Grammy Chief Harvey Mason jr. on the Elimination of ‘Secret’ Nomination Committees, and What It Means

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

It’s safe to say that the music industry was stunned on Friday when the Recording Academy almost completely eliminated the controversial “secret” committees that for decades have decided the final list of Grammy nominees in most categories, including the “Big Four” General field of Album, Song, Record of the Year and Best New Artist.

The committees (which worked from a shortlist from the main body of approximately 12,000 voting members) were comprised of industry executives and experts whose names were not publicly revealed. They came under fierce criticism before the 2021 Grammys when the Weeknd, who had one of the most critically and commercially successful recordings in years with his “After Hours” album and “Blinding Lights” single, did not receive a single nomination; the Weeknd later said he would boycott the Grammys due to the committees. (Nominating committees remain in place for several specialized “Craft” categories, such as producer, packaging and liner notes; head here for more detail on the announcements.)

While the Weeknd controversy almost unquestionably played a role in the decision — which was decided by 44 members of the Academy’s board of trustees — interim Recording Academy president/CEO Harvey Mason jr. says the process had actually been in the works for many months. Late on Friday, he got on the phone with Variety to talk about the decision, its reasoning and ramifications, and what’s coming at the Academy’s main board meetings next month — where a new president/CEO is likely to be decided. That move will mark the end of a tumultuous and transformative stint for Mason, who unexpectedly took on the role, in addition to his role as chair of the board of trustees, after his predecessor, Deborah Dugan was controversially ousted after just eight months on the job. Mason not only has steered the Academy through two Grammy Awards shows, but the coronavirus epidemic — which has seen MusiCares, the Academy’s charitable wing, distribute more than $22 million in Covid relief to the music community — efforts toward increased diversity, and now, not least, the elimination of the nomination review committees.

A lot of people were surprised by the decision to eliminate the committees. How did it come about?

When I decided to run for chair, I just thought that, even with all of the amazing work that we’d done, we can do better, improve and transform — and one of those things was improving our voting and doing away with nomination review. I just felt that our voters had evolved and the voting body had kind of graduated to the point where we didn’t need that extra layer. It’s something we’ve been working on since at least June [2019], when I was named chair, and about eight months ago we started a subcommittee that I charged with looking into what it would mean to eliminate nomination review committees and how we would structure the voting and change the process. They came back with a recommendation a couple of months ago, that went to the A&N committee, which really liked the solution and voted to pass it, and today we took it to the trustee room, which passed it in exciting fashion (laughs).

How big was the victory?

I think it was a landslide.

Do you think the Weeknd receiving no nominations in 2021 influenced that decision?

The discussions about possibly removing nominations review started long ago and the real work of putting together a subcommittee to get this right started about eight or nine months ago, so, this isn’t a direct “reaction” to that situation. That said, any time an artist, especially one of that stature, calls our process into question or thinks something is unfair… the Academy is of course going to be affected by that, and want to work to make things better. I think the sentiment around the Academy has been evolving over the last 12 months, I think momentum has been picking up from the end of last year’s show, and we’ve been changing so much.

One thing that’s important to understand is that this happened in conjunction and in concert with changes to our membership, and I don’t think we would have been ready or able to eliminate the nomination review committees if we didn’t feel as confident about our membership and having qualified voting members — and we are requalifying our voting members, by the end of this year 95% of our voting members will be requalified. It used to be that if you paid your dues every year you could keep voting, and we did an accelerated requalification program to make sure that the people who are voting are experts — not hobbyists, not people who hadn’t released music for 20 years, that’s over. I think that, more than anything, influenced the decision of the trustees. The committees served us well in certain ways and in others, they needed to be changed, and now felt like the right time. We feel we have the most qualified voting body we’ve ever had in the history of the Academy.

But do you think the Weeknd situation influenced this decision, not that it is a reaction to it?

I think everything that happens during the calendar year influences the way the membership and the trustees vote. Remember, the organization is totally driven by its members — these decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. Did the Weeknd impact someone into thinking this is definitely something that needs to change? I can’t speculate, but I know the goal is to remain relevant and to be on the leading edge of music.

How is the new system going to work? Will there still be two stages of voting for nominees, a sort of run-off and a final selection?

There will still be two stages of voting. It’s hard to predict how many people will be determining the nominations because of the “10-3” voting change. [“To ensure music creators are voting in the categories in which they are most knowledgeable and qualified, the number of specific genre field categories in which Grammy Award Voters may vote has been reduced from 15 to 10. Additionally, those 10 categories must be within no more than three Fields. All voters are permitted to vote in the four General Field categories (Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Best New Artist).”]

That means everybody can vote in the general field — out of around 12,000 voters, a certain percentage will vote, and that percentage will directly decide who the nominees are in the general field. Then outside of the General Field, you’ve got three fields to choose from, and in those fields you can vote in 10 categories. So that cuts down the number of votes to whoever feels they are experts in that field: say pop, R&B and hip-hop, or whatever. So the number is going to continue to decease based on the number of categories you choose to vote in, and that was done specifically to stop “vote grazing” or people following their favorite artist into genres that they don’t really know, like if the biggest pop artist in the world made, say, a folk album.

So now, the number of people deciding the final nominee lists for the categories that used to be determined by the review committees is expanding from one or two dozen people to thousands?

Yes, the ultimate decision falls on thousands of people rather than the nomination review committees.

Why are 95% of the members being requalified? Who are the 5%?

I don’t know specifically, but I imagine they would have been members for less than five years, because right now you have to requalify every five years.

And broadly speaking, what’s the criteria for requalifying?

You have to have released music and had a certain number of credits within the last five calendar years.

Why did you have this special meeting and announce the elimination of the committees before the main meeting?

There are two answers. One, the trustee meeting in May is so dense, there’s so much material we have to cover — plus being virtual and spread out over a few days. But the biggest reason was we had finished the Awards & Nominations committee meetings and wanted to make sure this got to our trustees as quickly as possible so we could continue to make this process, and also to notify labels. It also gave us the ability to extend our eligibility period another month [Sept. 1, 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021; the previous year it ran from Sept. 1, 2019, to Aug. 31, 2020], which I felt was important with Covid. I didn’t think an abbreviated eligibility was fair or made sense, I didn’t want to shorten this awards season and have artists have to cram their releases into a 10-11-month cycle. This meeting made some historic changes to the Academy.

Will there be a new president-CEO chosen at next month’s meeting?

I believe the answer is yes. The search firm has narrowed down the candidates to… let’s say less than a handful. The candidates are going to meet the trustees this month, and I believe the decision will be made by the end of May or the first week of June.

There’s been such a change in tone from the Academy over the past year — it was very combative and defensive around the time of Deborah Dugan’s ouster, and now it isn’t. What’s happened?

I think it’s been a very conscious decision that everyone’s made. The time had come for the Academy to be more self-aware and better partners to the industry and work had to be done to earn the trust and respect of the music community, and I think the transformation began around a year ago. Some good things have happened and we also feel there’s a lot more to do.

MusiCares gave out so much Covid relief money to the community last year, it feels important to ask for any updates there?

I don’t want to steal the show from Laura [Segura, new MusiCares director], but I’m excited and optimistic about the things they’re working on, They’ve been working closely with the Black Music Action Committee and trying to be as diverse with our service as possible — I think they’ve passed the $30 million mark [in distributing aid money to music people] over the past year, which is around ten times what they usually do per year.

Finally, these new rule changes obviously make it more important that Recording Academy voting members actually vote, yes?

Oh, so much. We’re working hard to raise awareness about the importance of voting — you get to pick the world’s most impressive peer-voted award for music, and especially with nomination review being eliminated, it’s so important that we get the membership involved, and from different communities and genres. If the country or classical or rap communities don’t show up to vote, that has an impact. We have heard complaints in the past about who votes or doesn’t vote and who wins or doesn’t — now is the chance to put all that to the side and all come to the table.