As part of the Guest Artist day at GRAMMY Camp®, the Music Journalism Campers recently had the opportunity to talk with Neil Portnow, President of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Each Camper had the chance to sit down face to face with Portnow and ask him one question and as we found out people might know NARAS best for the GRAMMY Awards, but there is so much more to the GRAMMYs than that, especially all the opportunities for students.
Julian Ring: As the director of NARAS, what do you feel is your most important responsibility within the music industry?
Neil Portnow: The Academy is, I would say, a thought leader in what happens within our business. We have many faces, we face consumers frequently, and obviously the GRAMMY® telecast, which has almost 27 million people this past year and 170 countries around the world. But the Academy, in terms of our initiatives, whether it’s the GRAMMY Foundation, whether it’s MusicCares™ helping music people, whether it’s the GRAMMY Museum, or whether it’s our advocacy work in Washington, which is crucial…we are viewed as thought leaders, and we’re also the one organization in the music industry that represents the broad community. Unlike organizations that represent just record companies, or just the music publishers, or just the recording musicians, or the unions, or…so on and so forth, our members (20,000 of them) represent the whole broad spectrum. I think that’s our main focus, to be the thought leaders, and to also put a good face on the music industry, and people that make it, to the outside world. Because sometimes, we take a bad rap and we don’t necessarily deserve it. We talk about all the good things that come from music.
Jenay Ross: What advice would you give students who want to join GRAMMY® U?
NP: GRAMMY University network is something relatively new for us. Probably coming around to our third, fourth year. We welcome all students who are pursuing a music career and are serious about it, to join. It would be easy for you to do and sign up and become a part of it.
Jenay Ross: And what kind of things would they do?
NP: GRAMMY University network, for one thing, is a membership. Just like the Academy that is 20,000 members, GRAMMY U has almost 4,000 students who are members. So when you join GRAMMY U you pay a small reduced fee, then you’re a member of the Academy. You get so many of the benefits that all of the members do: publications, exposure to our events, and then we produce some special events just for the GRAMMY U students on Campus, off Campus. So you can do just about everything that a member can do, except vote.
Susan Ewing: Starting out, what were your expectations? How far did you think you were actually going to go?
NP: I wasn’t sure. I had a couple ideas with what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in politics and run for office, and I was always into music. I started playing when I was seven. I honestly didn’t think I could make a living in music for sure, and although I had bands and I had a record deal, I went to college. I thought it would be good to have an education. I planned to go to law school and run for office. But I changed my mind. And then I got a little more involved in the business side of music as things moved on. And frankly I don’t think I could have predicted exactly where this was going to go. The best thing that I did was have an open mind about it, which is, “I don’t know for sure but I’m going to check this out, I’m going to meet as many people as I can, I’m willing to try something, experiment, see how it goes but also have something to fall back on if those things that are a dream didn’t happen.” I was lucky, it worked really well.
Shawn Handy: What is your advice for up-and-coming music entrepreneurs? I know you started off small to end up big, and I would like to become an entrepreneur myself. What’s your advice?
NP: First thing is you need to have passion and commitment. This is not easy with this career; there is a designated path. For example if you want to become a lawyer, you know you need to go to law school, but to become an entrepreneur you don’t know what’s going to happen. So you just have to have that drive. Also what was helpful for me is that I had friends around me that wanted to do the same stuff, so when I got right out of college with a guy who was in my band for many years who had a business head and another guy I met who was in the law school who had a sense of business, we brought them in because we had contracts. But it was so much better to have people supporting you because it’s better to have three heads as opposed to one.
Nick Arnold: You, along with the GRAMMY foundation and NARAS, have helped provide every student here with incredible, almost unfathomable, experiences and lessons which inspire them and open many opportunities for the future. How does it feel to know you are playing a vital role of launching the careers of potential future members of the music industry?
NP: I think I’m going to cry from that one. This work that we do here for the GRAMMY Foundation, like some of the work from our other charities, actually makes me sort of scratch my head sometimes and think to myself, “Gee, isn’t it extraordinary that someone is actually paying me to do this great work?” Having been a young person who grew up with music, who was always passionate about music, couldn’t get it out of my system, there was nothing else I could do. I tried going into politics and doing other things, but it always came back to the music. I didn’t have a guide; nobody in my family was in the business and there wasn’t a specific program in school. I kind of clawed my way through and found my way on my own. The fact that we can offer the guidance and the expertise and the exposure that we do in a program like this to a large number of young people who are passionate about music. And over the years, that number multiplies; so now we’re talking about hundreds of young people who’ve been through a GRAMMY Camp experience. It’s the most gratifying thing I can do. And to hear you say that, because you’ve experienced it first hand, really hits the point home. That’s a real life example of what we’re doing having a positive impact on someone who cares about a future in music. So we’re thrilled and delighted. For me, I can get a little emotional about it sometimes, because it’s the best thing we do.
Dertrick Winn: When people think of the name GRAMMY they immediately think of the GRAMMY Awards. Most people aren’t aware of the GRAMMY Foundation. Can you talk about some of the other programs that the GRAMMY Foundation has for kids who want to be in the music industry?
NP: We have a couple of foundations. We have the MusicCares Foundation that takes care of our own in the industry in times of need. We now have a GRAMMY Museum, which is a year old, and that’s another one of our wonderful projects besides the GRAMMY show. And we have the GRAMMY Foundation which you know well because you’ve been involved over the years. Our mission, aside from archiving and preserving our recorded history, is the ongoing importance of having young people be exposed to music and the arts in particular in the schools. So we do a number of programs. This is one of them, one of the new ones. We’re in our sixth year now with GRAMMY Camp, and GRAMMY Camp as you know brings in a number of students from all around the country to have an experience in 10 days unlike any other, to be with each other but also to have all the professions that the GRAMMY can bring to 10 days worth of study. But we also have a number of programs for schools. Our Signature School program is an important one because we give grants and money to high school music programs, and I think most people understand that music and funding for the arts in this particular time especially is very difficult and always reduced and, unfortunately, not a high priority, so we will pick out music departments all around the country and give them funds so that they can get the most basic things to carry on. It might be sheet music, it might be instruments, it might be hiring someone to come in and provide teaching services. Another one that’s really fun is Sound Checks. We will bring young people from high schools all around the country in their neighborhood to a sound check of a recording artist or a big star who’s performing in the area. So we’ve got Maroon 5 here, for example, and when they’re on the road, they call us and tell us, “Hey, we’re in Cleveland and we’ll arrange to get some kids there.” And what’s great about the Sound Check is young people get to see all the behind-the-scenes things that happen. And remember that it’s not just about being the lead singer on the stage; it might be about being a journalist, about being a manager, about being a lighting director, about being a sound engineer. All of these great career things, they can experience firsthand.