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Music’s Biggest Fight: 7 Things to Know as Recording Academy Shakeup Casts Shadow Over Grammys

As the Recording Academy’s war of words with embattled CEO Deborah Dugan heats up, the spotlight on the organization’s legal expenditures and governance is threatening to steal the show. On the eve of music’s biggest night — the 62nd Grammy Awards — the most compelling drama may be unfolding offstage as the Recording Academy’s new CEO,…

As the Recording Academy’s war of words with embattled CEO Deborah Dugan heats up, the spotlight on the organization’s legal expenditures and governance is threatening to steal the show.

On the eve of music’s biggest night — the 62nd Grammy Awards — the most compelling drama may be unfolding offstage as the Recording Academy’s new CEO, Deborah Dugan, now on leave, squares off with the organization’s old guard in a verbal battle royale — complete with high-powered lawyers — featuring allegations of harassment, conflicts of interest and financial impropriety.

Dugan started just five months ago, replacing Neil Portnow (who had led the Recording Academy for 17 years), and many music industry executives believed she would modernize a stodgy institution, scrutinized for its glaring underrepresentation of women and artists of color accepting awards during the televised show and a secretive nomination process. Now the leadership — and future — of the academy has been thrown into question just as the world turns its attention to the prestigious annual awards show that provides most of the group’s public profile and a considerable amount of its revenue.

Here’s everything you need to know about the unfolding controversy.

Earlier this month, Dugan was placed on administrative leave after being accused of “bullying” conduct

On Jan. 16, the academy’s board of trustees placed Dugan on leave after a senior staffer, understood to be director of administration Claudine Little — Portnow’s longtime right hand — accused Dugan of alleged misconduct, including bullying, a source confirmed to Billboard. The academy has hired two independent third-party investigators to look into the allegations in a process that’s expected to conclude in early spring.

In a memo sent to the Recording Academy’s head of human resources in December, Dugan alleged multiple improprieties within the organization, including a corrupt Grammy voting process

But weeks earlier, Dugan had sent a scathing memo to the academy’s head of human resources, alleging that the organization was paying exorbitant legal bills, presiding over improper voting procedures and turning a blind eye to conflicts of interest among members of the board of trustees and outside legal counsel, according to a source. The academy tells Billboard that on Jan. 10, Dugan asked to leave her job with a $22 million settlement. Harvey Mason Jr., the songwriter-producer who chairs the academy’s board and is now acting as interim CEO, wrote in a Jan. 20 letter to academy members that Dugan’s attorney “informed the executive committee that if Ms. Dugan was paid millions of dollars, she would ‘withdraw’ her allegations and resign from her role as CEO.”

The academy countered with a multimillion-dollar offer that was much less than $22 million, two sources tell Billboard, but she turned it down. Dugan’s co-counsel Doug Wigdor said Dugan declined to comment.

Just days after her suspension, Dugan lodged a legal complaint against the academy that contained multiple allegations of sexual harassment

After Dugan was placed on administrative leave, her co-counsel Bryan Freedman said in a Jan. 17 statement, “When our ability to speak is not restrained by a 28-page contract and legal threats, we will expose what happens when you ‘step up’ at the Recording Academy, a public nonprofit.” Freedman followed that up with a scorching legal complaint on Jan. 21 that lobbed a number of shocking allegations against the organization. Among them: a claim that Dugan’s successor Portnow had previously been accused of rape by a female recording artist and that Dugan and the academy’s former chief information officer Megan Clarke had been sexually harassed on the job — Dugan by the academy’s outside legal counsel Joel Katz. (Portnow and Katz have both denied the allegations.) It also included further details on the allegedly corrupt Grammy voting process.

Former Recording Academy chief Portnow’s past with the organization has been held up to increased scrutiny in the wake of the allegations

In his use of the term “step up,” Freedman was referencing the now-infamous remark Portnow had made after the 2018 show when he suggested women in the music industry should “step up” to advance their careers and receive more recognition at the Grammys. That comment, which Portnow said was taken out of context, led a number of prominent women in the music industry to call for his dismissal and the establishment of a task force to review the academy’s — and the music industry’s — lack of inclusion and diversity.

A few months later, another scandal erupted when Dana Tomarken, a longtime MusiCares and Grammy Foundation vp who had been terminated that April, wrote to the board of trustees to excoriate the academy and accuse Portnow of improperly moving funds away from the MusiCares charity (he and the academy have denied any wrongdoing). Tomarken then sued for wrongful termination; she and the academy reached a settlement in November 2019.

Many industry insiders are stressing the need for an academy ‘overhaul’

One academy insider stresses the urgency to settle with Dugan and move past the last two years of troubles, rhetorically asking Billboard: “How much longer does [the academy] want to drag this out before they risk having to rebuild the whole organization from scratch?”

Another industry executive suggests that if Dugan leaves — and the expectation is that she’ll do so after the investigation is concluded, if not before — the organization’s next leader should continue to change it. “It all needs to be overhauled,” says the executive. “It sounds like everything [Dugan] was bringing up should be investigated, but she was moving too fast too soon and didn’t try to work within the system and, instead, just blazed through it.”

Others believe that, despite seemingly being open to evolving during the CEO recruitment process, the academy board is too locked into its way of working to embrace any kind of shift. “She believed she was coming to be an agent of change, but they don’t really want change at all,” says a source. “They had entrenched ways of doing business, and anything she tried to change was met with, ‘That’s not how we do it.’”

In a December report, a Recording Academy task force highlighted the need for more diversity within the academy’s ranks

Whoever takes the reins from Dugan may face similar obstacles in trying to enact change from within while dealing with increased calls for reform from creators and music executives outside the academy. On Dec. 12, the task force that had been set up in 2018 to address diversity and inclusion released a report with 18 recommendations, zeroing in on the academy’s homogenous, 44-member national board of trustees and how some have kept their positions — and maintained their power — for years.

Since 2012, the report found, the academy board has been 68% male and 69% Caucasian, a state of affairs it blamed on an outmoded election process. “Chapters are repeatedly electing the same people, [making] it difficult (if not impossible) for new, underrepresented voices to break in,” the report stated. “[Chapters have] essentially become silos.” The current board is now 35% women, and 50% of the trustees have served for three years or less.

A page in the program guide for the 61st annual Grammy Awards in February 2019 features the names and photos of past chairs of the Academy’s trustee board. Between 1957 and 2019, 32 executives have served in that role. Of those, two are African American (current chair Mason and Grammy-winning producer Jimmy Jam) and two are female (Jones and singer/songwriter Christine Albert).

The task force recommended letting the academy’s voting members elect one-third of the board’s trustees from a pool chosen by the executive committee, having local chapters elect one-third (as they do now) and hiring an independent entity to fill in the final one-third after the first two-thirds have been chosen to ensure the most diverse possible outcome.

On Jan. 23, the task force released a statement criticizing the academy’s board of trustees for failing to implement the proposed changes, demanding they and the academy leadership “immediately commit themselves to real reform” and update them on their progress when the task force reconvenes in 90 days.

Though the academy has so far resisted structural change, interim CEO Harvey Mason Jr. is vowing to ‘make needed repairs’

In response to the task force’s recommendation, the academy agreed to change its voting system — but not nearly as much as many music executives had hoped. Trustees voted in November that 30 out of 38 of the trustees would continue to be elected by local chapters, which have little oversight under the current process. The overall membership afterward would vote on the remaining eight trustees.

For now, Mason — who first became a trustee over a decade ago — is working to put the spotlight back on the Grammy stage.

“I encourage anyone who is truly interested to go beyond the sensational sound bites and teaser headlines and look at what the academy actually does and how it functions,” he wrote in his letter to the organization’s ­membership. “My pledge to you is that I will address the findings of these investigations fairly and honestly and work to make needed repairs and changes while ensuring we have an academy that honors diversity, inclusion and a safe work environment for all concerned.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.


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