Grammy Awards are undergoing sweeping changes with new Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr.
A veteran producer and songwriter, he has collaborated with Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber and more
Harvey Mason Jr. had a singular when he became a dues-paying member of the Recording Academy, under whose auspices the Grammy Awards are presented.
“I joined because I really wanted to win a Grammy, and I wanted to vote for myself!” the veteran songwriter and record producer said, laughing heartily.
Over the course of his career, he has worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Beyoncé to Whitney Houston, John Legend and Justin Bieber. Although Mason has five Grammy nominations to his credit, he has yet to take home one of the coveted trophies — despite voting for himself.
But Mason will command the stage with a singular presence Sunday night in Las Vegas when he speaks to the audience at the 64th annual Grammys telecast, as befits the new CEO of the academy.
Will 19-year-old Olivia Rodrigo match Billie Eilish’s 2020 feat of winning Best New Artist and Album, Record and Song of the Year honors at the music world’s most prestigious annual awards fete?
He will do so after initiating more change in less time than any of his predecessors might have dreamed possible. (Mason was the interim leader of the academy for just 16 months before officially becoming its CEO last June.)
Those changes range from appointing two co-presidents and increasing the diversity of the academy’s membership — including creating the Recording Academy’s first Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer — to launching a Songwriters & Composers Wing, forming a partnership with GLAAD to advance LGBTQ+ representation in the music industry and implementing sweeping measures to increase the transparency of the oft-criticized Grammy nominating and voting process.
Mason has expanded from eight to 10 the number of nominees the Recording Academy’s 12,000 voting members can cast ballots for in the Album, Record and Song of the Year categories, as well as for Best New Artist. He almost completely eliminated the controversial “secret” committees, which for decades had decided the final list of Grammy nominees in a majority of categories, including for Album, Song, Record of the Year and Best New Artist.
How many former and current San Diegans have won Grammys? The list ranges from Tom Waits, Gregory Porter and Heart’s Ann Wilson to Julieta Venegas, Eddie Vedder and Poway Mayor Steve Vaus
That’s in addition to having distributed $30 million so far in relief funding and medical aid to more than 38,000 music industry professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic, though the Recording Academy’s MusiCares division, and lobbying Congress to aid shuttered live-music venues, among other initiatives.
“I try hard to make sure people understand the Recording Academy is more than just the Grammy Awards show,” Mason stressed. “It’s about all the work we do to lift the music community, and to help the industry at large, the other 364 days a year.”
At 53, this Boston native and longtime Los Angeles resident is not the youngest person to lead the Recording Academy and the Grammys.
But Mason is the first Black person to assume that high-profile leadership role. And he is the first who has worked with an array of hip-hop artists as a producer and songwriter, including 50 Cent, Nelly and such outspoken Grammy critics as Ye (the artist formerly known as Kanye West) and Jay-Z.
That could help Mason in gradually winning over some of the music industry professionals, and hip-hop fans, who have justifiably denounced the Grammys. Chief among their criticisms is the repeated failure to honor hip-hop in the awards’ three most prestigious categories (Album, Record and Song of the Year).
Mason spoke to the Union-Tribune for 30 minutes recently by phone from his Los Angeles office. Here are excerpts from that conversation. They have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I’m curious if, by nature, you’re a gambling man? And if moving the Grammy Awards telecast to Las Vegas for the first time in the event’s 64-year history feels like a gamble at all?
A: By nature, I am not a gambling man; I am the opposite of a gambler. But moving to Las Vegas this year felt like a challenge, brought on by COVID, and using the opportunity to be in a new location has been really exciting. We’re working with our (TV) production team to make a show that’s different than shows of the past. We started that trend with last year’s telecast — forced to do so out of necessity by COVID — of not being able to have (a live audience) and doing performances at different locations. We’re sort of trying to take the same approach with being in Vegas. It’s an amazing place to have the show and is giving us this opportunity to do different things.
Q: Obviously, we all hope that by next year the pandemic will not be an issue like it is now. At that point, do you pivot back to Los Angeles and, once in a while after that, New York to hold the Grammys? Or could you envision going to different cities?
A: Well, we have a partnership with AEG and Staples Center, or Crypto.com Arena as it’s now known, so we will be back in L.A. next year — provided there aren’t any more COVID issues and we can secure the right (telecast) dates. Beyond that, we’ll make a determination on where we go or what we do next.
Q: Whenever I talk to a college or high school class and ask how many of the students in the class watch the Grammys, almost none of them say they do. How do you bring in younger viewers, and who is your target demo?
A: The target demo is anybody who loves music, people who appreciate different artists. That’s the cool thig about the Grammys; it’s not one age, not one demo, not one music. We have to realize that young people are not always watching on TV. They are on social or new media. And we are intent about figuring that out and making sure we reach music people where they are and where they consume their content.
Our partnership with CBS has been a good one and we work with them on (the questions of): Where are their viewers, and how can we reach them? Music has a unique ability to reach people. Whether they tune into CBS or on new platforms, music will find people and artists have the power to connect with their fans and consumers.
Q: You formally became involved at the Recording Academy in, I believe, 2009. At what point did you see that you could be a force for positive change for the organization and the Grammys, and do you regard yourself as an agent of change?
A: When I got involved in the Academy in 2009, I saw the things it was doing and I got very excited and motivated by the opportunity to try and make things better, and to work to support our music family and to do things the academy does. I saw the power of that. So, midway through my time as a member I decided to run for a Board of Trustees seat, and I was elected. That’s when it became obvious to me that we can do some great things and make some changes in our music community.
Then, when I was elected Academy Chair (two years ago), my objective was to drive some meaningful change. I was proud and pleased that the Academy had done so much amazing work over the previous 62 years. But I also thought we could do more. I saw how fast the industry was changing and how quickly things were evolving around music business, and I knew that the Academy plays an important role in that. And it was just by doing the things that were important: the education, the advocacy, the support and safety net for music people. ...
That also kind of carried over into the awards. ... I wanted to make sure our awards process is the best it could be. This is a long, convoluted answer, but the awards process completely depends on our membership. So, I wanted to make sure our membership had the most up-to-date, relevant voters possible. We needed to be more diverse. We needed to be more inclusive. We wanted to see inclusivity across genres and genders. Those are some of those things I was hopeful we could continue to improve on. I think we’ve made some great strides.
Q: I’m bad at math, so let me read you a few numbers and then you can help me out. If my research is correct, in 2020, the Recording Academy invited 2,300 people to join as members and, in 2021, invited 2,700 more people to join. Of those 5,000, how many have joined the Academy?
A: I’ll need to check for the exact number, but I believe we are at a 79 percent acceptance rate, which is an all-time high for the Academy. And that number’s been trending upwards.
Q: That’s impressive. If you break it down, do you have specific figures of how many of the people who accepted are male, female, Black or of other ethnicities?
A: Yes, we do. And, again, I can make sure we get you the exact figures; I don’t have them off the top of my head. But I will say our new goal is to invite 2,500 new women members by 2025, and we’re 65 or 75 percent of the way there, so we’re getting close. As for Black representation, I believe we’ve averaged 11 percent black representation in our membership. Our goal was to get that up to where it closely resembles the percentage of Black people in the industry making music.
Thirty-four percent of music is Black-created or in Black genres — R&B, hip-hop, jazz, reggae. We wanted to make sure we got closer to a representative number there, and we’re on our way. We have goals there that we’re trying to accomplish.
Q: Except for 2021, I have reviewed the Grammys in person every year going back to the last century. I want to read you the lead of my review of the 2018 Grammys: You can lead 13,000 Grammy Award voters to hip-hop, but you can’t make them cast their ballots for it — at least not when it comes to the most prestigious categories in the world’s most prestigious annual music awards fete. That was the message delivered depressingly loud and clear during Sunday night’s telecast of the 60th edition of the Grammys.
As I’m sure you recall, 2018 was when Jay Z had a field-leading nine nominations and won nothing, while Beyoncé was close behind with seven nominations. She ended up winning only two, both in minor categories. Is there a disconnect here, in that, year after year — except for Lauryn Hill and OutKast winning Album of the Year honors in 1999 and 2003, respectively — hip-hop just doesn’t seem to win in the major Grammy categories? I’m going to assume that’s very frustrating for you.
A: It’s frustrating, in the sense that I want to see the best music get recognized. But I also realize the reality of our system, and it is a peer-voted award. If you don’t have your peers — and, by that, I mean the genre peers — as voters, that particular genre does have a distinct disadvantage. There weren’t a lot of hip-hop creators as voting members in the past. We have some of the stats (now).
Some of the stats and data we didn’t even collect at a certain point, so we’ve now started to collect that information so we can make educated decisions about: “Who do we need to make sure we bring into the academy?” In the last couple of years that I’ve been here, we’ve made a very concerted effort to go into the data to look at who it is we’re missing — and then reach into those communities and start asking people to join. Before, we would wait for people to ask us if they could be members. And then we would decide if we would let them in, based on their (professional music) credits, on their criteria.
Once we started looking at the data, once we started reading reviews similar to the one you just read aloud, once we started realizing the vote was only going to be as accurate as our membership was, then we started looking at where we had shortcomings or shortfalls in membership and started bringing those people into the Academy, or at least inviting or asking them to join.
The other thing is, we’ve tried to do more outreach and create an awareness around different music communities. Because if we don’t have the involvement of those communities, we just aren’t going to see equitable or representative outcomes. It’s the math. If we don’t have enough people who understand or know what hip-hop music is, the vote won’t reflect a balance of the music. If we don’t have enough voters who understand what country music is, country music will be at a disadvantage.
So, the priority for us in the last few years is making sure we have representative voting across the board in as many genres as possible. The other thing we’ve done is that we’ve tried to change the voting process, so that you don’t have voters looking across the ballot and randomly casting votes. ... Our hope is that experts in different genres will be voting for people within those genres and determining winners, as opposed to people voting (based on) name recognition across the ballot and just voting for their favorite names.
Q: The Weeknd boycotted the Grammys last year, after being snubbed for nominations. A variety of hip-hop artists have also boycotted in recent years and been outspoken in their criticism of. If you were to sit down with The Weeknd or other artists who have been critical of how the Grammys have dealt with hip-hop, what would you say to them? Or would you want them to just watch how the Recording Academy evolves over time, and try to win them over with what you accomplish?
A: First of all, I would say: “I hear you. Thank you for being passionate enough to care. I realize there are things we want to continue to do better, and thank you for bringing things to our attention.” And I would also say: “I don’t expect you to trust me just because I’m here talking to you. We will do the work to make the changes and earn your trust.”
When I talk to our critics, I explain what the vision and goals are for the Academy. Generally, they are critical of the Grammy Awards. Not many can be critical of the services we provide, the $30 million in COVID support we have given out, our music education programs, and the hundreds to thousands of hours we spend advocating on behalf of music in Washington D.C.
So, generally when people are upset it’s about the administration of the awards. I spend a lot of time talking about: “Yes, we want to get the awards right and we will improve the process. But please join us so we can do all the amazing work we do for advocating and music education. Because that’s what we get right. We don’t always get the awards right, but what we do get right are things we really do make a positive impact with ... The Academy is a lot more than our awards show.”
Q: Will the Grammys shift the eligibility period for nominations to coincide more closely with the calendar year? Adele won three of the biggest Brit Awards in London in February for her album “30,” but it was not eligible for the 2022 Grammys’ ballot because it came out last November, after the September cutoff period for Grammy eligibility.
A: There is always thought given to the eligibility period. And as long as I’ve been around, there’s been discussion. It comes down to: Will there be a proposal by someone who wants to change it? I don’t dictate these changes; they come from within our community. So, when the community suggests a date change or eligibility change, it comes through as a proposal.
Q: Because of the surging Omicron variant, the original Jan. 31 date for this year’s Grammy Awards telecast in Los Angeles was canceled, after which the move to Las Vegas on April 3 was announced. Is there a Plan B for Las Vegas if, heaven forbid, you need to have one?
A: You know, we always try to be smart and have something as a backup. So, I know there’s other things that we had to (consider), but we’re not really spending any time focusing on that. We’re all the way in on Vegas and putting on a great show there.
The 64th annual Grammy Awards
Hosted by: Trevor Noah
With performances by: Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, BTS, Brandi Carlile & Brothers Osborne, J. Balvin with Maria Bacerra, Jack Harlow, Jon Batiste, H.E.R., Nas, Chris Stapleton, Cynthia Erivo, Carrie Underwood, Maverick City Music, Aymée Nuviola, Billy Strings, Leslie Odom Jr., John Legend, Ben Platt and Rachel Zegler
When: 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: KFMB Channel 8, airing live from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and on the Paramount Plus subscription streaming service
Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony
Hosted by: LeVar Burton
With performances by: Jimmie Allen, Ledisi, Mon Laferte, Allison Russell, Curtis Stewart, Madison Cunningham, Falu, Nnenna Freelon, Kalani Pe’a, John Popper, and The Isaacs
When: 12:30 p.m. today (awards will be presented in more than 70 of the 86 Grammy categories)
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