Next Sunday, February 4, the music world will once again gather in Downtown L.A. to celebrate the 2023 year in music at the Grammy Awards. This year’s telecast, featuring already announced performers Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, Dua Lipa, Travus Scott, Burna Boy, Luke Combs, Billy Joel and U2, from the Sphere in Las Vegas, as well as some insane rumors I have been privy to, will conclude a week of festivities and events.
At the helm of all of it is Grammy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. Sage Bava and I spoke at length with Mason about not only this year’s show, but the state of music in 2024 – including AI and what can be done for gender inequality in music production and engineering roles, MusiCares, which this year will honor Jon Bon Jovi, and much more.
Steve Baltin: As we talked about last year, everything seems to be so much in flux in the world. Is it any calmer than last year?
Harvey Mason: It’s absolutely insane, but I love it because it means we’re about to have another incredible week. If there were no stress and people weren’t trying to find tickets, and artists weren’t trying to find slots and things weren’t happening, then I’d be bummed and upset. But the energy and the activity and excitement around it just makes me feel like, “Yeah, this is going to be great.” I feel like it’s going be one of our best weeks of events we’ve ever had. More artists, more music, more times to get together and chances to get together than I think we’ve ever had. So that’s big.
Baltin: We’re going on Monday night to the unveiling at the Grammy Museum of the Ray Charles Terrace. It is a full week of events now.
Mason: I know, it’s crazy. I’ll see you Monday. But yeah, there are just so many good things to celebrate and so many good stories and artists and it was a prolific year in music in my mind. The artistry and the amount of great music that that came out, whether it’s your favorite genre or not, there’s just been something different. Great artists that have just had massive years.
Baltin: It feels like there’s a return to organics and a real sound and a warmth coming, and it feels like it’s something that’s embraced very much in Grammy’s. Talk about how you put that into the show and I imagine it’s an exciting time for you as a producer to see really quality music.
Mason: It is really great. I love where we are and what’s happening. The only thing is I wish we could televise our premier ceremony. I’m going to keep working on that because there are so many performances on the premier ceremony stage that are going to blow your mind. It’s a great lineup of some really cool artists and real musicians, some great music. And then on the Sunday show, again, so much talent. It’s prodigies, I guess is the right word, people that are writing songs and creating this music that is moving so many people, and not just in the country, but around the world. It’s really different markets around music. Borders are coming down, people are listening to music from everywhere. People are creating music in other continents, and that’s blowing up here in the US so it’s a pretty cool time to be a part of music.
Sage Bava: It was very inspiring to talk to Emily Lazar the other day about her event that she’s doing and how she’s creating space for changing the mindset and bringing more awareness around women in the creative fields. And as someone who’s making an album and executive producing it, it’s just amazing how much subconsciously it’s changing what I think is possible. And thus, what so many people think is possible. I’m curious what the Grammys are doing to change subconsciously what we think is possible for women and for the diverse artists at large.
Mason: Well, it’s a long answer, but what we’re doing is kind of everything. We’re looking at how we make up our membership. The way we’ve invited and brought in a new class over the last four years has totally evolved and changed who our members are and who our voters are. You speak about women, we had a goal of adding 2500 new women voters in five years, we’re at 98 percent of that goal. So, we’re excited about that. We now have 30 percent women voters and we’re on our way to hopefully gender parity in the future. Same with people of color and underserved voices. We’re at 40 percent now. People of color, which is drastically different from where it was four or five years ago. But some of the initiatives and programs, and you touched on some of the women in the mix and some of the other things that we’re working on, with Emily and other great people, is just making an impact. And some people have said, especially nowadays in the political landscape, people are trying to pull back from DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and it’s the woke culture. But, to me, it’s not really about DEI or whatever label you want to put on it. This is the music industry. This is the business of people making cool stuff. And that stuff gets made by all different types of people. And some of the best and most interesting music was not made by some of the people you would expect. So, to your point of creating a safe space and a thriving community of music people, it has to include everybody. That’s the way we’re going to get the best music. The way we’re going to get the best art is if all the people have a seat at the table, everybody feels like they can collaborate together and exchange ideas. And there can be a shared human experience no matter what you look like, what your religion is, what country you’re from, what your beliefs are. To me, that’s music. That’s the beauty of music. That’s we’re trying to lean into that as an academy. We represent music.
Baltin: The first three performers announced for this year are Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo. And it’s interesting because women have really dominated so much of this year, but going back to what Sage was saying, we talked with Emily about there’s only two percent of women who are behind the scenes. Are you seeing a change?
Mason: Yeah, that’s amazing. Huge accomplishment. I feel excited about the progress over the last four years, but I also feel like there’s just a lot more that we need to do. There’s not a time that I’m feeling like, “Yeah, cool, we’re good. We’re on our way.” But we’ve got ways to travel still as it relates to some of the stats that you are talking about, women behind the scenes, engineers, executives, songwriters. There’s still some disparity we have to pay some serious attention to. And as an academy, we’re optimistic because I see the trends and I see where we’re going internally and as an industry. But I still have to acknowledge that we have to do more. And that goes the same for some genres that are under indexing a little bit and maybe some other underserved voices and talk about black music and hip hop and some of the other genres. There’s such a popularity. We know 34 percent of music is black music created and consumed, but sometimes that representation doesn’t line up with either our industry or the executives or even our voters. So there’s lots of work to do still to make sure that we are reflective of the actual industry that we work in. But, more importantly, the industry that we want to work in so that everybody feels safe.
Baltin: Talk about that mix of having young artists like Olivia Rodrigo on there and then a legend like Billy Joel.
Mason: That’s kind of the cool thing about the Grammys and the cool thing about music in general. We all can appreciate and respect the people that did it before us. Like you I have some of my favorite artists and getting to see some of them on our stages, and it’s a dream come true for me in my role. But even if I’m just a fan, if I’m sitting in the bowl or I’m watching on TV to see those artists, it’s like, “Oh, this is what it’s all about.” But also thinking about the next generation, what kind of impact seeing a Billy Joel or seeing an artist like that can have, because there are artists that are popular, there are artists that have had a couple hits. But somebody like that has done it for a long time. Somebody we can all aspire to be like if we want to be artists in this industry. So, to me, it’s a great opportunity to see both the legends and the up and comers, the hottest artists in the world. And there’s a common respect, the guys or girls that did it for a long time, they look at the younger people and say, “Oh man, I remember when I was doing it like that. And I remember that time in my life.” And I’m sure they could have some words of wisdom and shared experience with those artists. And I just think respect is the thing that comes to mind when I think about the different types of artists on the stage. Remember last year, when some of the artists were sitting down in the front at those tables, and maybe I’m mistaken, but it was one of the first years where I saw just some camaraderie and some real support of the other artists. Some of the artists were older that we had go up on stage. And you saw the respect coming from the artist community. People were standing up, clapping, cheering. I saw some people crying when they saw their favorite artists perform. And to me that was really unique. That’s probably my favorite part about Grammy week is the camaraderie and the unifying under one roof or multiple roofs, depending on how many events you go to. But people coming together to just feel something and to live in the music and our show exemplifies that and it’s the perfect example of how I think music brings people together. Not just physically, but mentally, emotionally with some empathy and some understanding. You see it in our building and I hope that extends. It’s a microcosm of what I think we need even more of in the world now.
Bava: Something that I’ve been personally touched by is MusiCares and so many of my peers, we just are so grateful for that at certain points of our life. And, of course, this year you’re honoring Jon Bon Jovi at the MusiCares gala. I wanted to ask like what you’re excited about for the gala and just give some light to MusiCares ’cause it’s such an incredible organization.
Mason: Excited to hear some of those legendary songs that, Jon has written and performed over the years. Excited to see some of his peers on stage paying tribute to him. What I’m most excited about is the dancing that we’re going to do standing up next to the tables, hugging people that you haven’t seen for a long time and just celebrating music together. I hate to be overly sappy or emotional. To me that’s just an event where you get to see everybody. You get to let your shoulders go down, sing along with some great music. Hopefully I won’t have to work too much. I won’t be up and down on the stage and I can just kind of take it all in. But that’s a night where we celebrate somebody special. Always in the back of our minds, remembering all the money that we’re raising at that event, whether it’s the auctions or the tables or the things we’re buying seats. That money goes right into our music community and all the people that it’s gonna help. That’s what I think of when I’m sitting there during COVID, I believe our number was $37 million from MusiCares is the people who needed help. That’s a lot of people that got aid from MusiCares. So that’s what I’ll be thinking about when I’m sitting there on Friday night.
Baltin: Now that we are out of the COVID lockdown is there an idea of what a typical Grammy Show might be?
Mason: No, not at all. And I won’t allow myself to do that. This event and this organization has to evolve and it has to evolve quickly. We can’t sit around and be stagnant year to year. We can’t do the same thing next year that we did this year. So, I always am thinking, “How do we level this up? How do we take this to the next spot?” That’s everything, that’s how we make the show, how we produce it, what it looks like, how we do everything internally. Our staff, our voting, our members. So, I don’t want to get in a rhythm. I don’t think getting into a rhythm for these types of things is healthy, especially in a fast-moving industry like the one we’re in. The genres are changing, the way people are creating art and music and technology is changing. AI is going to be a part of this. The way people consume TV shows is changing, the landscape is changing in media. So, it’s always a challenge and it’s always going to be me pushing to think, “What’s next? How can we be better for our members and for our music community?”
Bava: What are your projections for the next coming years of where music will be?
Mason: I believe there’s room for both AI and the traditional human old school version of creating, which is sitting down with an instrument and telling a story or writing music from your heart. I do have to say AI and tech is absolutely going to be a part of the future of our industry, we cannot stop it. It’s happening, it’s going to happen even more in the future. Personally, and as an academy, my hope is that we can figure out how to make it equitable and make it fair and make it respectful to humans because we’re not going to stop it. I want to make sure there’s a mechanism in place for human creators to be able to have certain approval rights. Whether AI is being trained on our music, or it’s doing voice modeling, there’s got to be some approval in place. The other thing is there has to be proper credits. Whether it drew from your music to create something new or whether it’s an AI version of a voice, there has got to be the right credits. And then the final step, to me, is remuneration. It’s got to be fair. We have to be paid and protected as creators. Beyond that, we have to accept that AI is going to be a part of what’s going on. My only hope is that we can work those things out and then we can use AI to supplement or to highlight human creativity rather than replace it. But I did hear one other interesting thing, and I think it’s possible, which is AI is really good at algorithmic music and is really good at creating things that sound like something else or have a formula to them. Humans, we’re scrappy and we adjust, and my hope is that AI will drive creativity to a new level from humans, and it’ll make us think differently. Have us coming up with things that maybe we wouldn’t have come up with if we weren’t challenged to do things that no computer could ever think of. So, there’s an optimism around this, but it’s got to be done with guardrails or guidelines and hopefully with actual legislation.