HITS Daily Double
"This past year has been spent recreating the Academy’s good will, and I think we’ve made some great progress."


NARAS’ Neil Portnow talks about his first year as President with HITS’ Roy Trakin

What surprised you most about your first year on the job?
As an elected leader and volunteer over the years, you get a perspective, but it’s very different when you actually sit in the chair as an employee. What was interesting to me was the extraordinary volume of work and activities that go on here. Which is quite staggering, to be honest.

How much of your time is devoted to the Grammys themselves?
As it gets closer to the show, more and more, obviously. The rest of year isn’t that way at all. There are our two foundations, membership, our advocacy work, managing the staff and trying to carve out a direction for the organization.

What’s been the difference in announcing the nominations earlier this year?
The hardest, most difficult part of the process is for our awards department, because the eligibility period is exactly the same. The entries come in at the same volume, but there’s far less time to process them. Our screening committees, the balloting, our communications department getting the press conference organized is a massive job, and to do it in four less weeks was a challenge. That said, they rose to the challenge. And they were even able to take some time off for the holidays.

You haven’t named a host for the show yet.
We look at last year—when we had multiple hosts—as a successful experiment. We’re not so sure that might not be the best way to go again. There aren’t many folks who can do this at the level we need to have. Amazingly, a lot of these things go to the wire.

How do you carve a distinctive place for the Grammys in an increasingly cluttered Awards show landscape?
Most of these other programs aren’t really awards shows. They are today’s variety entertainment programming. The criterion for the awards is somewhat manufactured and arbitrary. We are the only show that is peer awards and viewed on that level. It’s music’s equivalent to the Oscars. We present musical entertainment, but we’re going to continue to prevent those special "Grammy" moments, those one-of-a-kind musical pairings and unexpected segments you don’t see anywhere else.

Can we expect a Johnny Cash tribute?
The great thing about this show, and the difficult part, is that we have to work with what we’re given in any year, nominations-wise. Every year presents a fresh canvas. Last year was the first year we did an "In Memoriam" segment. That’s the way the Clash tribute came about. We’re in the unique position of being able to end an "In Memoriam" segment with music, like a New Orleans funeral… It’s both a memorial and a musical celebration.

Are you more inclined to use your position to politicize musical issues, as your predecessor often did?
Because of our constituency, we need to be a strong voice, an advocate for our membership. In my second year, I want to embrace that role. We have been working on a campaign for a year now on digital technology and copyright which will involve PSAs, a website, etc. We want to educate consumers on the issues and allow them to make an ethical, moral and intelligent decision. The other thing we’ve been talking about is a "Grammy Cultural Policy Initiative" in conjunction with our DC branch and a full-time lobbying firm we’ve hired. We want to provide forums for groups within our industry to get together and discuss, with a solution-oriented intention, issues that previously seemed to only get discussed in the press and the halls of legislatures. We’re calling them "Grammy Town Hall Meetings." We’ll also be hosting some closed-door, private sessions with various members of the community, allowing them to talk about issues in a frank, candid way, and point the way towards solutions. This past year has been spent recreating the Academy’s good will, and I think we’ve made some great progress. That gives us the platform and portfolio to do those things.

Will NARAS attempt to incorporate the Musicians Assistance Program within MusiCares?
I personally have had great respect and admiration for MAP for years. Over the past year, I developed a warm and respectful relationship with Buddy Arnold and Carole. It is clear to me, we share a lot of these missions. Is there a more formalized way to cooperate? Buddy’s death put a significant bump in that road. We are very seriously looking at ways to expand and formalize that relationship. My heart is in trying to make it happen.

You recently turned down a proposal from New Orleans for a Grammy Exposition and Hall of Fame.
For many years, the Academy has had an interest in a museum or exposition. There have been numerous attempts to find a business model that would work with an interested municipality. New Orleans was one in a string of business proposals presented to us. Ultimately, there were too many unanswered questions as to whether it was in the best interests of the Recording Academy. Our decision was this was not the best project for us at this time. We’ll take another look at it down the road.

Have you had any second thoughts about taking this job?
Not for a second. It was serendipitous. I had no intentions of changing my career path whatsoever. The fact that this became an opportunity was unexpected, but the fact that I was able to apply and be selected has been very fortuitous, energizing and reinvigorating. The fact I get three or four hours less sleep per evening and still enjoy myself is proof of that. It’s been a real learning experience. To be on the forefront of our other missions—advocacy, education, philanthropy and charity—has been stimulating and liberating.

Have you heard from Mike Greene?
I ran into him about a month ago at an auto dealership and had a nice chat. And we went our merry ways. Every job has its tenure. None of us are irreplaceable.

What’s your take on the future of the record business?
As long as the human spirit is allowed to grow and creativity heard, there will always be people making music. The audience for music is wider and broader than it’s ever been, and that’s where technology has its benefits. Anyone can hear anything they want at any place in any fashion. My optimism stems from that. There’s no reason to believe music cannot continue to exist as a profitable, meaningful business. We just have to be willing to realize the model is changing. The consumer, ultimately, decides how he or she will get whatever it is they want—whether it’s music, books, clothing or movies. We can’t be entrenched in the old ways of doing things. Technology has always been our friend. We have to batten down the hatches and hang on. I believe we’re going to be fine, but we’ve had a rough patch with a confluence of difficult elements hitting at the same time. It will pass.