When news leaked late Friday that outgoing Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow will be replaced by (RED) CEO Deborah Dugan, the reaction for many may have been, “Who?” — largely because her name was not among the couple dozen more-predictable potential candidates speculated by insiders. But the veteran executive, who was voted upon by the Academy’s Board of Trustees via secret ballot late last month, brings a formidable and possibly peerless skill set the role, which she is expected to assume in July.
Dugan began her career as an attorney on Wall Street, rose to executive VP during her eight years at the EMI Record Group, and was president of Disney Publishing Worldwide (where she oversaw 275 magazines and more than 4,000 new book titles) before she took the top job at (RED), the nonprofit cofounded in 2006 by U2 singer Bono and attorney/activist Bobby Shriver; that organization has partnered with some of the world’s biggest brands to raise more than $600 million to help fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa. Along the way, she served as senior adviser to the Tribeca Enterprises Board (which includes the film festivals), was president/CEO of the British broadcaster Entertainment Rights, and headed legal services for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.
Thus, she brings to her new role — which has been neither confirmed nor denied by Dugan, (RED) or the Academy — leadership and extraordinarily far-reaching experience in the music industry, Wall Street, giant corporations, a multi-million-dollar nonprofit and extensive pro-bono legal work. And after eight years with one of the world’s biggest rock stars as her boss, it’s safe to say she knows how to handle egos.
“I feel I’m quite good at leading a creative organization and dealing with highly creative people who are often difficult,” Dugan said in 2018 on a Whitney Johnson podcast. “I have high thresholds for creativity — I just think it’s worth it.” (A rep for Dugan did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment.)
Bono was not available for comment, but at the time she took the job at (RED) in 2011, he said, “She’s got firecracking energy, great creativity and a hardcore business background.”
Attorney Steven Shapiro of the powerhouse music law firm Davis-Shapiro, Dugan’s former colleague at EMI, tells Variety, “I had the pleasure of working with Deborah at EMI and have followed her career ever since. I applaud the Recording Academy’s inspired selection of her to guide the organization going forward and ensure its continued success.”
“I think she’ll be amazing,” says one longtime friend, who, like several people interviewed for this article, requested anonymity because the role is not officially confirmed. “Whatever she has to do, she rolls up her sleeves and does it. She knew she’d have to go to Africa a lot [in her role with (RED)], so she rearranged her life.
“She’s not afraid to make changes,” that friend emphasized, pointing to a Recording Academy that many feel has become ossified in the recent years of Portnow’s 17-year regime.
While Portnow has done a great deal to modernize the Academy, many problems have surfaced over the past few years. The rise of YouTube and social media has allowed many performers to sidestep the music-business establishment — which has made the Grammys and the Academy less essential for success. Making matters worse, the Academy has alienated many of today’s top artists, including Jay-Z, Ariana Grande, Beyonce, Drake and others, either with reportedly heavy-handed attempts at controlling their performances on the show, or by failing to highlight the achievements of women and people of color (although there was considerable improvement at the 2019 Grammys). There are also very few people from either group in the Academy and Grammy leadership, which insiders say is largely run by Portnow, attorneys Joel Katz and Chuck Ortner along with longtime Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich and CBS executive VP Jack Sussman.
And, of course, there were Portnow’s two words heard around the world: “Step up,” his awkward response after the 2018 Grammys when a Variety reporter asked him what female artists and executives needed to do in order to advance in the industry. While he clearly misspoke, those words did illuminate an attitude and an arrogance that many say were a hallmark of his regime. And while the Academy has said it is committed to change and diversification, some critics are concerned that even with a female CEO, “It’s going to be the same old white men calling the shots,” one insider told Variety last month, referring to the Academy’s largely male Board of Trustees.
However, “Some of those old white men know that what they were doing in the past wasn’t working,” says a different insider. “I would hope they voted for [Dugan] because they realize they need a new voice and a different type of leadership, and hopefully they’ll give her some leeway and she can surround herself with some people who can help her do it. They voted for change, and hopefully that’s the handshake they reached with her.”
Indeed, sources also tell Variety that Dugan may not be the only major new executive coming to the Academy. Observers have long said that the role is too big for one person and have advocated for the sort of power-sharing partnership initiated at Atlantic Records by chairman/CEO Craig Kallman and chairman/COO Julie Greenwald — a setup that, in an overly simplistic description, sees the former overseeing the music and the artists while the latter markets it and runs the company. Such a scenario, potentially with a creative-based executive such as songwriter/producer and Academy veteran Jimmy Jam, would certainly give a much-needed boost to the organization’s credibility with the creative community.
An insider speculates that Dugan was offered a $1 million, three-year deal; Portnow is said to earn $1.5 million annually.
It’s both an unexpected and a logical destination for Dugan, who was raised in Long Island and Florida and whose father, Thomas M. Dugan, helped establish the Peace Corps with Sargent Shriver. The elder Dugan passed away when Deborah was just six; Robert Kennedy, with whom Thomas had worked in the U.S. Department of Justice, attended his funeral.
Consequently, Dugan began working at a young age, graduated from the University of Florida and took a job teaching middle school. Feeling unfulfilled, she attended law school at the University of Utah and went to work for a Wall Street law firm, doing mergers and acquisitions “during the heyday” of the late 1980s.
Her path to the music industry came via an unusual route. “I did pro bono work for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, which helped artists and musicians with legal issues,” she told Johnson. “And I found that saving a rapper in Harlem $300 on a bad recording deal meant more to me than those multibillion-dollar leveraged deals.
“So when they asked if I knew someone who could lead that organization, I said I would do it — for $70,000 less than I was making!,” she laughed. “People thought I was absolutely nuts — I was on track to be a partner. But it was one of the smartest things I ever did in my career.”
Nine months later she was hired at SBK, where she worked with such artists as Technotronic, Wilson Phillips, Tracey Chapman and others. The company soon merged with EMI and she remained there until 1998. “Those years were really pivotal for me about learning how to run a creative organization,” she told Johnson, while also speaking of its spirit of entrepreneurship. She recalled that the label noticed that recordings of Gregorian chant sold well in a certain area of Spain before the holidays every year. In 1994, they repackaged a previously released EMI album of Gregorian chant by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos as “Chant” — “which sold 12 million copies, and the monks were dead, so we didn’t have to share any royalties,” she recalled. “It was on the cover of Ad Age! And it was [conceived by] just a few people in a room who were thinking differently about things.”
Mike Mena, a former A&R exec who worked with Dugan at SBK, tells Variety, “She’s a terrific attorney who not only understood the nuances of contract law, but also understood the value of artists who make a label seem well-rounded and interesting. In the beginning at SBK, we had [pop blockbusters like] Wilson Phillips and Technotronic and Vanilla Ice, so why would we want to sign an alternative act like Blur or Tackhead? Deborah understood why that was important. She also understood that when one group wanted to continue their solo projects and legal wanted to block it, she [stood up for them]. She’s the kind of person you root for even if you’re negotiating against her, and her rise to where she is now comes as no surprise to anybody who knows her.”
An insider concludes, “The Recording Academy is unique — there’s nothing exactly like it. You have to put on the show and all the events during Grammy Week, you have to run the [MusiCares] charity, you’ve got to be conversant in every genre of music, and you have to gain consensus, because unanimity is impossible.
“There’s nothing that would prepare you for that, but look at everything she’s done — the music industry, the corporate, Wall Street, the pro bono legal work; she’s educated and I don’t know anyone who’d have a bad thing to say about her. I think she’s exactly what the Academy needs.”
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