When it comes to Zoom backgrounds, Grammy Awards executive producer Ben Winston has one that’s tough to beat. Along with the requisite photos and tchotchkes, there’s a piece of a bridge from David Letterman’s old set, an autographed album cover with a (sadly illegible) inscription by his former roommate, Harry Styles, and … is that actually a puppet of himself? Six of Winston’s top team members, who are also on the call, immediately chime in with laughter and jovial mocking in a cacophony of American and British accents.
“Yes, I have a muppet of myself,” Winston confesses. “Although I’m not sure that’s something to gloat about, to be honest.”
“I think it is!” says co-executive producer Jesse Collins, a Grammy and Oscars veteran who has plenty to gloat about himself, having produced the Weeknd’s Super Bowl show just weeks before.
The team’s palpable virtual chemistry is the result of months spent planning a truly unprecedented event. It’s just the second time since 1979 that anyone except titan Ken Ehrlich has helmed the Grammys, and Winston, the executive producer of “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” spent nearly four months carefully selecting the crew to help steer the ship. “The idea that Ken ran this show for 40 years is such an unbelievable achievement,” Winston says in his crisp British accent, “because now, sitting in that seat, I think this job is too big for any one person. So I spent the first few months going, ‘Who is the best of the best at what they do?’”
Joining Winston (pictured above with Cardi B in 2019) and Collins on the show and the call are veterans of Grammys, Oscars, AMAs, CMAs and an alphabet soup of other awards shows: co-executive producer Raj Kapoor, talent producer Patrick Menton, and producers Josie Cliff, David Wild and Fatima Robinson. Equally essential but not present are first-time Grammy director Hamish Hamilton, production designer Misty Buckley, producers Eric Cook and Carly Shackleton, and others. And yet, due to the pandemic, “none of us have worked in the same room,” Cliff sighs. “We have very, very long Zooms.”
Other than the number of performers — Styles, Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, BTS, Billie Eilish and Post Malone are among the 22 acts set to perform “in and around” the Los Angeles Convention Center — little else will feel like the Grammys of yore. (Variety did not ask Winston or the show team about the controversial and puzzling exclusion of the Weeknd from the list of 2021 Grammy nominees, as they were not involved in that decision.) For one thing, some performances will be pre-recorded; for another, the show is taking place several weeks later than usual, postponed from Jan. 31 to March 14 due to a since-diminished local spike in coronavirus cases. And while honorees will gather in the same location, there will be four stages, each set up in the round with a small number of performers, nominees and guests grouped around it. A fifth stage will be for presenters.
“The performers and nominees are each other’s audience,” Winston says, “so it’s a room of incredible musicians, all safely distanced from each other, and every 45 minutes a new four groups come in and the [previous] four go out.”
Winston declined to reveal how many performances were pre-recorded — “You’re going to have to work out on the night what is and what isn’t live” — but, in an effort to sustain a sense of community, all of them took place at the convention center.
“One of our mandates was that [performers] have to come to us and be part of our team and film in L.A.,” Kapoor says. “We’re not interested in doing a show that is disconnected. There’s a physical presence to it, of people performing live for the camera and being in a single location. Other shows may have used music videos and virtual reality and stuff, but ours is actually based in Los Angeles, where we usually celebrate the Grammys. It may be done in a different way, but it definitely feels like people are coming together to make this show.”
Asked for a theme, Collins replies, “Community — the music industry coming together and standing tall and doing what music does: bring us all together, regardless of what’s going on in the world.”
Inspiring words, but just imagine trying to create “Music’s Biggest Night™” for the first time in your life — with a pandemic thrown in long after you’d signed the contract. Yet Winston says being a newbie is, in many ways, an advantage.
“For me, it’s a blank sheet of paper. I come in and go” — he claps — “’Forget everything that’s been done before. We have 25 of the greatest artists in the world, the greatest production team I can possibly put together, an amazing venue and a three-and-a-half-hour slot on the No. 1 network in America: How do we make this incredible?’”
Incredible — and COVID-protocol compliant. Menton reels off some of the requirements: “Everyone is tested every 48 hours; everyone has to wear PPE or face shields; there’s no eating and drinking; we all have to stay six to eight feet away from each other; there’s no shouting; there’s pipe and draping in the hallways to make sure there’s one-way traffic,” he says, pausing for breath. “We’ve spent countless hours making sure that safety is the No. 1 priority.”
“However,” Winston chimes in, “I don’t think the viewer at home will feel like they’re watching a COVID[-era] show,” which isn’t to say that current events will not be reflected in the ceremony. Both the performers and the host, “Daily Show” veteran Trevor Noah, will “do a lot of that job for us,” he says. Details are under wraps, but Robinson does reveal that “we have a really great social justice-[themed] performance with Lil Baby.”
The show will also honor music venues that have been flattened by the pandemic. As Winston reveals: “Venues are such an integral part of the music community, so this year the majority of the awards will be given out by people who work in those venues — bartenders, security, door people.” Venues receiving the honor include the Apollo in New York, the Station Inn in Nashville and the Troubadour and Hotel Café in L.A.
That thoughtful response to a sad situation seems indicative of the spirit Winston’s team has tried to bring to reimagining the Grammy Awards. Wild says, “It reminds me of the show that brought me into television — the ‘Tribute to Heroes’ [benefit concert] after 9/11, when the challenge was, ‘How the hell do we respond to this moment?’ In a few days, we came together with a template that allowed us to put on a show that could do some good, lift spirits and, in that case, raise money. I feel like this show and almost every show that all of us have worked on over the past year has that same real sense of mission.”
Before things get too idealistic, Winston brings a cold shower. “Since we’re talking to Variety, I hope the story the next day won’t be ‘Ratings Down by 40%!’” he thunders in a banner-headline tone, “because they will be.” He lists several recent awards shows that have seen their numbers plummet. “We all know that television is changing, and I think [the Grammys’] streaming numbers, digital engagement and viewing online will be up, and those eyes matter to me just as much as the demo of the network.”
As the call winds down and people sign off, Winston says to Robinson, “Fatima, have we ever met in a room together?” She shakes her head. “That is bonkers,” he says. “I feel like we know each other so well.”
She says, smiling, “I look so much better in person.” As the team members laugh, she adds: “And when we meet, Ben, I’m gonna hug you. I don’t care what the COVID police say.”