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New Recording Academy CEO gives first interview

Deborah Dugan
Deborah Dugan

Incoming Recording Academy president and CEO Deborah Dugan, whose widely reported appointment as the first woman to lead the organization was formalized Wednesday, said in her first interview that she’s ready to lead an era of change for the academy and the music industry in general.

Dugan comes to the Recording Academy, which bestows the annual Grammy Awards, from her post as chief executive at (RED), the AIDS nonprofit founded in 2006 by U2 singer Bono and activist Bobby Shriver. She will succeed Neil Portnow, whose 17-year tenure at the helm of the music industry’s lobbying organization was punctuated at the end by controversy stemming from his comment after last year’s male-dominated Grammy Awards ceremony that women in the music business needed to “step up” to achieve equality.

“All the issues that Neil has addressed have led us to a larger conversation, and that is a conversation, of course, that we need to have about women and diversity in music,” Dugan told The Times in a conference call with several media outlets. “Where we take it and how we use this organization to affect positive change, that’s one of the questions I’m most excited to answer in this job.”

Of Dugan’s tenure at (RED), Bono said in a statement on Wednesday, “Music and social justice are no strangers – in fact, they can work in perfect harmony. We’ll miss Deb at (RED), but after helping the team raise more than $600 million for the fight against AIDS, she’ll always be part of the (RED) band, and I look forward to seeing what she’ll do in her new role, cracking the ceiling and helping the Recording Academy crack open a new future in the process.”

Outlining the perspective she plans to bring to the new job, Dugan cited her own diverse employment history, also including stints as a Wall Street mergers and acquisition lawyer, president of Disney Publishing Worldwide, executive vice president of EMI Records Group/Angel Records as well as her current role as co-chair of the storytelling nonprofit The Moth.

“I have a track record of going from law to marketing to entrepreneurial [innovation] and I’m looking for the opportunity to bring all that I’ve learned to the music industry that I love,” she said. “I’ve had an unconventional past, and I’m quite millennial-minded, and I just love music and know how it touches all and brings people together.

“I think you’ll see from my work at The Moth,” she added, “what I try to do is to amplify many voices in a world that often crushes them. I’m looking at this new opportunity as a way [for the academy] to serve, to be relevant and reflective of the artist community in a time of rapid change.”

Portnow announced several months after the “step up” remark ignited a firestorm of criticism that he would step down when his contract expired at the end of July of this year. In the wake of that controversy, the academy created a task force to examine “conscious and unconscious bias” in the music industry that impacts women and people of color. It was headed by Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama.

The group’s initial steps included re-configuring some of the academy’s award review and nominating committees to create more diverse panels evaluating music under consideration for the industry’s highest awards. The academy also heightened its outreach efforts to recruit more women, people of color and younger music industry personnel.

Dugan officially takes the reins at the academy on Aug. 1, but said, “Although I don’t start until August, my door is already open. I’m already having great conversations and listening to many opinions. I feel like [debate] is very, very good because it means people care.”

Initially, she said she is focusing on learning the ins and outs of the academy’s structure and practices and that her inaugural mission is “really just to listen and learn.”

Asked what she would identify as the biggest problem facing the academy today, she demurred, saying, “It wouldn’t be fair to the new team to make any sweeping judgments at this time. I’m excited to bring new perspective…I don’t feel like I’m in a position to say exactly what should be changed or what shouldn’t be changed; it wouldn’t be prudent at this time.

“But everywhere I’ve worked has had a culture of inclusivity, of entrepreneurship thinking, of thinking big, and again, with a beginner’s mind, I want to look at the Recording Academy and hopefully bring positive change.”

The Recording Academy comprises about 25,000 professional and student members. About 13,000 are voting members who determine the annual Grammy Awards.


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