This month, Neil Portnow is stepping down from one of the most important jobs in the music industry. For 17 years, Portnow has been at the helm of the Recording Academy and has watched the organization evolve in astounding ways under his leadership. And if you think the Recording Academy is just GRAMMY Awards and Halls of Fame, think again. Working closely with the Academy’s Board of Trustees, Chair, 12 Chapter Boards and Officers, and senior management, Portnow has helped advance the organization’s goals and mission in strategic and much-needed ways.
Music was in Portnow’s blood from the very start. A love for music that ran in his family led him to aspirations of becoming a musician. But while that didn’t pan out exactly as planned, that road led him to the Recording Academy, where his work to create change in the industry is unprecedented.
Los Angeles Confidential chatted with Portnow about the work of the Academy, the positive change he enacted, and the future, both for the Academy and himself.
On the programming he helped spearhead
“There are a probably a number of things that didn’t exist that now do,” Portnow says. Mainly, four pillars were identified for the Academy that have been built on over the years: Awards, membership, philanthropy and advocacy. “When I started,” he continues, "we did not have an advocacy department, but now we are one of the leading organizations in the United States when it comes to artists’ rights and the creative community, because we speak for the entire community, not just one segment.”
And with philanthropy and charity being a growing pillar for the Academy, Portnow and his team did a lot of work with MusiCares. “Most people in the music industry, unless you’re working for a company, you don’t have insurance or a steady income, so what happens when you’re in trouble? We’re there for that or the more serious issues of substance abuse and addiction recovery; in that case, we are saving lives,” Portnow says. “Over the years, that’s over $60 million in aid given to our community. No one else is doing that.”
Another big milestone? The GRAMMY Museum. "That had been a dream for decades for the Academy," says Portnow. "It made sense that we have that. It’s hard to do—it’s not exactly a thriving commercial business to be in, and yet we finally found a way. And I’m proud on my watch to get that in place and opened, and now, ten years later, we have four different locations for the Museum."
On helping pass landmark legislation
One of the major milestones of Portnow’s administration is undoubtedly the Music Modernization Act, which was many years in the making—and a reality that Portnow saw through to the end. “The reality is that there has not been much in the way of legislation relating to the music industry for decades. There was legislation many decades ago that were based on an environment that is no longer in existence. So the bottom line is that we’ve become a very highly regulated industry based on a business environment from 50 years ago,” says Portnow. His goal: to create an environment within the diverse and divergent constituencies in music so that the industry can be unified. Portnow started the CEO Group, to which he invited the heads of 25 leading organizations representing these various constituencies in the industry, to create trust and build relationships. “So in 2014,” he continues, “I called for that plan during our GRAMMYS on the Hill, and here we are five years later with help and support from all of the other organizations, and with hard work on everybody’s behalf, we crossed that finish line. So it is landmark, but really many, many years in the making.”
On the Academy’s future and continued growth
“Everybody has their own management style,” Portnow states. “So having a change and objectivity will be healthy and serve us well. What’s important, I think, is that we make sure that we do a lot of listening because we are a membership organization, and we serve a constituency and we work within an industry, and it’s those two elements that make up the reasons for our existence, so we need to be good listeners.”
“The way we leave the company going forward,” he continues, “is such that it’s a very healthy, robust, solid, well-respected organization. That allows you the freedom, flexibility and the ability to focus on the future and the evolutionary pieces. That would be a great legacy for anyone to leave behind.”
And what will he miss most about the Academy? For Portnow, the question was an easy one to answer: the people. Like a true humble leader, Portnow points to the work and accomplishments of the entire team, who for 17 years, worked together to achieve a common goal.
On what’s next for Portnow
The trajectory of Portnow’s career has been, as it is for many, mostly nonstop. However, in the 1980s, during a stint between jobs, Portnow had the chance to “get out from the bubble that we get in.” From that short break came a left turn in his career that ultimately led him to his role at Zomba Group, where for 13 years, he helped lead the company that kick-started the careers of iconic acts like Britney Spears and ‘NSYNC. His advice? “Get outside of the bubble, have an open mind, take the phone calls and be willing to get into or look at something that was unpredictable or unexpected.”
In the meantime however, Portnow calls out a mailer he received at home with an ad that struck his attention. “Get paid to snuggle dogs” was the headline, with the potential to earn up to $1,000 per month. “I thought, you know, there might a future to that.” Something tells us Portnow won’t be having to snuggle up to the dogs for too long, though.