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Trying for harmony

The Grammys would like a waiver from the WGA but will go solo if necessary.

January 19, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

THE makers of televised award shows long ago mastered the drumroll of contrived suspense, but this season the nail-biting is for real, and it has nothing to do with the names in the envelopes. That was all-too clear this week on the weary face of Neil Portnow, the Grammy chief who watched the Golden Globes implode last weekend with a singular sense of dread.

"I haven't been getting much sleep lately," a somber Portnow said as he checked phone messages stacked on his broad desk at the bright, airy Recording Academy headquarters in Santa Monica. Calls have been coming in from politicians, labor bosses, rock stars, network execs and lawyers -- all seeking answers about the 50th Annual Grammy Awards scheduled for Feb. 10 and its vulnerability to the Writers Guild of America strike.

Turmoil in the record industry is one reason Portnow is plainly indignant that the WGA decided "to come after us," as he put it. The primary reason, though, is the Recording Academy's extensive efforts in Washington and in the public arena fighting for creator rights and copyright protections. "There is a war underway, and we are not on the other side of that war. We are not the enemy."

Given the WGA's recent statement that it was unlikely that a waiver would be granted to Grammy telecast producers, "everyone wants to know what's going to happen; they're concerned," Portnow said. "There's confusion, too, because there are facts and then there are rumors and the blogs. . . . The short answer is this: The show will go on. We're going forward, business as usual."

That last comment may be a bit of wishful thinking -- or perhaps it's an indication of just how accustomed Portnow and music industry leaders have become to chaos. The sales of CDs continue to plummet, American youth has an entrenched view of prerecorded music as a free utility (unless it happens to be a ring tone) and the business page is a daily reminder of corporate layoffs in the sector.

Every year, the Grammys deliver a significant bump to music sales. After last year's show, which had an average of 20 million viewers, the Dixie Chicks, for instance, had a 700% surge in CD sales after taking home five trophies.

"It is an industry in a time of need," Portnow said flatly, "and it needs this show."

Portnow said that the tentative agreement reached by the WGA and the producers of the NAACP Image Awards makes him hopeful that the Grammys will get a similar deal sewn up. He said the Grammys, like the Image Awards (and unlike, say, the Golden Globes) are the high-visibility centerpiece of yearlong charity, advocacy, education and community programs that are too valuable and too meaningful to be sabotaged for what Portnow called "a publicity move."

Gregg Mitchell, a spokesman for the WGA, said Friday afternoon that the guild's board will be considering the interim agreement proposal by Cossette Productions, which produces the Grammys, and the accompanying position statement by the Recording Academy.

"That's where we are," Mitchell said. "There's no update. I would point again to the previous statement. There's been no change and I'm not going to speculate on what the board might do. . . . We consider each show on its individual merits. It's all case by case."

Portnow said he has asked to address the WGA board directly and expects that to happen soon.

The stakes are higher this year for the Recording Academy, with a major branding effort well underway that includes new licensing deals and, eventually, the opening of a Grammy museum in downtown Los Angeles. There are a week's worth of splashy events across the city tying into the show, which will be attended by about 15,000 people from all corners of the music industry.

"We have been planning for years for this," Portnow said. "All things have been pointing toward this show."

In recent days, the academy has released statements by nominated artists, such as Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, and high-profile industry voices, such as Mathew Knowles, manager and father of Grammy-nominated R&B superstar Beyonce, announcing their intention to be at the show no matter what.

Portnow said he hopes the Beyonce support sends "a meaningful signal" to other artists.He said more of those signals will be coming.

"Every day there is going to be another element of piling on by the music industry that this is wrong and that this show is the wrong target," Portnow said. "The irony of all this is we are in complete support of the writers and we support the WGA's objectives. . . . We take on the big guys too. We shouldn't be fighting."

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