HITS Daily Double
"The Grammy is the most significant, recognized and important music trademark in the world."
——Neil Portnow, NARAS Chairman/CEO


An exclusive HITS dialogue with NARAS President/CEO Neil Portnow
Industry vet Neil Portnow has some big shoes to fill. Never mind the cavernous Grammy office in the org’s lavish Santa Monica headquarters vacated after the controversial, but hugely successful, 13-year reign of outgoing NARAS chief Michael Greene. The Great Neck, Long Island, native and George Washington University alum, who attended high school with our own Lenny Beer, first joined NARAS in 1972. A producer and bass player, he got his first industry job at Screen Gems publishing with Lester Sill, Ira Jaffe and Irwin Robinson before seguing to RCA Records as a staff producer. Then-Nipper exec Mel Ilberman moved him to L.A. in 1977 as VP A&R West Coast for the label, where his most notable accomplishment was signing Fandango, whose singer, Joe Lynn Turner, ended up as lead vocalist for Rainbow. Portnow’s rsum includes stints as President of 20th Century Fox’s record label, then West Coast GM at Arista, then EMI America before joining Zomba Group of companies as Senior Vice President of West Coast Operations in 1988, where he remained until he was recruited by the Grammy Board of Trustees to succeed Greene. After less than a week on the job, Portnow risked his well-earned reputation as a savvy music biz exec, never mind "nice guy," by sitting down to assess his new gig with HITS’ own Chuckles Philips, "Siegfried and" Roy Trakin.

Did you ever dream of being in this position?
[Laughs] Never. I originally joined the organization because I wanted to vote for my own projects to win a Grammy. Of course, none of the records I made were good enough, to say the least.

So you became more involved with the organization when you moved out to L.A. in 1977?
All I knew out here were transplanted New Yorkers, and one of those was Eddie Lambert, who urged me to become active with the local chapter of NARAS. I did, and within a year or so, I was elected to the Board of Governors for the L.A. Chapter. That was the beginning. It was 20 years ago that I became involved as a volunteer in various leadership roles.

You never thought of becoming head of NARAS?
There was a moment when I thought about it. The organization’s leadership had always been on a volunteer basis. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees was always a non-paying position. We had a staff of three or four paid administrative people in a small office in Glendale. But we reached a point where we had outgrown that model, so we decided to have a paid president around 1987-88. Back then, this was a very small, mom-and-pop operation. The decisions being made were whether we could afford to have turkey sandwiches instead of pizza at the board meetings. At that point, we hired Joe Smith as our first paid President after he left WEA. He was in the job three or four months, and then an offer from EMI came in, so he left. This is a unique place to work. For any executive coming from a mainstream business, it’s a bit of a culture shock. NARAS has 18,000 members, with 42 elected members of the Board of Trustees. There are several hundred elected governors around the country, and a paid staff of 140. This is a non-profit whose activities include charitable functions, doing good work, education and producing the TV awards show. But it also has its commercial side, so the combination is very odd. When Joe left, we were back at square one as to who was going to run the Academy, and that’s when the thought first crossed my mind to consider the job. It just didn’t pan out then. That’s when Mike Greene, who was the Atlanta Chapter President and then Chairman of the Board, was brought in. Which is the way it worked at NARAS; you start on a local level and build yourself up to national service. Each chapter functioned as a separate corporation, so there were a lot of politics and rivalries involved in terms of how funds were allocated. The search committee at that time felt Mike had great skills, knew the organization, was aggressive and had a mission. And we also saw how difficult it was for someone outside NARAS to step in and try to run it.

What went into the decision to replace him?
There were many factors. Any organization that experiences explosive growth develops a culture that sometimes can be maintained, and sometimes cannot. At some point, you need to refuel; you have to stop and see where you are and make sure you’re happy with that progress. As an Academy, we always have to be thinking not just about growth but about excellence and mission. People had a sense of wanting to regroup and rethink and maybe do things in a slightly different style.

Did you personally feel it was time for a change?
About a year-and-a-half ago, I had termed out as a national trustee. At that time, it was suggested I run for Secretary/Treasurer because I’d served as Chairperson for our Finance Committee. Who knew then that this would be the year when things were all going to change? As an officer, then, I was very involved in the discussions, but I chose to be Switzerland, which is what I do best; to sit back, listen and assess. And then, at the end, to raise my hand and say, based on what I’m hearing, here are the options. As you might suspect, these things become emotional, where people had different opinions on each side of the issues. What I felt was critical, if we were going to go through this process of evaluating the future, was that everyone maintain an open mind and come to a fair conclusion. I played that role up until the very end, at which time you have to stand up and make a decision. I did not feel differently from the majority of the trustees that a change was necessary. At the same time, Mike had come to the conclusion it was time for a change for him. We had a meeting of the minds to move on.

So you conducted a search for his successor.
After 14 years, we were at a crossroads. We had the opportunity to go in any direction we wanted. We could hire anybody from any segment of life, any age, any size, any weight, any height. We had no preconceptions. The Trustees voted for a search committee made up of Board members who would sift through the candidates. They came up with a list of characteristics they’d like to see in a new president. We also brought on the search firm Korn-Ferry to help in the process, so that we could have an open and objective search. We received well over 100 resumes from serious candidates. As we culled it down, the search committee met dozens of candidates, including me. It was like being on American Idol. I was treated like any other candidate.

When did you realize this was something that you wanted?
Up until the point the Trustees decided to make a change, I was not thinking of myself as a candidate. When the decision was announced, there were several stories in the press speculating that I was a possible front-runner for the job. This was a double-edged sword because I was working at Zomba, and it was a bit uncomfortable and kind of distracting to the process [of choosing a successor to Greene]. And then the phone calls started, with people both inside the organization and the industry urging me to go for it. It was flattering, but it made me realize that I had to seriously consider it, even though I had planned to spend the rest of my career at Zomba.

As it turned out, with Jive being wholly acquired by Bertelsmann, you made the right decision.
I believe, if I had elected to stay at Zomba, there would have been some very interesting and potentially exciting opportunities within the new world there. But I made the decision to change my career before that deal was finalized. I’m not looking back, saying, "Coulda, woulda, shoulda." I’m totally pleased with my decision.

You’re like Gerald Ford coming in after Richard Nixon, a nice, non-controversial guy who can mend fences.
I think my leadership will certainly reflect my style, and to the extent that that’s different than my predecessor, sure. It will be an appropriate style for what we need to go forward.

Are you concerned about declining Grammy TV ratings?
It’s still early for me. There’s no substitute for sitting in this chair to provide a new perspective. I want to reserve some time to absorb that and be thoughtful. The Grammy is the most significant, recognized and important music trademark in the world. We have to stay current and ahead of the trends. We have to be willing and interested in being creative and innovative. One of the beauties of the Grammy show is also, sometimes, its limitation. Because of our very specific rules and regulations for eligibility and voting, we have to base our show on what happens within a given year. To the extent that music is more exciting in one year over another, the Grammy show reflects that. In terms of performances, we have guidelines related to our nomination process, whereas the other commercial so-called awards shows can do anything they want. The Grammys has the broadest ability to showcase music from all genres and create special moments and special opportunities you won’t see anywhere else. And that’s an area where I’m personally interested in looking a little more closely at what we do in the production of the show, to make sure we’re presenting those magic moments. What’s most memorable to me, as an audience member watching the show for the last 20 years, are the performances that were unexpected, unique, dynamic or magical.

What about the competition with Dick Clark’s American Music Awards?
It’s a basic business issue. If you watch the Letterman show and see something and three nights later, you see the same thing on Leno, it’s not as interesting. We have to be concerned that what’s on our show is unique and special. An appearance on the Grammy telecast has the most significant and direct impact on record sales. And that’s important for our industry. I come from the record business, so I understand the power of that, which is good news for the labels, artists and the Academy. That’s where we all win…especially in such a tough sales environment.

Will the Grammys continue to shuttle between New York and L.A.?
At the beginning, the theory was the show would be held in every Chapter city. The problem with that, in this day and age, is a practical one—the production of the show, the venues involved. Attendance is important, and a large segment of our membership is in New York and L.A., along with our industry partners.

What’s the future of the Latin Grammys?
The Latin Grammy show is an outgrowth of the Latin Academy, LARAS, which was on the drawing board for years before it finally got off the ground. It’s developing very nicely. They have a wonderful Board of Trustees. It’s an interesting organization in the sense that it is multi-national. You have Latin music and trustees that come from all over the world, speaking different languages with different cultures. As that Board develops, and as it becomes more self-sufficient, they’re going to weigh in more consistently with their own ideas and concepts. If the networks are truly interested in serving different cultural demographics, as a commercial and cultural enterprise, this is a huge market. And there’s no better way to do that than with something that appeals directly to that demographic, and at the same time, exposes an important culture to the mainstream U.S. audiences.

What are some other goals for NARAS?
Despite public perception, the Grammys represent just a portion of what we do. I describe our mission as "the four pillars of the Academy." First, obviously, is membership. We need to be doing everything we can to serve our members—keep them educated, provide a service and bring in new blood. We have a fantastic infrastructure to do this with our member services department and Chapters around the country, with staff resources and all kinds of publications, educational programs, etc. That’s the heart and soul of the organization. It creates the strength and the culture, along with the voting process and the awards show. Next is music education. In an environment where the arts are the last priority in terms of funding, the Academy has an obligation and responsibility to do everything we possibly can to promote music education. "Grammy in the Schools" has been set up to specifically address that issue, as has the Grammy Mentoring program, our involvement with the Leonard Bernstein Center and "Grammy High School Jazz Ensembles." We also have taken the lead in the critical areas of music archiving and preservation. Third is philanthropy and charity for our own, which includes our MusiCares Foundation. For anybody from our industry in need, for whatever reason, be it a month’s rent or drug rehabilitation, MusiCares has done a fantastic job. We need to take it to the next step through coalitions and cooperation, as well as increased fundraising. Fourth is advocacy. As an organization, our membership is pretty diverse, so there are a number of issues that relate to us where we may not have a consensus. I see the Academy as a place for dialogue, not necessarily an opinion; we’re a logical home for discussion, not necessarily taking a position. However, there will be issues where most of our membership does agree, and in those areas, we need to be strong, loud and first as far as speaking up. Part of that involves Washington. I’m sure we can do an even more thorough and improved job at that, and we’re looking at some specific steps to heighten our presence there.

Will you make a Grammy night speech?
Here’s my current theory, though I haven’t quite come to a conclusion. Usually, when the guy with the beard shows up, the audience goes to the bathroom. Even if the subject matter has been generally relevant, timely and important. As the new guy with the beard, the audience still goes to the bathroom. I’d like to identify a new messenger, but that still needs to be determined. Tune in and watch what happens. Do I want to be a presence on the show? Of course, and I’ll find something appropriate to do.

Has this been a smooth transition for the organization?
For me, it’s been one of the most unique transitions I’ve ever had. Up until Zomba, I’d never stayed in a job for more than three-and-a-half years, so it’s been very bittersweet for me to leave Zomba after 14 years. But the Recording Academy has been my second home. There’s an organic nature to it that’s very comfortable. The staff has been undergoing this process for the past seven months under our Chairman Garth Fundis, and there could not have been a better person for that in terms of his temperament, understanding and knowledge of the organization. He totally disrupted his life to do this and frankly, at tremendous personal sacrifice. I think, to some degree, I’m a known quantity. But, while people may know me in one capacity, they now have to learn about me in another, in a leadership role. It’s a day-by-day learning and growing process. That being said, my style is very inclusive, respectful and collaborative. One of the first things I had to do was re-write the President’s message in the employees handbook. You’d think that would be a rather mundane task, but when I sat down to do it, I realized, what I was writing was essentially a message to the 140 people who work here and to those who will join us in the future. So I took the opportunity to write about style and culture. This is a place where office politics would be minimized, where respect is maximized, where no one individual has a monopoly on good ideas. Basically, the same management style I’ve developed over the years.

Have you talked to Mike about the job?
Absolutely. Mike and I have had good conversations. Of course, he offered whatever insight and help we would want. I think it is common knowledge that, as part of the changes that have occurred, Mike was available as a consultant.

When are you meeting with L.A. Times’ Chuck Philips?
I already have a breakfast set up. I learned a long time ago that the press can be a wonderful and powerful ally. They have a very difficult job, filled with competition and politics. The bottom line is, if you understand and are respectful of another person’s work, you will generally come out OK. One of things that’s always worked well for me is having those kinds of relationships with journalists. If this organization is going to do the kinds of things that I think we can and should do, we’re going to need the assistance, help and good will of the press. After all, it’s the people’s Academy.

What’s your outlook on the future of the music industry?
I’m bullish. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with the heads of the labels recently, and I found that most have a very positive view going forward. The history of the music business has been that technology is our friend. Unfortunately, we have some catching up to do. The business models may change—and some of them should—but the essence of creating music will never change. If we’re willing to have an environment where a creative person can’t make a living, it’s going to be an awfully quiet country. Ultimately, we’re going to find the answer to these problems and prevail as an industry, albeit in a different configuration.