All Hell Has Broken Loose Within the Grammys

The ousted first female Grammys president might’ve just broken the dam on music’s worst secrets. Photo: John Parra/Getty Images for LARAS

On March 2, former Recording Academy CEO and president Deborah Dugan was fired nearly two months after being put on paid leave. The following post has been updated throughout.

“Music’s biggest night” carried on mostly business as usual this year, but prior to the Grammys ceremony, was overshadowed by weeks-long behind-the-scenes tension. Just over a week before the show, a dramatic news story broke revealing that Recording Academy president Deborah Dugan, newly in the role as of August 2019, was put on administrative leave only ten days ahead of this year’s Grammys ceremony. Dugan, the former CEO of (Red), was brought in following the departure of Neil Portnow. She became the first female president of the Grammys, hired after Portnow’s resignation last summer following his controversial comments in 2018: Responding to criticism that the Academy’s voting was sexist and lacked female representation, he placed the responsibility on female artists, whom he advised to “step up” in order to be recognized. The statement inspired the creation of a task force by the Academy, led by Time’s Up CEO Tina Tchen who, alongside artists, label representatives, and academics, investigated the changes that needed to be made after Portnow’s missive. Dugan’s hiring followed.

The news of her suspension arrived only three weeks after Dugan sent a jaw-dropping, detailed memo to the Academy’s HR department, containing numerous complaints about the Academy. The details of that memo only came to light after Dugan’s newly hired legal team, Wigdor LLP, filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Academy. Her legal team alleges that the memo is why she was put on leave and claims that the institution’s practices highlight “tactics reminiscent of those deployed by individuals defending Harvey Weinstein.” Meanwhile, the Academy says Dugan was suspended following a complaint by Portnow’s former assistant over Dugan’s bullying managerial style and “abusive work environment.” The complaint was made back in November 2019, which raised the question of why action has suddenly — and noisily — been taken now. On March 2, the Academy officially terminated Dugan as CEO and president.

Still, Wigdor LLP is accusing the Academy of putting Dugan on leave close to the ceremony in order to divert attention from its own “unlawful activity.” It tweeted: “This blatant form of retaliation in corporate America is all too common, even post #MeToo, and we will utilize all lawful means necessary to ensure that those responsible are held accountable for their actions.” If this is the case, then Dugan’s dismissal could become one of the biggest stories in the music industry since the Me Too era began.

Here’s a rundown of all the major developments so far.

What are Dugan’s complaints against the Academy?

As the New York Times reported, Dugan sent a memo to the HR department of the Academy with shocking details about goings-on within the organization. On Tuesday, Dugan’s legal team revealed the full scope of the allegations she sought to bring to light. They include, but are not limited to:

• details of sexual harassment of Dugan by Joel Katz (the Academy’s general legal counsel) during a dinner, which Katz has “categorically denied”

• Grammy voting irregularities stemming from the board, who don’t promote a transparent nomination process (submissions for awards are voted on by the Academy’s 12,000 members and the top 20 selections are reviewed by “secret committees”; artists who have prior relationships with the board are often the ones given priority, and in some cases, added at a later date at the behest of major stars. Dugan’s complaint alleges that Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande were snubbed for 2019 Song of the Year nominations for this reason)

• an outstanding allegation of rape against Portnow made by a female recording artist, which Portnow has denied in a new statement calling the allegation “ludicrous and untrue,” and claiming that he was “completely exonerated” by an internal investigation that was never previously publicized

• a request she rejected from the Board to offer Portnow a $750,000 consulting job at the Academy following his exit, which Portnow now says he “at no time demanded”

• a boys’-club mentality that has led to sexist treatment of other women in the Academy, including chief information officer Megan Clarke, former vice-president of MusiCares Dana Tomarken, and two other unnamed women

The complaint also alleges that Dugan was paid significantly less in her position than her predecessor, Portnow, and claims that minutes after Dugan had been reassured her leave wouldn’t be made public, the Academy informed the press.

What are the Academy’s complaints against Dugan?

Dugan has been accused of acting in a hostile way toward her executive assistant, Claudine Little, whom she inherited from Portnow. Little took a leave of absence in October before she filed a claim. Dugan’s lawyers are insisting that Little was unsuitable for the job, that Dugan kept her on anyway “out of the goodness of her heart,” and that the situation was blown out of proportion by the executive committee who then began to cut back Dugan’s responsibilities. There is an ongoing investigation against Dugan within the Academy. Dugan’s temporary stand-in, Harvey Mason Jr., also wrote a letter to the Academy members hitting back at both the media and Dugan for “leaks” and “misinformation” and claiming that Dugan was extorting the Academy for $22 million in exchange for dropping her allegations and resigning from her role.

Portnow, in his response to the claims in the EEOC complaint, said the filing and its allegations are “a diversionary tactic and will not convert them to truth.” Meanwhile, the women on the Recording Academy’s Board — Tammy Hurt, Christine Albert, Leslie Ann Jones, and Terry Jones — issued a joint statement standing by the Academy and hitting back at Dugan’s allegations of a boys’-club attitude within the institution:

“It is deeply disturbing to us — and quite frankly, heartbreaking — to witness the firestorm against our organization that has been unleashed. The Academy is keenly sensitive to any and all allegations of harassment or abuse, and we support the independent investigations that have been launched. We have collectively volunteered many years of service guiding and supporting this organization. We would not have taken precious time away from our families and careers if we felt that it was a ‘boys’ club.’ We are leaders of this organization and fully committed to transformational change both within the Academy and within our industry at large. We stand ready to address all concerns, allegations and accusations with facts in hand.”

Following mounting allegations of voting irregularities and corruption, interim Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. issued a new statement denying any wrongdoing:

“It is the goal of the Recording Academy to ensure the GRAMMY Awards process is led in a fair and ethical manner and that voting members make their choices based solely on the artistic excellence and technical merits of eligible recording. 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.”

What has Dugan said?

Speaking publicly for the first time on Good Morning America, Dugan initially praised “some amazing, amazing people” in the Academy and on the board. She then spoke about Grammy lawyer Joel Katz’s proposition over dinner before she even stepped into her post, how he called her “babe” and commented on her attractiveness. “The evening went on to trying to kiss me,” she said. “All the way through I felt like I was being tested in how I would acquiesce.” She maintained that she was raising issues the entire time she served as president, but as soon as she filed a formal complaint to HR she was put on leave. When asked why she didn’t want to take legal action, Dugan said, “Because I actually wanted to make change from within. I moved across country, I had a great job, I believe in what the Recording Academy should stand for: artists.” She says she thought, I can fix this, I can work with this team.

Dugan said she found out about the rape allegation against Portnow at the start of her post. On the voting rigging, she said, “The system should be transparent and there are incidents of conflict of interests that taint the results.” Dugan revealed that she has further evidence about voting irregularities in the jazz category and that she’s filed a complaint there. When probed on the Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande complaint, Dugan said, “It’s very serious and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I would make a difference.” (She would not, however, name the artist who was nominated in their place.) Dugan warmly and wistfully said she will still watch the 2020 ceremony; her lawyer said that the Grammys are on “life support right now.”

Dugan later appeared on NBC in a longer segment in which she was unflinching about the “sexism and corruption” in the Recording Academy, and stated that “predominantly white males” are the ones who “call the shots.” Dugan confirmed that certain artists due onstage on Sunday night have been chosen through improper channels; she talked about a “culture of distrust,” a “lack of transparency,” and large sums of money being spent on Academy interests over artist interests. She also went into further detail about being excluded from meetings the more she attempted to put artists’ interests first. When challenged on the claims made against her by her assistant, Dugan pointed to her spotless track record as a CEO: “I was not abusive,” she said.

Dugan’s legal team has also continued to argue on her behalf that she wasn’t put on leave because of the staff allegation against her, but because she was due to bring legal action against the Academy over her claims of discrimination and the reaction to her internal whistle-bowling. “It was retaliation,” the EEOC filing claims. They also insist that the claims are not the sort that should lead to a CEO being put on leave, particularly ten days before the Grammys.

Those on Dugan’s side paint a picture of a successful businesswoman who uprooted herself from New York to L.A. with her family and was actively engaged in conversations with artists about their concerns with the Academy in order to fulfill her task of remedying the inequalities within the Academy’s culture. According to her lawyers, the Academy is defaming her as a “money-hungry liar.”

On January 29, three days after the Grammys, Dugan sent a new letter to the executive committee of the Recording Academy “to call for transparency and accountability” during the investigation into her claims, demanding that they put an end to the week-plus confusion over her ouster:

“The Academy intentionally brought this dispute to the public’s attention, and I am asking you to agree to let the public and music industry access the legal proceedings to come in this case. I have nothing to hide. The public and the music industry have the right to know what is going on behind closed doors at the Academy.”

Dugan claims that when she was hired last August, she was “required to agree to ‘arbitrate’ any and all disputes between myself and the Academy,” meaning any disputes that “would otherwise be resolved by a judge and jury” are instead privately and confidentially decided by a single arbitrator. Her letter asks that the Academy “voluntarily release” her from that agreement so that the details of the ongoing arbitration process can be made public. She writes, “Forced arbitration takes away a victim’s right to a trial by a jury of her peers, and at the same time provides protection for perpetrators of misconduct.”

The bulk of Dugan’s letter lodges a heavy complaint over the Academy’s choice for investigator, whom she says the law firm Proskauer Rose “recommended and handpicked.” The issue, she writes, is that in her EEOC charge, she identified Proskauer as one of the law firms “in bed” with the Academy. She specifically claims that Proskauer partner Chuck Ortner, who simultaneously serves as National Legal Counsel to the Academy and sits on the board of the Academy’s Museum, is known to “largely run” the Academy’s board. This presents a glaring conflict of interest, she argues: “Thus, we have a situation wherein you have Proskauer tasked with hiring the investigator that will, in part, investigate Proskauer.” Adding to the conflict, she says that the Proskauer lawyer who chose the investigator also represented the Academy against her following the bombshell memo to HR that she alleges led to her being put on leave.

Dugan now says she’s expected to cooperate with the investigation despite the investigator denying her access to evidence compiled during the investigation, and refusing to say whether or not that evidence will be available to the public. She concludes:

“I cannot, in good conscience, participate in an investigation rife with conflicts of interest and obvious partiality. Thus, I am proposing that we, together, mutually select an investigator who is independent and who would report to all parties and not just the Academy.”

Dugan’s lawyers, Wigdor LLP, responded to the news of her March 2 firing in a statement calling the decision “despicable” and warning that, “in due course,” the Academy and its legal representation “will be held accountable under the law.” Their full statement follows:

The Academy’s decision to terminate Ms. Dugan and immediately leak that information to the press further demonstrates that it will stop at nothing to protect and maintain a culture of misogyny, discrimination, sexual harassment, corruption and conflicts of interest. The decision is despicable and, in due course, the Academy, its leadership and its attorneys will be held accountable under the law.

On March 3, Dugan released another statement via her lawyers, to the L.A. Times, saying her firing was par for the course with the Academy’s treatment of people who speak out against it. “I was recruited and hired by the Recording Academy to make positive change; unfortunately, I was not able to do that as its CEO,” it reads. “While I am disappointed by this latest development, I am not surprised given the Academy’s pattern of dealing with whistleblowers.”

The rest of her statement follows:

Is anyone surprised that its purported investigations did not include interviewing me or addressing the greater claims of conflicts of interest and voting irregularities? So, instead of trying to reform the corrupt institution from within, I will continue to work to hold accountable those who continue to self-deal, taint the Grammy voting process and discriminate against women and people of color. Artists deserve better. To me, this is the real meaning of “stepping up.”

What is the Recording Academy telling its voting members?

The board of trustees sent voting members of the Recording Academy three emails the week of the Grammys, which Vulture obtained. The first was merely an update from Harvey Mason Jr. to announce his temporary takeover and to reassure artists that “our focus on service to the music community — and to you, our members — will remain uninterrupted and undiminished.” In the second email, sent by the women on the executive committee, the female members of the board asserted that they’ve been working with their male colleagues making “great strides” in increasing diversity in both leadership and nominations. They referred to Dugan’s claims as a “firestorm” and said that the interim media attention has been “deeply disturbing.”

The third email was intended to clarify the nomination process, and in it Mason Jr. refers to Dugan’s claims as “misleading.” “The accusations are deeply unsettling and just not right,” he writes, repeating that it’s “not fair” to the artist community. “Don’t let anyone cheapen or take away from what you have achieved,” he stated. In an offering of “facts,” Mason Jr. highlighted the system’s transparency, the diversity of the nomination reviews committee, the rules in place to prevent conflicts of interest, and the confidentiality of committee members’ names. “We look forward to seeing you this weekend and celebrating our deserving winners on Music’s Biggest Night,” he concluded.

On Grammys morning, interim president Harvey Mason Jr. sent another email to voting members of the Academy. This one made no mention of Dugan. It also didn’t address the rape allegations, claims of excessive legal fees, or the specific aberrations in voting. Instead, Mason Jr. outlined a plan for further action to tackle problems such as exclusion. It’s the right thing to do,” he wrote. The letter states that the Academy has been working on implementing 17 of the original Task Force’s 18 changes, but admits to it being a slower process than some would like. “But it’s not enough to pledge ourselves to change. We must take action. There is no excuse for waiting,” he wrote.

Mason Jr. laid out five actions: to implement a Diversity & Inclusion Officer within the next 90 days, a “fellowship” responsible for independent review and reporting of this progress, an annual fund for “different ‘women in music’ organizations,” a reunion of the original Task Force for a “deeper exploration” into voting, and that the first meeting will be in 45 days. He continued:

“It’s been a challenging week for our Academy family,” he wrote. “I’ve heard from many of you who feel betrayed and hurt by the untruths being spread about our motives and actions, the integrity of our process and the artists who’ve rightfully earned their GRAMMY Nominations … we are recommitting ourselves to transparency, to independent investigations, and to following the facts wherever they lead.”

Dugan’s lawyers responded to Mason Jr.’s letter in a statement calling it “smoke and mirrors given that each of his so called new ‘initiatives’ had already been agreed to under the direction of Ms. Dugan.” The statement continued, “If the past ten days have shown anything, it is that the current Chair is not the appropriate individual to effectuate meaningful change at the Academy.” Dugan’s lawyers called for four points of action “in order for there to be real change,” asking that they “happen immediately”:

• an “independent and qualified” professional Chair and Board; immediate suspension of the “conflict-rife nominating review committees”

• immediate suspension of the “conflict-rife nominating review committees”

• a “truly independent investigation into the Board’s relationships, self-dealings, and use of public non-profit monies”

• the immediate reinstatement of Dugan as Recording Academy CEO to “oversee and effectuate such changes”

On February 13, interim president Harvey Mason Jr. sent his first update to voting members of the Recording Academy since the Grammys in a memo viewed by Vulture. The letter reaffirms that Deborah Dugan remains on administrative leave and there won’t be a search for a new CEO until their dispute is resolved. Dugan has requested that the Recording Academy waive the arbitration agreement. The Academy have refused but agreed to waive confidentiality in arbitration, which is underway; Dugan’s team has yet to respond. Mason Jr.’s letter further states that the Academy has hired a law firm with no previous ties to the institution to independently investigate Dugan’s sexual harassment claim against its legal counsel Joel Katz, saying “we take that allegation very seriously.”

Mason Jr also claims that the Academy “remains fully committed to a transformative agenda” and will implement those 17 task force recommendations, with plans to reconvene with them shortly and hire a diversity and inclusion officer at the executive level by late April. The letter also defends both the Academy’s legal expenses, which Dugan alleges are exorbitant, and the Grammys’ nominations and voting process, which Dugan has claimed is rigged; the Academy says only that the latter “needs to be better understood,” pointing to a link to their FAQ. The memo notes that members may submit proposals for new procedures until March 1 and the board will meet in April to vote on which, if any, to pass. Mason Jr. adds, “We will do our best to think about every loophole and caveat, and develop safeguards to maintain integrity in the process.” And he insists, “The suggestion that Deb was hindered by the Academy’s resistance to change is simply untrue, and we are continuing on the path of change even during this time.”

In a separate February 13 note sent only to elected leaders of the Recording Academy, and also viewed by Vulture, Mason Jr. says that while he understands that they may be feeling “out of the loop,” he asks that the leaders maintain the company’s “confidentiality restrictions” and consult their communications department before speaking with media. The letter goes on to share the same announcements made to voting members — albeit in more emphatic language: “[Dugan’s] outrageous assertion that the GRAMMYs are ‘rigged’ is utterly false” — and claims that the Academy tried to work with Dugan to “correct” concerns about her performance.

Mason Jr. further writes:

“It is difficult to read unfair criticism of the Academy in the media, but our reticence to respond should not be misinterpreted. We are confident that when we are able to share all the facts, our members, the industry, and the public will understand that all our actions have been appropriate and in the interest of making progress towards our shared goals of diversity, inclusion, and our mission to recognize musical excellence, advocate for the well-being of music makers, and ensure that music remains an indelible part of our culture.”

On March 2, the executive committee sent out another update to its voting members informing them that Dugan’s position as CEO has officially been terminated nearly two months after she was put on paid administrative leave. The Board of Trustees voted to fire her based on three factors, the latest memo notes: “two exhaustive, costly independent investigations relating to Ms. Dugan and the allegations made against her and by her”; “the unwarranted and damaging media campaign that she launched in an attempt, without justification, to derail the GRAMMY Awards show, including her false allegations that the system was — in her words — ‘rigged’ and that the Academy was ‘corrupt’”; and her “consistent management deficiencies and failures, and other factors.” The memo continues, “All of this led the elected leaders of the Academy to conclude that it was in the best interests of the Academy to move on.”

The committee also notes that the Recording Academy “participated” in “some” settlement discussions with Dugan after she expressed desire to exit the Academy and be bought out of her contract but “we were ultimately compelled to dismiss Ms. Dugan as our President/CEO.” The rest of the strongly-worded statement elaborates on the decision: “Not removing Ms. Dugan from the organization at this time would have caused us to compromise our values. We could not reward her with a lucrative settlement and thereby set a precedent that behavior like hers has no consequence. Our members and employees, and the entire music industry, deserve better than that.”

The Academy says it now plans to launch a search for a new CEO “in the coming days” who “will leverage the Academy’s diverse membership and rich history and help us transform it to better serve our members today and into the future. As we structure this new search, we will look carefully to see where the last one led us astray and make any necessary changes going forward.”

In an interview with the L.A. Times, Academy chair emeritus Christine Albert doubled down on the need to fire Dugan: “It was not one thing that led to this action but rather the large number of incidents that demonstrated poor judgment, both before and after Ms. Dugan went on administrative leave. There was just no way she could continue to serve this organization.” Interim president Harvey Mason. Jr added, “For us as an organization, it’s a setback, and it’s not something that we’re going to spend a ton more time and energy on. We’re focused on the future, and on transforming the academy.” He reaffirmed that the search for a new CEO will begin on Friday and that they are considering a wide pool of candidates, not just women. “For us the emphasis is on finding a great CEO. The first and foremost priority will be interviewing a diverse and inclusive slate of candidates,” he said.

What do the members of the original task force think?

Eighteen individuals sat on the original task force — itself created to examine bias in the Academy in March 2018 in the wake of Portnow’s comments. The task force issued a statement in response to the controversy on January 23, 2020, which did not mention Dugan by name, but instead talked about the members’ “shock and dismay at the allegations surrounding the Recording Academy and its leadership that surfaced this week.” The task force reiterates in their statement that a report was delivered to the Academy outlining issues with inclusion and diversity. The statement goes on to explain that the task force “will be reconvening in 90 days and expects to hear progress from the Academy by that time.” It closes by stating that the task force is “deeply disappointed at the level of commitment by some of the Academy’s leadership in effecting the kind of real and constructive change presented in our report.” You can read the statement in full here.

Vulture got in touch with one task force member: Terri Winston, executive director of Women’s Audio Mission. She had no specifics on the case, and knew nothing of the claims made against Dugan, revealing that the task force was not consulted ahead of the decision to suspend her. “I am very suspicious!” says Winston. “It’s right before the Grammys. It’s very, very strange timing. The first time you’ve put a woman in charge and they magically fail right before the Grammys? And you make it a big media push?” Winston only met Dugan in the context of the task force, but questions that her offense was this alleged bullying management style. “Of course! She’s a bitch, right? Classic,” says Winston. “We as a Task Force were tasked with meeting with her and pushing her to do this. And then they fire her. I don’t trust it.”

Winston also believes there may have been a superficiality to the Academy’s commitment to change and that the task force was arguably a plaster placed over a deep wound that was never going to heal. “It made some things happen,” she says. “You did see an awards show [in 2019] that had more women in it, and the nominating committee became more diverse. That’s progress. But I also think they thought, We did it and we’re done. We don’t need to do anything else. When in fact that was just the beginning.”

What do people in the music industry think?

Celebrities such as Gabrielle Union, Sheryl Crow, and Megyn Kelly have sprung to Dugan’s defense publicly. Crow calls Dugan “a fantastic and brilliant woman.” Union tweeted, “Coulda sworn this is the same board that told women to ‘step up’ Clearly what they really meant was stand down, turn a blind eye to problems, or be fired. #DeborahDugan truly stepped up & tried to make necessary changes & was shown the door.” Chuck D also weighed in, calling the Academy out for the “same old bullshit.” “I’m not surprised that Deborah Dugan is out,” he wrote. “I am appalled because it reeks of the same old jive, a New Whirl Odor that considers the masses simply as ‘them asses.’”

How did this affect the 2020 ceremony?

Ultimately, the Recording Academy lucked out in the worst way. Hours before Sunday’s ceremony kicked off and while the red carpet was just getting underway, news of NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s shocking death broke, largely overshadowing all other conversation on the ground — the Dugan scandal included. Many artists skipped the red carpet and media room altogether; of the few major stars running across the carpet at the 11th hour before taking their seats, none were prepared to address the Dugan controversy. “I’ve had ups and downs in the music business, but as a musician or creative person you realize that the Grammys is not a measure of anything, but it’s a fun party,” Esperanza Spalding, one of the few artists who spoke up, told Vulture. And despite the loss of at least one sponsor, all performers showed up as scheduled, awards were politely accepted, and the show went on without a single explicit mention of Dugan, appearance from her, or speech from interim president Mason Jr. Host Alicia Keys merely offered in her piano-led monologue, “It’s a new decade. It’s time for newness and we refuse the negative energy. We refuse the old systems. Feel me on that.”

All Hell Has Broken Loose Within the Grammys