New Recording Academy Co-Presidents Talk Future Plans and Reaching Young People

Matt Winkelmeyer

Literally minutes after the announcement that the Recording Academy has named Valeisha Butterfield Jones and Panos A. Panay to the new roles of co-presidents hit the wires, the pair and CEO Harvey Mason, jr. were on a zoom call with Variety to talk about the organization’s new structure and what it means. (The three are pictured above, L-R: Panay, Mason, Butterfield Jones.)

The home of the Grammys has been on a substantial overhaul since Mason took the helm in January of last year, and according to the announcement, Butterfield Jones (who will remain the Academy’s chief diversity officer) and Panay (founder of Sonicbids and most recently a top executive at Berklee School of Music) will be part of a “modernized leadership team” that also includes recently elevated COO Branden Chapman and chief industry officer Ruby Marchand as part of a “modernized leadership team.”

You can read more about their backgrounds here, and although they don’t officially start in their new roles until Aug. 16, they had plenty to say. Mason and Butterfield Jones were in Los Angeles, while Panay was nine hours and thousands of miles away in his home country of Cyprus.

I know that this is a drastic oversimplification, but it seems that these two new roles are basically Panos overseeing business, while Valeisha is focused on people — members and artists.

Mason: Yes, that’s actually a great way to put it. I’m gonna start using that!

Panos, can you talk about some of the opportunities for growth you see?

Panay: This is a time of great change in the industry, and I think that environment requires a different management structure and approach, and not just at the Academy. The Grammys and the Academy are globally recognized brands, and in terms of the ability to be an advocate for creators everywhere, it’s unparalleled. The Academy has a big platform, and it’s one that it ought to deploy.

Creators’ incomes and livelihoods are changing, and we believe we can play a big role in educating and advocating for them, not just on a national level but on a global level. We believe there are opportunities for greater collaboration with the tech world, where Valeisha and I have backgrounds, and there are global partnerships that can be struck, since talent is evenly distributed around the world but opportunity is not. We also think we can play a greater educational role with respect to our members, and for advocating for the development of creativity and eductation, and we want to give opportunities to as many young people who have something to express as possible.

It actually sounds like you’re planning on using commerce to advance the Academy’s mission rather than, say, a robust merchandising business.

Panay: Whatever we do it will have to be consistent with ethos and respect that the Academy and our brand commands around the world, so absolutely.

Butterfield Jones: Beyond diversifying revenue and expanding our global footprint, our focus is on how we can serve our members more, so that’s about doubling down on our commitment and our partners to the industry, our cross-industry alignment and sharing our plans and goals with the industry and our members. We want to make sure we’re expanding our benefits to our members, creators and musicians first, and I think giving $24 million in Covid relief to music people is the kind of mission that we want to expand and scale, and together as a collective we have the resources and talent to do that. We’ve spent hours thinking about how we can expand what we offer and meet the moment, and we’re just scratching the surface.

Valeisha, you’ve already been with the Academy for more than a year. What are some ways you’ve worked to get more young music people to become members?

Butterfield Jones: We know that young creators and professionals are mission critical to our strategy for the Academy, and for example today we announced TK scholarship fund, to not only invest in talent but also bringing them in at an early stage. We’re thinking about race and ethnicity and all of those communities, but also age: young people, as well as more mature artists and musicians.

We often talk about, what is the end-to-end life cycle of engagement we have with music professionals and people? When we think tactically and even strategically, it starts with schools — but it’s also important to remember that not every young person is part of a traditional academic environment. So yes, we will be engaging colleges and universities and our youth programs, but also we’re looking at expanding our presence into historically Black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, as well as going beyond and getting deeper into the communities of emerging music creators, to make sure we’re not missing that talent. So we’re looking across every area of the music business and beyond to make sure we’re tapping into young talent, especially locally.

Did you take many lessons you learned from working as the national youth vote director for the Obama campaign in 2012?

Butterfield Jones: I wasn’t gonna mention it, but since you did, yes, for sure! Together with an amazing team, we delivered one of the largest youth voter turnouts in American history. One of the many best practices that I’m putting into this new role is having a multi-state strategy — not just a one-size-fits-all national approach — to how we’re engaging young people in the U.S. specifically, and also thinking about we can work with [the Recording Academy’s 12 chapter offices] and go deep into those markets and understand how we can identify and tap into those young leaders that we need to bring into our system in a meaningful way.

Harvey, how do you see this new management structure working and synergy? I understand you’re also looking for an in-house counsel, will that person be part of the structure too?

An in-house counsel is something we’re looking for, and that would be part of the structure, absolutely. I see this as being like an all-star basketball team — the best players we can find and putting the same jersey on all of them — or even a supergroup, knowing very well that each one of them can write their own songs or sing lead but working together and collaborating. And direct [appointments] we announced earlier in the year combined with Valeisha and Panos — that’s a brain trust. We’re going to throw around a lot of ideas and innovation and continue the transformation we’ve been heading toward over the last 18 months.

We are going to continue to move quickly, while still being thoughtful and considerate about what we want to accomplish. This business is not slowing down, and for us as an Academy to keep up with that pace, we’re going to need a very dynamic leadership group and the structure for us to be making improvements and changing innovation. And we’ve brought together a dream team to do that.