Two years ago, the Grammy Awards faced a moment of reckoning after its then-leader, Neil Portnow, said that women had to “step up” in order to be recognized in the music industry. He’s gone now. And the Recording Academy, the membership organization which gives out the Grammys, is trying to reinvent itself from top to bottom. It’s under new, female leadership — and with the Grammy ceremony coming up on Jan. 26, the Academy says it has concrete goals to ensure that women and people of color move toward equal footing.
Last year, the Recording Academy formed a task force to address diversity and inclusion at the Grammys. On Thursday morning, the Academy announced that it will take up nearly all — 17 of 18 — of the task force’s sweeping recommendations for reform. If enacted, these changes could transform the awards — and, its architects hope, even act as a catalyst for shifts across the wider music industry.
Deborah Dugan is the Recording Academy’s new CEO and president. She says, “We’ve known as an industry for a long time that we have a monumental problem with gender issues. This is a major restructuring to allow for immediate diversity.” Along with gender, the task force also looked at underrepresentation in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability.
Dugan notes that one of the task force’s top-line recommendations is to greatly increase the number of female Grammy voters; as of this October, only about 22 percent are women. New membership rules enacted last November have created very modest gains in gender diversity among Grammy voters in the past year — in April 2018, 20 percent of its voting members identified as women — but Dugan has a goal of doubling female voters by 2025.
Last year, the Academy tapped Tina Tchen to lead up its task force. Tchen is also the president and CEO of Time’s Up. She says that the Grammys need to have many more women at the table as voters.
“Research tells us that when you have diverse people, you make better decisions collectively,” Tchen says. “It doesn’t just mean more women nominees. It means you’re making a collective, better decision because you have diversity of points in the room.”
Some of the 17 reforms being put into place immediately include diversifying the Academy’s board of trustees, which is currently 65% male and 65% white; stipulating that local chapters of the Academy meet national outreach targets in order to attract new and diverse members; and ensuring diversity within the ranks of the highly influential nomination review committees, which review submissions for approximately 60 of the Grammys’ 85 total award categories.
The only task force recommendation that the Academy did not immediately accept was to institute ranked-choice voting for the “big four” awards: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist. (The Grammy organization says it will “continue to review” the idea.)
Tchen says that when she came in, she anticipated at least some resistance to new ideas.
“We weren’t sure how the Recording Academy was going to receive it because it is a 60-year-old organization,” Tchen says. “And sometimes you have to look at the structures that were adopted decades ago and figure out why they are not actually working to improve diversity.”
But Dugan says she wants to upend that old Grammy culture.
“Our board of trustees chair is [songwriter and producer] Harvey Mason Jr.,” Dugan says. “He and I are personally and professionally committed to advance and champion diversity, inclusivity, transparency — making processes simple and understandable. So this is a new day of reinvention at the Recording Academy. There is so much that is great. But we’re examining everything — absolutely everything.”
Dugan and Tchen know that the Grammys aren’t the whole music industry, nor does the Recording Academy hold any jurisdiction over artists or labels. But they hope that the awards will help set gender and diversity standards for the entire business — in which women continue to be vastly underrepresented — and that when fans and emerging musicians see present and future Grammy nominees and winners, they might see themselves in those artists.
“Music translates and changes our broader culture,” she says, “what kids want to be and listen to. And if they can see women artists and people who look like they’re making music and being Grammy nominees, that has a ripple effect across our entire culture. That’s huge.”
And Dugan says that the changes she wants to effect are already being mirrored in some of this year’s nominee slate.
“The nominees themselves are unapologetically themselves,” she observes. “And so when you have a Lizzo, a Billie Eilish, you realize that there’s no defining, just bringing yourself to the table. And none of us is equal until all of us are equal.” And with young, creative women setting the pace.