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‘I wasn’t Switzerland, I was armed and dangerous, but it was quite a feat of diplomacy and strategy. Someone told me this situation really played to my strengths, and I suppose it turned out that way.’


Recording Academy Chief's Diplomacy Skills Come in Handy in Time to Rescue 50th Awards Show
In the dark hours of recent weeks, when it appeared that the WGA was fully prepared to derail the 50th Annual Grammy Awards show, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow uttered the rallying cry, “The show will go on.” He then proceeded to figuratively throw himself onto the barricades, doing everything humanly possible to make good on that vow. After succeeding in his mission, an exhausted but exhilarated Portnow summoned up the energy to field questions from our own Roy Trakin, who got through by claiming to be Billboard’s Geoff Mayfield.

Next step for you is resolving the writers’ strike.
I expect to be getting calls to do that now. I give credit to all my Great Neck South G.O. President training.

It must’ve been tough to be Switzerland in this situation.
I wasn’t Switzerland, I was armed and dangerous, but it was quite a feat of diplomacy and strategy. Someone told me this situation really played to my strengths, and I suppose it turned out that way.

Are you ready to become a labor lawyer?
No thank you, but I have heard from the Israelis and the Palestinians.

If the writers had decided to picket, was there any chance the Grammys might not have taken place?
It certainly would have made it more complicated. We put together an extraordinary coalition of partners and support within the industry, though. We drafted a letter from our CEO summit, which includes the leadership of every organization we work with, from the RIAA and the NMPA to ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, etc., which I personally delivered to the Writers Guild last week. The unions that represent the musical talent, AFM and AFTRA, very clearly stated that they would advise their members to participate. It is those music unions who govern our telecast, not SAG. If an artist accepts an engagement through the union, they are obligated under that contract to perform. Not that we would have enforced it, because there is certainly some empathy on our part with the writers, but the affected unions were clearly on our side. And then talent began to speak out that they’d be there as well.

Did you have an alternative plan if the writers stood firm?
We didn’t think we needed one. The Grammy telecast is a lot like a rent-controlled apartment in New York—there’s no shortage of people who want to apply for it. The fact is, this is a different industry. To cause CBS three and a half hours of distress on one night, versus a year’s disruption of what the Academy stands for and provides for the music business, didn’t seem to be a fair trade-off.

How will this 5oth anniversary show be different from a normal year?
That’s been the challenge. The prime-time special we had at the end of the year was focused solely on a look back at 25 of the great Grammy moments in history, as chosen by the public. We didn’t want to give short shrift to this year’s crop of nominees. You’ll see elements of the current year, but we will also look back a little bit, and show music as a continuum over time. By connecting the dots between the past, the present and, hopefully, the future, we will attempt to present the soundtrack of our lives for the past 50 years.

You’ve extended the Grammy brand this year to CDs, books, a fashion line and even a museum.
Our 50th anniversary was a perfect occasion to do something I felt was appropriate and somewhat overdue: to take what is arguably the most famous, the most recognized, the most coveted icon in music—the Grammy statue—and find ways for music fans, consumers and our own community to identify with that beyond the one night a year of the awards show. It represents the missions of the Academy, including excellence, philanthropy and charity. The clothing brand offers people the chance to associate with and remind themselves about their love of music and connection to it, especially with the Grammys being, arguably, the arbiter of good judgment and good taste. It includes everything from T-shirts and leather jackets to handbags, cases, eyeglasses, belts and all kinds of stuff that’s probably too cool for me to wear.

What has looking back on these 50 years meant to you?
This has become a very emotional thing for me. Seeing the performers who have appeared, it’s like the sum total of popular culture in this country, quite staggering and awesome, as well as an enormous responsibility to carry that on. It’s made me feel the continuum of what we do is everlasting.

Less than two weeks away from the ceremony. Is this nervous time for you?
Not at all. We don’t like to close out the show too far in advance. Things happen, opportunities come up. Events in the world sometimes have an influence. The final touches are still there to fill in.

Will Amy Winehouse be there?
We hope so. She’s got an immigration hearing, which will have a lot to do with whether she can or not. Other than that, we have heard the same information everybody else has about her intentions to get herself ready and prepared to come and, hopefully, perform.

What about the rumors that Michael Jackson might attend?
I’m not going to speculate on rumors, but we have a lot of respect for him. He’s certainly a historic figure. He’s certainly welcome to be at the ceremony. Whether he performs is another issue. There are things that get done early and quickly and others that don’t get done until the last minute.

The Grammys now represent an important sales spike for an industry that could use one.
It also provides a morale boost for everybody, from the creative folks to the people involved on the business side. It’s a feel-good week, and we could use that, along with the commercial opportunities that certainly come from it. We are proud of that. That is part of what we contribute during Grammy season.

Are there any plans to televise the pre-Grammy ceremony?
For the first time this year, we will stream it live on Grammy.com. In the future, the Nokia Theatre being right there also represents possibilities to develop that presentation even further as a stand-alone piece.

Do you have any thoughts about the next 50 years?
Mine or the Academy’s? [Laughs] We certainly have a great platform to build on. That’s why the slogan for the ad campaign Chiat/Day helped us develop is, “The next 50 is here.” And that’s really how we feel. Everything from this day on is about moving forward.