In what has to be the worst press run leading into “Music’s Biggest Night”—the Grammys take place January 26—the Recording Academy is entangled in a legal mess involving alleged sexual assault from a former top executive, toxic management style from an ousted CEO, and claims of nomination fixing.
Last week, news broke that Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan would be placed on administrative leave after just five months in the job. Dugan was accused of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team. Sources told The New York Times that an assistant to both Dugan and her predecessor Neil Portnow accused Dugan of bullying her until the assistant took a leave of absence.
But what might have been a case of alleged poor management style has devolved into something much more complicated and troubling.
According to the Times, Dugan’s dismissal came a few weeks after she sent a memo the Recording Academy’s head of HR stating that “something was seriously amiss at the Academy”:
Her concerns detailed in the memo included voting irregularities, financial mismanagement, “exorbitant and unnecessary” legal bills, and conflicts of interest involving members of the academy’s board, executive committee and outside lawyers.
And now this week Dugan has not only accused top entertainment lawyer Joel Katz of sexual harassment, but has also accused Portnow of raping an unidentified female recording artist during his time as CEO.
Portnow has called Dugan’s claims “ludicrous and untrue,” and the Recording Academy issued a statement, calling Dugan’s timing of her allegations “curious” amid the allegations that she created a “‘toxic and intolerable’ work environment and engaged in ‘abusive and bullying conduct,'” according to her accuser.
“Our loyalty will always be to the 25,000 members of the recording industry,” the statement read. “We regret that Music’s Biggest Night is being stolen from them by Ms. Dugan’s actions and we are working to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.”
The back-and-forth accusations are dizzying, to be sure. But for the Recording Academy to pretend that Dugan’s claims of Grammy corruption tarnishes the organization’s good name is laughable, particularly when it comes to her description of alleged voting irregularities.
Major award shows have always struggled to deal with the gulf between popular taste and what powerful gatekeepers deem worthy. While it remains a persistent issue (see the most recent Oscar nominations), the Grammys in particular have voting rules that long seemed like a breeding ground for corruption.
Back in 1995, the Recording Academy changed voting rules in an effort to have more oversight in nominations after an unlikely candidate (The Three Tenors in Concert 1994) was nominated for album of the year. The Academy came up with a blue-ribbon committee, a select number of members who pare down the last round of nominees in its top four categories (best album, record of the year, song of the year, and best new artist). Basically, genre committees (Academy members assigned to nominate artists within specific genres) submit their choices, but when it comes to the top four, the blue-ribbon committee has the final say, regardless of which artist may have won the popular vote.
What started with presumably good intentions has garnered a considerable amount of flak over the years, with critics calling the process “toxic” and an Academy trustee saying it’s “an imperfect system trying to be as perfect as it can.”
In Dugan’s claims against the Recording Academy, she mentioned “secret committees” and board members who push certain artists they have relationships with, calling out a practice that, if true, would be a flagrant example of corruption.
In the grand scheme of it all, allegations of insider activity pale in comparison to the more severe claims of a work environment rife with sexual assault and harassment. But while more details come to light concerning those allegations, it’s worth considering what we already know going into music’s biggest night: It’s really music’s biggest scam.