Grammys CEO Deborah Dugan Exposes Grammy Irregularities

Laghima Pandey

When Deborah Dugan took her post as the chief executive of the Recording Academy, (which oversees the Grammy Awards) in August, she inherited an organization in meltdown and was tasked with getting it back on track. Big-name stars have been distancing themselves from the event. When faced with questions about the Grammys’ gender imbalance, Dugan’s predecessor, Neil Portnow, said that women needed to “step up.” In just a few months on the job, Dugan spotted trouble like voting irregularities in the nominating process; conflicts of interest among board members. Behind the scenes of what is described as “music’s biggest night,” Dugan found wrongdoings and rot. She had filed a memo last month detailing her concerns that “something was seriously amiss at the Academy.” 

Perhaps not coincidentally, just 10 days before the 2020 Grammy Awards, Deborah Dugan was put on leave by the board. After her termination, she immediately filed a 44-page discrimination complaint in which she alleged that the Grammys voting process is inconsistent. Dugan alleged that in 2019, for example, an artist who had a low-ranking song that shouldn’t have been a contender unfairly ended up with a nomination because of academy politics. The academy has stated Dugan’s allegations about the voting procedures are “utterly untrue,” adding they have “rigorous and well-publicized” protocols for ensuring fair voting. But not all Grammy attendees and academy voters have faith in that system, and some admitted such doubts on Sunday.

India.Arie, the legendary singer-songwriter who in 2002 was nominated for seven awards, and took home zero, says she’s long tried to call out the academy’s unfairly “political” voting system. But, no one took her protests seriously, because she just sounded like an artist who couldn’t lose quietly. “I knew it wasn’t just that I didn’t get any votes, I knew that it was political. We all knew,” she said, calling into question the Recording Academy’s confusing “voting blocks” that she says allow people who “don’t understand the culture of the category” to pick winners. She continued, “I absolutely believe” Dugan.

 (Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images For The Recording Academy)

Tyler the Creator, who spoke backstage after winning for best rap album, admitted that he hasn’t quite figured out how to feel about his first Grammy win. Although he accepted the award for his album  Igor, he couldn’t fully embrace the victory. He responded to a question about alleged misconduct at the academy by saying, “guys that look like me do anything that’s genre-bending, they put it in a rap or urban category.”

Not every artist wanted to comment on the “political” voting system. Backstage, when DJ Khaled celebrated his rap/sung performance Grammy for “Higher,”  he avoided directly addressing a question about the voting system that bestowed the award upon him. He said his award came from a higher power. “This award is from God. This is God-sent. This ain’t about voting. It’s about God. It don’t get realer than this,” he said. “It’s the real deal.”

The most glaring example of gender inequality at the Grammys was in 2018, when the sole woman to win an award during the telecast was Alessia Cara, who won Best New Artist. The only woman to be nominated for Album of the Year, pop singer Lorde, was not invited to perform her music that evening. Lack of female representation at the Grammys was further confirmed by a 2018 study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which showed that between 2013 and 2018 alone, only 9.3 percent of the nominees for Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Best New Artist and Producer of the Year were women.

Superstars of this generation are taking notice, and are annoyed. In 2016, Frank Ocean declined to submit his album “Blonde” for Grammy consideration, telling The New York Times that the Grammy process “doesn’t seem to be representing very well for people who come from where I come from, and hold down what I hold down.” Last year, Drake diminished the importance of winning awards during his acceptance speech for best rap song, and in 2017, expressed bafflement at winning that same prize for “Hotline Bling,” which was, as he pointed out, “not a rap song.” 

The Grammys are understood to be the night that the industry honors its leading lights and passes the torch to deserving newcomers. But the truth has always been more complicated. Grammy nominations are shaped by a number of committees — for the major categories, and some genre-specific ones — whose composition remains secret. They effectively have override power, and can cherry-pick nominees. It is, in essence, a cabal, Dugan alleges — a system that can be scammed by people with the right connections. 

Dugan mentions in her claims that memorable artists such as Beyoncé, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, and Frank Ocean were snubbed in previous years, and that the biggest awards tend to go to rock, country, and pop artists. She then outlined how the Grammy voting process is allegedly tainted.  Submissions for awards are first voted on by the members of the Academy, and then the top 20 entries are reviewed by smaller committees to narrow down the list to the final five to eight nominees for each category, Dugan’s file explains. But, according to her complaint, the board uses the committees to promote artists they have relationships with, and “manipulates the nominations process” to include songs that Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich wants performed during the ceremony.

 

The board has even given nominations to artists that were not in the top 20 list at all, per the filing. This year, that happened with 30 nominees. When asked if the public should view the Grammys as a rigged awards ceremony during an interview on Good Morning America, Dugan responded, “I’m saying that the system should be transparent and there are instances of conflicts of interest that has tainted the results.”

The Recording Academy denied the rigging accusations in a statement saying, “Spurious allegations claiming members or committees use our process to push forward nominations for artists they have relationships with are categorically false, misleading and wrong. This process is strictly enforced with everyone involved and has no exceptions.”