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The State of the Music Industry with Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr.

The CEO/President of the organization behind the Grammys speaks with Boardroom about his competitive nature, the awards’ relationship with hip-hop, and his vision for the Academy’s future.

The Recording Academy’s Harvey Mason Jr. is on a quest for change.

When the music industry society behind the Grammy Awards decided it wanted to appoint Mason as its President and CEO, there was hesitancy within him — but it had nothing to do with the job itself. With songwriting or music production credits alongside artists like Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Britney Spears, 50 Cent, and Justin Bieber, Mason still had a desire to create. In the back of his mind all the while, however, was what it might look like to evolve the Recording Academy from the inside.

Notably, before being officially appointed to his current position, Mason had already served as the Recording Academy’s President and CEO on an interim basis for 18 months. Over that span, he kept thinking back to that roadmap for growth and development he had been picturing, thinking more about what more he could do to help the Academy make the biggest and best possible impact in the industry.

After discussing the opportunity with his inner circle, he accepted the role.

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“I take this role extremely serious. I feel an obligation to the music community, to my academy community to the Black community, to anybody who’s feeling like I should be in this role and is going to trust me in this role,” Mason said. “Every day I wake up and try and make sure I prove to people that we’re doing things correctly. And when you wake up with that mentality, you’re always going to be on edge. There’s a lot of improvement that I see for myself personally and for our organization.”

As he told Boardroom, one of the main things that has driven Harvey Mason Jr. through the major moments of his life is his fiercely competitive nature. Long before his music career, he attended the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship and made it all the way to the 1988 Final Four alongside Wildcats teammates Steve Kerr, Kenny Lofton, and Sean Elliott.

“When you’re exposed to these people, you get another level of perspective and expectation that is placed upon you and that you adopt for yourself. That’s something I’m very thankful for,” he said. “Competitiveness is not with other organizations trying to beat each other; it is about how can we from day to month to year improve where we were before to where we are now. That is the competitive nature that I love — the determination, the grit I got from playing sports, I would like to think I brought over to my role as CEO of the Academy.”

Photo by Michael Kovac

Tuesday, Nov. 15 will mark the second time that annual Grammy Award nominations will be revealed under Mason’s leadership. The day is always marked by differing amounts of joy and anger without much sentiment in between. For some artists, it will be a time to celebrate a first-ever nomination earned through years of sacrifice. For others who don’t end up nominated, it’s a feeling of invalidation by one’s industry and peers.

Separately, there are artists who seem to win just about every year, as well as others who could care less about awards season altogether.

With all this in mind, Harvey Mason Jr. hopes to foster a steady shift in the perception of the Grammys and the Recording Academy through several key efforts.

“When I ran for the chair of the board of the academy, it was with the mindset that things needed to change and things needed to be improved,” he said. “My whole platform was on change and evolution and fairness to artists and creators and equity. I now have the opportunity as CEO to continue making these changes, and I think a lot of it does stem from one factor, and that is our membership.”

Recording Academy Membership & the Grammy Voting Process

The Recording Academy currently has roughly 24,000 members and three different types of members:

  • Voting Membership is for performers, songwriters, producers, engineers, instrumentalists, and other creative professionals currently working in the recording industry. Voting members determine Grammy Award winners each year.
  • Professional Membership is for music businesspeople whose full-time, primary business activity directly supports creators. Think music executives (e.g., labels and label distributors, publishers, promoters, performing rights organizations), creator representatives (agents, lawyers, publicists, etc.), industry writers (journalists and critics), and music educators (college/university educators, music/trade school educators, etc.).
  • Grammy U Members are students currently enrolled full-time in a college, university, or trade school with a desire to work in the recording industry upon graduation.

Of the 24,000 members of the Recording Academy, roughly half have the ability to vote for these awards; the organization’s current voting process observes what is called “10-3” voting, by which voters choose three genres and 10 categories within them. This change was made last year in an effort to make voting fair — up until the 2021 Grammy Awards, voters could conceivably scour all genres, find their favorite artists, and vote for them in every category they are selected in.

In some cases, certain voters would even trade votes with one another strategically.

“The idea came from wanting people to have discernment when you vote. You have to be judicious with each vote and you have to think about wasting a vote on a category you don’t know,” he said of the adjustment. “The idea was to try and get people voting in the genre categories that they are experts in. I think it was an improvement, but I don’t think we’re done there yet.”

Nomination day marks the beginning of what are often tense times marked by campaigning and industry politics, but the crescendo culminates with the actual award show. Naturally, the industry’s big night tends to include award snubs that end up analyzed and debated perhaps years and years after the fact.

A sampling of Grammy snubs over the last 10 years includes:

  • 2013 Best New Artist: Fun. wins over Frank Ocean
  • 2014 Best New Artist: Macklemore wins over Kendrick Lamar
  • 2016 Album of the Year: Taylor Swift’s 1989 over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly
  • 2017 Album of the Year: Adele’s 25 over Beyonce’s Lemonade
  • 2017: Rihanna earns eight nominations and zero awards
  • 2018: Jay-Z earns eight nominations for 4:44 and leaves with zero awards
  • 2021: Lil Baby’s My Turn, Roddy Ricch’s Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, and The Weeknd’s After Hours all receive zero nominations
What are the criteria for a Grammy nomination?

Questions have arisen as to what the criteria actually are to get an album or song nominated, and what the word “best” is supposed to mean when it’s time to vote. There are years in which the sort of music that charts high and sells well leads the nomination charge; in other years, those same artists and albums and songs go unnoticed.

“Streams, hits, and charting is not part of the calculus for voters,” Mason said before taking a pause. “At least it is not supposed to be. I’m sure some take [those details] into consideration, which is fine because it is up to the voters how they decide to vote, but it is not a measurement for the Academy as to who should or should not get the nomination. It is all subjective. How do you determine the quality of music? It is almost impossible, but that is the voter’s job and we think our voters hopefully are experts in the genres that they’re choosing to vote in.”

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The Grammys & Hip-hop

Despite the subjective nature of music trends, radio play, and music criticism, years of snubs and missed recognition have facilitated a contentious relationship between the Recording Academy and hip-hop — and the artists, producers, and executives involved who feel wronged are not shy about making it known.

Note a few key examples below.

Jay-Z: Hov told Uninterrupted and HBO’s The Shop that the first time he boycotted the Grammys was in solidarity with DMX due to the fact that the Ruff Ryders superstar was not nominated for an award despite boasting two No. 1 albums in the same year (1998). Though he won his first Grammy that year, Jay-Z was not present to accept the award.

Drake: In his acceptance speech for the Best Rap Song award in 2019, Drake said, “If there are people who have regular jobs that are coming out in the rain or snow spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to their shows, you don’t need this right here. You already won.”

Eminem: As the Detroit MC raps on “Fall,” the first single from his 2018 album Kamikaze, “Tell the Grammys to go and fuck themselves / They suck the blood from all the biggest artists like some leeches / So they nominate ’em, get ’em there, get a name to MC the show / Every parasite needs a host / Then give Album of the Year to somebody that no one’s ever even heard of.”

Ethiopia Habtemariam, CEO of Motown Records: “As an artist, you do want to be recognized for the work that you put in… this isn’t right, this isn’t reflective of where music is, [Lil Baby’s] impact with music. I’m frustrated with the Grammys, it’s been an ongoing conversation for so many years about them being out of touch and they have a lot of work to do,” she said in the 2022 documentary Untrapped: The Story of Lil Baby.

J. Cole: “I went through a lot of heartbreak the first half of my career, maybe even longer, cuz deep down I needed that validation that I thought the awards could bring,” Cole tweeted in 2019 following that year’s Grammy ceremony.

In addressing these uncomfortable, often controversial episodes, Mason took a moment to think before answering.

“It’s a very complicated problem and maybe [requires] a deeper answer than what we have time for today. I am very affected by that because I do work in the hip-hop and R&B field, so I see the history. I now have the opportunity as CEO to continue to make changes and I think a lot of it does stem from one factor. And that is our membership,” he explained. “We have an amazing, passionate, and loyal membership of 12,000 voters, but we need to continue to expand who’s in that membership. The simple fact is if anyone’s feeling like they’re underrepresented in the awards process, it’s exclusively dictated and driven by underrepresentation in the voting process”

As Billboard reported in 2020, the overall membership demographics of the Recording Academy broke down to 26% female vs. 69% male vs. 6% unknown, 25% “diverse” vs. 48% “non-diverse” vs. 27% unknown, and 25% over-40 vs. 25% under-40 vs. 27% unknown.

The Academy did not specify the particular demographic splits for voting members specifically.

There have been recent to keep the trendline moving in a positive direction on this particular front. In June 2021, the Academy accepted 2,700 new members, with 48% of them female, 32% Black, 13% Hispanic or Latino, and 4% Asian or Pacific Islander. The organization has a goal of adding 2,500 additional female voting members by 2025.

“So, when you say inequity or out-of-balance representation around hip-hop, I truly believe that our job now as an academy is to make sure our voting membership represents music and is reflective of what’s going on in music and culture,” Mason said. “We all know that Black music is the highest-, most-consumed, and most-created form of music right now around the globe. That tells us we have to make sure that our voting membership is reflective of that and those numbers.

The challenging part about all this is that Mason has to position the Academy to resonate with artists who have felt invalidated or angered by a lack of recognition throughout previous Grammy cycles.

“It’s a little bit of a vicious cycle because when an artist pushes back against us then sometimes the community will push back against us and we’ll have to do more work to encourage them to join us,” he said, “but generally, when I’ve had the opportunity to speak to artists or an artist’s camp that have been upset and I explain to them where we are going and what we are trying to do and the changes we are making, most of the time there is a moment where they get it. It probably doesn’t make them feel any better, but at least there is an understanding of how the system works and the deeper meaning behind the Academy.”

Mason noted that he engages in frequent conversations throughout the year with major voices across various music genres and sectors of the industry to ask for their support within the Academy so that the award shows can be the best possible reflection of the current music environment. “The reason we want to get it right is because the Grammys show and all the work that we do to highlight people’s music is what drives revenue for the company,” he said.

It remains to be seen how the 2023 Grammy nominations will be received by the hip-hop community. Meanwhile, Mason is hopeful.

The Why

Stepping back from the show itself, Mason wants to speak about something that he thinks flies under the radar in both the music community and the fans of the show.

“Our awards show, yes, was started to celebrate and bring people together and highlight music, but it was also done very intentionally to generate revenue. It sounds superficial, but if you think about it in a deeper context, the idea of the Academy was to give back to music and support music. That is something we haven’t done a good job of sharing and telling that story and explaining that narrative,” he said.

“If we don’t have a great show, we don’t generate revenue from CBS and our deal and can’t do any of the programming that we do. So, yes, it is a huge party. Yes, we want to get the nominations right, and of course, we want to celebrate the right artists and make sure we’re relevant and we are landing these nominations and these wins. No, we don’t want to snub anybody, but what we really want to do is make sure we are celebrating in a way that can allow the Academy to continue to do the work that it does throughout the entire year. And that’s, if anything, the message that I would like to share so that we can have a different perspective around being critical and upset about who’s going to win and who’s not going to win.”

He starts to speak more passionately about the subject. “Look, I understand. I’m a creator. I know how personal this is and I know when you make a song and put your heart, your effort, emotions, and energy into it, and when you submit them and they don’t get the attention or they don’t get the nomination, this person is devastated. I can sympathize — it’s happened to me many many times — but I just want to make sure that I remind people that there’s a greater purpose here and there’s another level of service that the Academy is doing. The Academy and the Grammys is about helping the industry and giving back to the industry and making things better for our music community.”

Mason would not tell Boardroom whether he has an ultimate, over-arching goal as CEO and President of the Recording Academy, but did list off some of his key objectives:

  • To make the Academy representative of music today.
  • To make sure that the organization honors music properly and accurately.
  • To see the music community work and leverage the power that it has to do good around the world.
  • For the Grammy Awards to earn respect to the point that the Academy can use the energy around them to make things better for the music community in the US and around the world.
  • For the Academy to be at the forefront of music and technology.

“There are a lot of artists that have money, success, power and millions of dollars, and many Grammy trophies, but when things go bad for other people that don’t necessarily have that, the Academy helps, and I’m proud to be of service and fighting for the next generation of music people who are going to be making music and creating art,” he said. “We are not sitting on our hands thinking about what we should do or talking or arguing about any of that; we are making changes and we are working extremely hard to be representative and fair, and we are trying to make sure that we are listening and responding quick for the good of the industry and for the good of the music community.”

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