“Music’s biggest night” is this Sunday, but it’s already been overshadowed by behind-the-scenes tension. Last Thursday, 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 ***ist 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 arrives 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 Tuesday 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.
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 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 ***ual harassment of Dugan by Joel Katz (the Academy’s general legal counsel) during a dinner; 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 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; and a boys’-club mentality that has led to ***ist 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 complaints made 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. (The Academy has not responded to Vulture’s requests for comment.) 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.
What has Dugan said?
She hasn’t said anything yet other than statements made by her legal team. (Dugan has not responded to Vulture’s requests for comment.) Dugan’s legal team argues that Dugan 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,” says the legal document. 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.”
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. So far they’ve been reticent to speak. When Vulture approached the Time’s Up communications department to speak to CEO Tina Tchen, they distanced themselves from the situation (“We have no intel to offer you, unfortunately, and just want to make clear the Task Force was established by the Recording Academy itself so it would be inaccurate to describe as a Time’s Up Recording Academy Task Force,” a representative said). Vulture did get ahold of 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 will this affect Sunday night’s ceremony?
With certain artists already speaking out publicly against the Academy, it remains to be seen what the collateral could be on the night itself. Will certain artists, like Ariana Grande (who’s had her own clashes with the Grammys), pull out of their scheduled performances? On Saturday, The Hollywood Reporter noted that Champagne Billecart-Salmon was pulling its sponsorship from the ceremony in solidarity with Dugan. At the many events taking place this week, there will be ample opportunity for artists to speak to journalists on red carpets and on podiums. Televised events like the Grammys have become major opportunities in recent years to propel movements such as Time’s Up and Me Too. Dugan was hired to clean up a messy operation with decades’ worth of internalized ***ism and lack of representation. If she’s allegedly been booted out for starting to unpack those issues, then the question arises: Are patriarchal organizations like the Academy actively working against those movements?
This story is developing and will be updated accordingly.