By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Harvey Mason Jr. is not the first CEO of the Recording Academy, under whose auspices the Grammy Awards are presented, who is also a musician and a Grammy nominee. But he is the only one who has been nominated five times for a Grammy — as a producer and a songwriter —which makes him uniquely qualified to know what it is like to be in the audience during a Grammy Awards telecast, waiting and hoping for a win.
“It was a thrill to be in that room,” said Mason, who will address the audience during Sunday’s Grammy Awards telecast and online-only pre-telecast.. “I know people say that to be gracious. But I was genuinely excited. Because you’re sitting around people you’ve admired and dreamed of working with, or whose records you’ve loved, and that have impacted your life.
“So, as much as I try and live my life so that I am really in the moment, l will say that by the fifth nomination I received I was really keeping my fingers and toes crossed for a win! Because it’s always been a dream of mine to win a Grammy. It starts off with being very excited to be there. And that evolves to: ‘Oh, man, I sure would like to win!’ Now, six years since my last nomination, I’m at the point of: ‘Man, I’m overdue and I want one of those on my mantel’,” said Mason, 55.
As the Recording Academy’s first Black CEO, Mason has worked hard to diversify the nonprofit organization since taking the helm in 2021. Since then, the academy has increased its membership of people of color from 24 to 38 percent. It is now 98 percent of the way toward reaching its goal of adding 2,500 new female voting members by 2025.
A full 60 percent of the organization’s senior leadership and board members now are people of color. Forty-five percent are women. The number of younger voting members has been increased. This year’s ballot includes a record number of women artists in the Album and Record of the Year categories.
Does being a five-time Grammy nominee help him bond with other nominees, or with artists he hopes to persuade to join the academy in its year-round mission of arts advocacy and helping music-industry professionals in need.
“I’d like to think so,” Mason replied. “But also it shows that it’s not just about the nominations, but that I’m still in the trenches, working and collaborating, and they know I’m one of the community. I’m one of the members. So, I feel there is a slightly different relationship and I hope a level of trust and respect because they know my history and know I’m not the only CEO of the academy but also am an active member and musician.”
Mason spoke at length with the San Diego Union-Tribune during a recent phone interview from Ohio. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Our first interview was in early 2021 when you were the interim head of the Recording Academy. You told me then: “As far as giving myself a grade, I would give myself a ‘B.’ I think there’s been some really great work done, but I also know there’s a lot left for the academy to do, as well as for me, personally.” What grade would you give yourself now, three years later, and why?
A: I’m going to stay with the ‘B.’ Because it aligns with my personality and how I like to function. I always feel like there’s room for improvement with the work I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished, and my goals. I proud of the work and feel there has been evolution we’ve moved in a positive direction. I’m proud, whether it’s of our members, our brand, our staff our voting procedures, our DEI work — all these things I’m very proud of. But there’s a lot more I want to accomplish.
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: I want to continue to earn the trust of the music community and evolve how we are representing and serving music people. The music is changing so fast not just tech changes with AI and other things there will be real flash-point moments, and I want to make sure we are prepared for the changes in genres and (stylistic) blending and machinations in music that we’ll need to honor and celebrate.
How people consume our show, our telecast will continue to be an area, of course, for us. And how we make sure we are reflective of our industry, our voting and membership but also our awards and year-round programs. I want to make sure people feel the academy is relevant.
Q: Until recently, the only Latin phrase I knew was “nolo contendere.”
A: (Mason laughed)
Q: Thanks to the Grammys, last year I learned a new phrase in Latin: “di minimus,” with regards to how much AI-generated music — or, rather, how little AI-generated music — can be included in a song that qualifies for Grammy Award consideration. How much of a threat do you see AI being to music? And what is the cutoff point for when the “di minimus” level is reached? Is it the number of bars in a song, how often those bars are repeated, or?
A: So, as far as my feeling on AI and where we stand as an academy we are optimistic, cautiously, about AI and what we believe it will mean for the future of the music industry But the only way we can be optimistic is if we know if we will feel comfortable there will be guardrails, or guidelines, or even legislation, about how AI is used.
If you need to use AI, there has to be an approval process especially when it comes to voice modeling and fair remuneration so we have to talk about those things before we can jump up and celebrate. AI does bring a lot of possibilities to the table in ways creators can make new music. We like to be quick and disruptive, and new and different.
We just want to make sure we can protect human creativity. As far as “di minumus,” it really means we want to honor creativity. If human creativity is not more than (the AI) “di minimus” (role), which means to us less than a meaningful amount. I know that is subjective, but so is much of music. We need to make sure AI is not the creator of the music we honor.
If AI is the writer of a song and there is no human involved, the song would not be eligible for the songwriting category. If a human sang that same song, the human would be eligible for singing category. If AI “sang” it, it would not be eligible. If that song was written by humans, they would be eligible for songwriting awards.
Q: There have never been as many women artists nominated in three of the Big Four Grammy categories — Album, Song and Record of the Year — as there are this year. Is that a cosmic convergence or purely a serendipitous coincidence?
A: It’s hard to say what the causes are. But what I do know is that there was much music created by many incredibly creative women that resonated with our voters. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure our membership is more balanced. We’ve added nearly 2,500 new women voters over the past four years and that impacts the gender parity of our members.
Right now, we are at 30 percent women voters, up considerably from four to five years ago. What I’m most pleased is we are seeing a lot of different members in major fields, and a lot of new nominees aligning with icons, and — yes — a lot of amazing women.
Q: Have you reassured Jon Batiste he won’t become the most disliked man in America if he wins a sweep for Album, Record and Song of the Year?
A: (laughs) Uh, no I have not assured him of that. But he’s had a big year with the nominations and well see what he voters think. It will be a very competitive couple of categories
Q: Willie Nelson and Bobby Rush appear to be this year’s oldest Grammy nominees at the age of 90. Will either of them be featured during the telecast, alone or together?
A: The show is still coming together. We don’t have the entire thing locked in, so I’d hate to comment yet.
Q: Your diplomatic response suggests you might have a bright future at the United Nations.
A: Funny you should mention that! We just partnered with the United Nations for (the worldwide initiative) “The Power of Music,” and that’s something I’m proud of. With the Grammys, we love giving away the awards and celebrating the music of the year. But that’s not all we’re about. We also want to make sure we realize the power of our platform with music around the world. And we’ve also partnered with the State Department.
Q: The State Department? Can you please elaborate on that?
A: In September, in Washington D.C., we launched the Global Music Diplomacy Initiative with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and gave out the first Peace Through Music award to Quincy Jones. It was an amazing event and that award will take on Quincy’s name. That’s the first manifestation of our partnership with the State Department and we have other things planned, including internships, cultural programs and more.
Q: The State Department has sponsored international concert tours by Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and, more recently, Ozomatli, among others. How helpful is it that Antony Blinken is an avocational musician who has played in bands?
A: It’s 1,000 percent helpful. We had an event with him and I sat next to him all night. Then, they called his name, he got on stage and he blew my mind with his (guitar) playing. He just ripped. Afterwards, I said: “You didn’t tell me you could do that!”
Q: Luke Combs will perform at the Grammys Sunday with Tracy Chapman on her classic song, “Fast Car.” He is nominated for Best Country Solo Performance, but not for Record of the Year. Peso Pluma had a breakout year and is nominated for Best Música Mexicana Album, but not Best New Artist. I could cite other examples, but does the Recording Academy need better outreach to the Latin and country music communities? And what is the best way to make that happen?
A: To me that says it was a really prolific year in music, with so much great music by so many great artists. But we definitely want to increase and improve our relationship with the voting communities from the Latin genres as well as the country-music community, as we have done with the other genres. We always need to make sure we are bringing active and relevant voters. Maybe in the past, there have been things we didn’t (focus on) as much, as far as the outcomes of our show. You always want to have the right voters voting in a knowledgeable way with an understanding of the genres.
That’s why we’ve put in so much work with our Board of Trustees to make sure we are diversified. We won’t get the right results without the best voters. We’ve made progress with Latin and country, as well as with hip-hop and Black music, We still have a ways to go, and we do that by listening to (the people) in different genres because we can’t know everything about every genre. We are inviting people to come join us. The Recording Academy didn’t always invite people; we’d sit back and if you wanted to join, we’d consider it.
Now, we target under-served communities, and say: “We need to try to make a Recording Academy that is is reflective of music.” So, yes, it’s been a prolific year with a lot of amazing records all competing for a very few slots in the (highest profile) categories. That’s eight slots, compared with 10 last year, so that makes the odds very difficult. The voters have voted and I’m proud of the work they’ve done.
Q: Last year Beyoncé became the biggest winner in Grammy history. But she did not win for Album, Record or Song of the Year, and only three Black women have ever won for Album of the Year. For you, as the head of the academy, what’s the takeaway from that?
A: It’s really hard to predict, or imagine, what’s going to resonate with the voters. We have to continue to do the work to make sure we have relevant voters who know what’s happening in music. I believe we’ve done a lot of work to get there over the past four years. We’ve re-qualified every academy member; we didn’t do that before. (We’re) making sure we have voters who are current and contemporary, and are moving the needle in the culture, making sure we have the membership that will ensure we have accurate outcomes.
Having said that, this is all subjective. There are no clear results (in advance). We don’t know what the voters will like at any time. So, we’ll see in the future.
Q: You and the Grammys can’t please everyone. So, who do you hope to please?
A: (laughs) I want to please everybody! I know that’s difficult, and impossible. But that’s the challenge for us — and the challenge I accepted. I want to make sure our music community feels secure. I want to make sure our TV partners, CBS, get a great show that people want to see, and that fans get to see their favorite artists win.
But all those things are very difficult to accomplish simultaneously. So we do our best to please all our constituencies. But at the end of the day, we uplift music and shine a bright light on what special creators do, which is make music that moves the world and impacts and resonate with people, around the world, everyday. We do an (annual awards) show that generates revenue for the Recording Academy, which is a nonprofit academy that promotes music and does advocacy work on behalf of music and the people who make it. This whole Grammy Awards show is to celebrate music and come together. But it also helps us do the year-round programs we do in service of the music industry.
The 66th annual Grammy Awards
With: Host Trevor Noah and performances by Joni Mitchell, SZA, Olivia Rodrigo, U2, Billie Eilish, Billy Joel, Luke Combs, Burna Boy, Dua Lipa, Travis Scott and more to be announced.
When: 5 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: CBS Channel 8 and Paramount+. Paramount+ Essential subscribers can stream the Grammy Awards the day after the ceremony.
2024 Grammys Premiere Ceremony
With: Host Justin Tranter and performances by Kirk Franklin, Robert Glasper, Bob James, Laufey, J. Ivy, Larkin Poe, Pentatonix, Sheila E., Jordin Sparks, Adam Blackstone, Gaby Moreno, Brandy Clark, Terrace Martin, David Aguilar and drummer Harvey Mason Sr. Presenters include Patti Austin, Natalia Lafourcade, Carly Pearce, Molly Tuttle, Rufus Wainwright, Jimmy Jam and Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr.
When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday when winners in nearly 80 of the 91 categories will be announced
Where: Online only, streaming on the Recording Academy’s YouTube Channel and on live.Grammy.com
George Varga is a music critic at The San Diego Union-Tribune.