the awards he was eligible for did not have nominating committees, so it was a combination of both. But again, it’s unfortunate, we never like to see somebody as talented as the Weeknd get left out or feel left out. It’s not something any of us are happy about.

Do you think that such an egregious omission is a sign of dysfunction in the nominating process?

The process is definitely something that we’re going to continue to look at and continue to make sure that it’s evolving as music continues to evolve. I’ll hopefully have more things to talk about in the future.

Finally, where are things with MusiCares? Has it continued its usual work in addition to COVID relief?

I think it’s given out over $22 million in COVID relief and they’ve never stopped with the general aid — addiction, food shortages, mental health and more — and they continue to do that. That $22 million figure does not include those other services.  [New MusiCares chief Laura Segura Mueller] has done great work and really pushed things forward, even beyond the COVID relief, and I’m so proud of the work she’s done.

The annual MusiCares benefit show is Friday night — do you have a fundraising goal in mind for it this year?

I’m sure Laura’s got a number (laughs), but I actually don’t know what it is. Whatever we raise is going to go right back into the music community. Some organizations and charities take a percentage off the top and manage the money in certain ways, but MusiCares a puts a gigantic percentage of every dollar raised right back into the program. I think we’re going to see some great things happening with MusiCares and I think you’ll be excited to see what rolls out next.