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Ousted boss promises to expose what happens when you “step up” at the Recording Academy

By | Published on Monday 20 January 2020

Deborah Dugan

As the American music industry prepares for the upcoming Grammy Weekend, it seems likely that internal politics at award organisers the Recording Academy could dominate the headlines. Especially if more artists choose to take sides. Chuck D is the first to speak out in favour of CEO Deborah Dugan, who was put on “administrative leave” last week.

The Academy’s board announced on Thursday that Dugan’s role running the music industry organisation was in limbo because “of concerns raised to the Recording Academy Board Of Trustees, including a formal allegation of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team”.

No specifics were given about the alleged misconduct, though gossipers said that there had been tensions between Dugan and many Academy employees ever since she took up the top job there last August.

Some sources blamed Dugan for not doing enough to win over her staff. But others argued that, having been specifically recruited to shake things up at the Recording Academy, the CEO was then met with fierce resistance to the kind of changes she had been hired to deliver.

Following last week’s stern announcement from the Academy board confirming Dugan’s “administrative leave”, her lawyer issued a statement insisting that “what has been reported is not nearly the story that needs to be told”.

Attorney Bryan Freedman added: “When our ability to speak is not restrained by a 28 page contract and legal threats, we will expose what happens when you ‘step up’ at the Recording Academy, a public non-profit”.

The “step up” remark refers, of course, to the controversial words of Dugan’s predecessor at the Recording Academy. Responding to criticisms that the 2018 Grammy Awards had a distinct lack of gender diversity, then boss Neil Portnow said that that was simply a reflection of the music industry and that women needed to “step up, because I think they would be welcome”.

Portnow subsequently back-tracked on that remark, but it nevertheless ensured that his final eighteen months running the Academy was dominated by the diversity debate.

Many argued that – while there may be diversity issues in the music community at large – when it came to the Grammys specifically the diversity issues were within the Academy itself. Dugan’s appointment was seen as a grand gesture by the organisation’s board to confirm that those complaints had been taken seriously.

Quite what Dugan may “expose” about her short stint running the Academy remains to be seen. However, the New York Times last week reported that: “Ms Dugan’s dismissal … came less than three weeks after she sent a memo to the Academy’s Head Of Human Resources that detailed her concerns about the governance and practices of the organisation, which she said led her to believe that ‘something was seriously amiss at the Academy'”.

“Her concerns detailed in the memo”, the Times went on, “included voting irregularities, financial mismanagement, ‘exorbitant and unnecessary’ legal bills, and conflicts of interest involving members of the Academy’s board, executive committee and outside lawyers”.

It’s thought that the Academy board hoped that the removal of Dugan so close to the Grammy Awards wouldn’t result in its big annual party being overshadowed by disarray within the organisation on the basis that only the industry press would care, and that music fans in the main would remain oblivious. Whether or not that comes to pass will depend on how many artists and other celebrities speak out in favour of the pushed-out CEO.

Chuck D is among the first of the artist community to join the debate. He has issued a statement summarising his own run ins with the Recording Academy, both old and new, while publicly supporting Dugan. “I salute Deborah Dugan for her truth and courage to try and effect change”, he wrote. “As always, a bunch of ignorant, testosterone-fueled, usually old white men stop progress and screw it up. Same old bullshit. They want to keep it status quo and make sure things like hip hop stay the poster child of their fuckery”.

Also doing her best to ensure that the debate around Dugan’s departure went beyond the industry press this weekend was actor Gabrielle Union, who tweeted a link to the NYT’s report on the CEO’s “administrative leave”. She then remarked: “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. Deborah Dugan truly stepped up and tried to make necessary changes and was shown the door. Been there, done that, got fired too”.

As the build up to this year’s Grammys show continues, we’ll see just how much bigger the fallout from the board’s Dugan decision gets, and what impact that has on the awards this weekend and the Academy long term.