Artist boycotts. Sagging ratings. Music’s biggest night is clouded by controversy. Can the Recording Academy’s Harvey Mason Jr. help chart a better path?
There doesn’t seem to be a time in recent memory when the Grammy Awards haven’t been clouded in some kind of controversy.
This year, in the run-up to music’s biggest night, Drake doubled down on his longstanding beef with the Recording Academy by not submitting his album Honestly, Nevermind for consideration. In a 2020 Instagram story, the rapper wrote: “I think we should stop allowing ourselves to be shocked every year by the disconnect between impactful music and these awards and just accept that what once was the highest form of recognition may no longer matter to the artists that exist now and the ones that come after.”
The Weeknd, after being snubbed of any nominations in 2020 for his highly acclaimed album After Hours, called the Grammys “corrupt” and later said that because of “secret committees,” he would no longer allow his label to submit his music for consideration—a promise he made good on this year with his latest album Dawn FM.
The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency…
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) November 25, 2020
Nicki Minaj slammed the Academy when her submission for “Super Freaky Girl” under rap categories was overturned by an Academy committee, which placed the song in pop—a move critics saw as drastically reducing Minaj’s chance of a nomination since that was her biggest hit of 2022. (She did, indeed, receive zero noms this year.
“We want to lift the industry. That’s the only thing we care about. So when somebody’s upset with us, I’m upset,” says Harvey Mason Jr., the Recording Academy’s CEO. “We have to continue to evolve and change the things that people have issues with so we can ultimately earn the trust of the industry.”
It’s easy to dismiss fabulously privileged celebrities griping about trophies. But the deeper issue at play is that trust has eroded between music artists—particularly those vocalizing their frustrations on their massive platforms—and an organization whose mission purports to “recognize excellence” in music.
The Grammy Awards show represents only a fraction of what the Academy does across the music industry, but it’s also the nonprofit’s biggest revenue driver through a multimillion-dollar deal with CBS. And it’s that revenue that helps fund support initiatives for artists and music education programs.
So if music’s biggest acts continue to lambast the Grammys as irrelevant and rigged—and in some cases refuse to participate at any level—how much value remains for a televised event that’s already experienced a precipitous drop in viewers in recent years?
“That’s something that we wake up every day thinking about,” Mason says.
To Mason’s credit, he’s been doing more than just thinking about it. Three years into his tenure as CEO, Mason lays out his progress and what he sees as the future of the Academy.
MORE TRANSPARENCY AND BETTER DEI
Mason parlayed an extensive (and ongoing) career as a producer, composer, and songwriter into becoming a member of the Recording Academy in 2001—admittedly so he could vote for himself. From there he rose through the ranks to become chairman of the board of trustees, and then interim CEO-president in 2020, before fully assuming his role a year later. Having been so embedded in the industry as both an artist and high-ranking member of the Academy, Mason has a unique vantage point to tackle the organization’s most pressing issues as CEO.
In a bid for more transparency, he dissolved the Academy’s so-called secret committees in 2021 that for decades were responsible for deciding the final list of nominees in most categories, including the “big four” (best album, song, record, and new artist). That same year, the Academy announced an inclusion rider for the Grammy Awards to ensure more diverse representation on and offstage during the telecast.
Last year saw nearly 2,000 new Academy members who, according to the organization, represented the “most diverse class to date,” with 44% from traditionally underrepresented communities and 47% younger than 40. Men still vastly outnumber women among new members (52% vs. 32%, respectively, with 16% identifying as nonbinary/not opting to disclose). However, there is a goal in place to add 2,500 women voting members by 2025.
To recognize a wider range of artists, the Academy added five new categories to the Grammys debuting this year, including songwriter of the year, non-classical; best alternative music performance; best Americana performance; best score soundtrack for video games and other interactive media; and best spoken word poetry album.
It’s no coincidence that a steady stream of changes, particularly those related to diversification, went into motion when Mason became interim CEO in 2020, a time when just about every company was scrambling to commit to better diversity, equity, and inclusion practices. We saw what external pressure from social unrest could yield. But we’ve also seen how commitments can wane once the national conversation shifts elsewhere.
“I don’t have the fear that if the pressure were to die down externally, we would be comfortable and resting on our laurels,” Mason says. “I am of an underrepresented community, so I come with certain biases. I come with certain things that I personally feel are very important—and diversity, equity, and inclusion is something that I don’t see as just performative. I see it as critical to any organization.”
THE FUTURE IS GLOBAL
Part of that inclusion is staying ahead of the globalization of music. Korean- and Spanish-speaking artists in particular have made massive inroads on U.S. charts. In fact, this year Bad Bunny is the first artist to have an all-Spanish-language record (Un Verano Sin Ti) nominated for album of the year at the U.S. Grammys.
“If that doesn’t portend the future, I don’t know what does,” Mason says.
The Latin Recording Academy was instituted in 1997 with the first Latin Grammy Awards in 2000. So with an influx of artists like Blackpink, BTS, Rema, and Burna Boy finding fans stateside, does Mason see a future for an Asian or African Recording Academy?
“It’s something we’re going to pay close attention to,” he says. “We’re going to see how we can be in service to music communities and music ecosystems all around the world. And if it makes sense for us to be somewhere, I can see us having that discussion.”
RETHINKING MUSIC’S BIGGEST NIGHT
What’s also worth discussing is the future of the Grammy Awards telecast.
In 2020, 18.7 million people tuned in. That number plummeted the following year to just 8.8 million and saw a marginal increase in 2022 to 8.93 million. Awards shows across the board have experienced notable drops from their heyday of appointment television, with viewers by and large opting to watch next-day highlight clips. To that end, Mason says the Academy will continue experimenting with digital activations like its foray into the metaverse last year to try and keep pace with consumption models.
“It’s critical that we do sort out, What does our show look like and how do we reach the audiences going forward?” he says. “It’s important because this show, this celebration of music, is how we operate as an Academy. This is how we’re able to do the programs. This is how we’re able to have thousands of kids from schools come to the [Grammy Museum] and get their hands on a drumstick or on a guitar and experience music.”
Making sure artists feel recognized during the nominations process and awards show itself is in Mason’s hands only to a limited extent. What he can wholly control are the music education and artist support programs the Academy is responsible for, including the charity MusiCares that, among many other initiatives, has doled out $30 million to music professionals since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We might not always get every nomination right. We might not always give everybody a Grammy who deserves one. But what I will tell you is the other stuff we are getting right,” Mason says. “And I don’t expect everybody to be patting us on the back or everybody to be giving us hugs right now. We have to do work and we have to continue to get better.”
This article first appeared https://www.fastcompany.com
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