Is a new tune in store?

The nom­i­na­tions will be a test of task force’s mission to boost di­ver­sity and fe­male in­clu­sion.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Randy Lewis

It’s a safe bet that more eyes than usual will be fo­cused on Fri­day’s an­nounce­ment of the 2019 Grammy Award nom­i­na­tions.

For the first time in Grammy his­tory, the cer­e­mony is rolling out un­der the watch­ful eye of a high-pro­file di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion task force cre­ated by the Record­ing Academy.

Jan­uary’s 60th awards cer­e­mony won praise for em­pha­siz­ing hip-hop and R&B in many top fields — the poplean­ing R&B of Bruno Mars won the al­bum of the year — but was al­most im­me­di­ately over­shad­owed by a #Gram­mysSoMale back­lash. Fe­male artists were largely shut out in the top awards cat­e­gories, and in an in­ter­view af­ter the cer­e­mony, Record­ing Academy Pres­i­dent and CEO Neil Port­now com­pounded the is­sue by stat­ing that women should “step up.”

But it doesn’t re­quire a task force to see that #Gram­mysSoMale shouldn’t be an is­sue for the Feb. 10, 2019, awards. That’s pro­vided, of course, that the Record­ing Academy’s ap­prox­i­mately 13,000 vot­ing mem­bers had their pulse on the most im­por­tant mu­sic of 2018.

A look at the most pop­u­lar and crit­i­cally ac­claimed works of the last few months re­veals that the bulk of them were cre­ated by fe­male artists such as Tay­lor Swift, Cardi B., Kacey Mus­graves, Janelle Monáe, St. Vin­cent, Kali Uchis, Ari­ana Grande and Court­ney Bar­nett, among many, many oth­ers.

Of course, if the Gram­mys get it wrong, it wouldn’t be the first time its mem­bers failed to read the pop-cul­ture room.

About this time one year ago, many in the Record­ing Academy were be­ing praised for the racial and mu­si­cal di­ver­sity ev­i­dent in

2018’s nom­i­na­tions. But hiphop and R&B had been the lin­gua franca of pop mu­sic for more than a decade be­fore the Gram­mys rec­og­nized the mu­sic in a sub­stan­tive way in its top cat­e­gories of al­bum, record, song and new artist.

And can a task force that’s only been in ex­is­tence since May course-cor­rect a long­stand­ing Grammy con­ser­va­tive streak? For even when vot­ers rec­og­nize ad­ven­tur­ous work, they tend to de­fault to known quan­ti­ties, as when Tay­lor Swift’s “1989” beat Ken­drick La­mar’s “To Pimp a But­ter­fly” for al­bum of the year at the 2016 cer­e­mony. Or when Beck’s pleas­antly folky “Morn­ing Phase” took the same prize over Bey­oncé’s dar­ing self-ti­tled 2013 set.

The task force, led by Tina Tchen, the ex-chief of staff for for­mer First Lady Michelle Obama, noted that her 18-mem­ber group is not look­ing for spe­cific sta­tis­ti­cal di­ver­sity quo­tas among the next round of Grammy nom­i­nees or win­ners.

Big changes

But she stresses that the process that yields awards is now more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the world in which they ex­ist, as vast changes have been made to the de­mo­graphic makeup of the academy’s gov­er­nance and nom­i­na­tion re­view com­mit­tees.

“What we wanted was to make sure there was go­ing to be more di­ver­sity in the process, not a set of quo­tas in the win­ners,” Tchen told The Times on Wed­nes­day. “We want good de­ci­sions to be made. The area we thought was most im­por­tant to in­flu­ence was the com­po­si­tion of the com­mit­tees. I do be­lieve in the re­search, and all the re­search shows that di­verse teams make bet­ter de­ci­sions. The re­sults are bet­ter when you have a di­ver­sity of view­points, and dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences in the room where de­ci­sions are made.”

Of course, con­quer­ing in­sti­tu­tional en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try bi­ases is a more long-term chal­lenge.

“It is sort of crazy,” said ac­tor-mu­si­cian Zooey Deschanel, half of the indie rock duo She & Him with cosong­writer and pro­ducer Matt Ward, bet­ter known by his nick­name, M. Ward, with whom she has re­leased six al­bums in the last decade. She’s been nom­i­nated for Grammy and Emmy Awards in years past.

“One thing that’s in­ter­est­ing be­ing a fe­male who plays mu­sic and writes mu­sic is that when­ever we have been in­ter­viewed, ev­ery­one would as­sume Matt would write the mu­sic.

“But I write the mu­sic for She & Him,” she said, “and in ev­ery in­ter­view they would as­sume I didn’t have any­thing to do with the writ­ing. I thought it was maybe be­cause I’m an ac­tor, and they as­sume I would rely on some­one else, but when I talk to other mu­si­cians who are women, they go through the same thing: Ev­ery time you work with a male, peo­ple think they are the creative ones.

“I have to be­lieve there’s no mal­ice in it, and I don’t hold it against any­body,” Deschanel said. “But it’s a strange up­hill bat­tle.”

In­deed, the is­sues of di­ver­sity and fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion that Grammy vot­ers are wrestling with reach far be­yond the mu­sic in­dus­try.

“The record­ing in­dus­try, like the broader en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to this be­cause a huge part of the work­place and the work­force con­sist of peo­ple who are not em­ploy­ees of any­one: the makeup artists, the road­ies on the tour, the guest mu­si­cians — they’re not cov­ered by any kind of pro­tec­tions for sex­ual ha­rass­ment. That’s some­thing that’s very com­pli­cated to look at. How do we ad­dress those is­sues?” Tchen said.

To be­gin to an­swer such a ques­tion the group iden­ti­fied mea­sures that could be im­ple­mented promptly to ex­ert some im­pact on the 2019 Grammy nom­i­na­tions and awards.

The most im­me­di­ate change came in June with word that the academy would be ex­pand­ing its four mar­quee cat­e­gories to al­low for up to eight nom­i­nees in each rather than the tra­di­tional five. The task force also rec­om­mended changes to the de­mo­graphic makeup of the academy’s gov­er­nance and nom­i­na­tion re­view com­mit­tees.

The re­view com­mit­tee is now 51% fe­male and 48% peo­ple of color, up from last year’s num­bers of 28% fe­male and 37% peo­ple of color. The gov­er­nance com­mit­tee ra­tios are now at 48% fe­male and 38% peo­ple of color, over the 2017 break­down of 20% fe­male and 30% peo­ple of color, Tchen con­firmed. “That’s a big jump,” she said, “and I think this demon­strated the com­mit­ment and se­ri­ous­ness with which the lead­er­ship of the academy is tak­ing our rec­om­men­da­tions.”

The task force’s ini­tial steps are be­ing met with cau­tious op­ti­mism.

“Those are su­per im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tions to have, be­cause I think it’s im­por­tant to con­stantly bet­ter our­selves and the pro­grams that re­ward artis­tic ex­cel­lence,” said Colom­bian Amer­i­can singer-song­writer Kali Uchis.

Mar­ion Kraft, coun­try singer-song­writer Mi­randa Lam­bert’s man­ager and a non-vot­ing academy mem­ber, said, “The group that was as­sem­bled speaks for it­self with their back­grounds and ex­per­tise, and I am a fan of a lot of the folks on that list. I am hope­ful that pos­i­tive changes are ahead, but also be­lieve that th­ese types of changes take time. I think that the Record­ing Academy strives to im­prove the im­bal­ance, and they know that the world is watch­ing.”

Even be­fore the #Gram­mysSoMale cam­paign erupted ear­lier this year, the academy had been try­ing to con­tem­po­rize its mem­ber­ship rolls. One way was to switch to an an­nual qual­i­fy­ing and re­newal process from the near-au­to­matic five-year re­newal pe­riod that had long ex­isted.

New vot­ers

Ad­di­tion­ally, an outreach cam­paign ini­ti­ated by the task force sent in­vi­ta­tions for Record­ing Academy mem­ber­ship to 900 un­spec­i­fied mem­bers of the mu­sic com­mu­nity, say­ing it was fo­cus­ing on women, peo­ple of color and those un­der 39 years old. Tchen said 22% of the in­vi­tees, or about 200, ac­cepted those in­vi­ta­tions and joined ahead of the Nov. 15 el­i­gi­bil­ity cut­off that al­lows them to par­tic­i­pate in this year’s vot­ing.

“There’s a longer-term process of look­ing at is­sues in the academy,” Tchen said. “What peo­ple should un­der­stand is that com­bat­ing sex­ual dis­crim­i­na­tion and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and cre­at­ing a bet­ter work­place and more di­ver­sity is pretty com­pli­cated, long-term work. You’re chang­ing norms that are not lim­ited to any sin­gle work­place. It ex­tends across our whole cul­ture. … It’s go­ing to take some ef­fort, and I com­mend the academy for its will­ing­ness to act on it.”

Among the task force’s find­ing on per­ceived ar­eas where im­prove­ment is needed is aware­ness in the mu­sic com­mu­nity of both the ex­is­tence of the Record­ing Academy and its mission.

“A lot of artists don’t re­al­ize they are el­i­gi­ble to be part of the academy,” Tchen said. “We want to make sure they un­der­stand what the academy is about and what the ad­van­tages are of mem­ber­ship.”

Coun­try su­per­star Wil­lie Nel­son un­der­scored that point when asked re­cently whether he is a mem­ber of the academy. “I don’t know — am I?” he said. “I’m a mem­ber of the Mu­si­cian’s Union — I know that.”

Asked if she was a mem­ber of the Record­ing Academy, Uchis paused. “I don’t know. I hope so. Do you have to be [a mem­ber] in or­der to be nom­i­nated?”

The Grammy process can be mys­te­ri­ous even to those in­volved with Grammy-win­ning acts.

“I know they send out bal­lots, but I never got one and I never voted,” said Tony Margherita, who is now re­tired but served as the long­time man­ager of Wilco, which won an al­ter­na­tive al­bum Grammy for 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born.”

“I think some of the artists voted, but it al­ways seemed murky,” Margherita said. “The Grammy process, and the Gram­mys them­selves, al­ways felt like a com­pletely dif­fer­ent busi­ness than the busi­ness I was op­er­at­ing in. I think the band felt it was nice. The tro­phy is nice.” One bat­tle at a time. “To be clear, it’s not like there are any easy an­swers,” Tchen said. “If there were easy an­swers, it would be done.”

[email protected]­times.com Twitter: @RandyLewis2 Times staff writers Todd Martens, Ran­dall Roberts and Mikael Wood contributed to this re­port.

Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

KALI UCHIS is among the up-and-com­ing fe­male artists who have re­ceived ac­claim for new work.

Michael Loc­cisano Getty Im­ages

TINA TCHEN leads a Record­ing Academy task force that’s fo­cus­ing on di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion.

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