In a year of a global health threat that has caused economic concern for many people, including members of the music industry, Harvey Mason Jr. is contending with one of the most serious and unexpected challenges to date as interim CEO/president of The Recording Academy.
“It’s deeply affected our entire industry across the country. People can’t make a living touring and playing shows and we have 22,000 members among the thousands of music makers who are finding it hard to generate a living during this time,” the legendary hitmaker tells Rated R&B over the phone on a weekday afternoon in May. “It’s really transformed our industry and our business and all the music people, so it’s something that is so important and something that requires a ton of attention.”
In recent weeks, The Recording Academy and its charitable foundation MusiCares have each donated $1 million to start the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. This special relief fund is designed to benefit music industry professionals who are in need of immediate financial assistance amid the outbreak. “That money goes directly in the hands of the music people who need serious help,” Mason says.
So far, more than $17 million in additional funds have been raised from supporters across the different music sectors like Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), Pandora, and TIDAL, to name a few. Grants up to $1,000 have been distributed to over 14,000 music professionals to help them cover high-priority bills.
The Recording Academy and MusiCares have decided to temporarily pause new applications to raise more dollars for those suffering from the current financial climate. At the same time, Mason remains modestly proud of what the relief package has done so far, but understands it’s just a good head start. “We feel we have a lot more work to go and a lot more effort that needs to be put into this,” he says.
He continues, “It doesn’t stop, either. It’s not a short-term thing; that’s the other factor. This isn’t something that you can work on for two or three weeks and then it’s over. This something that’s going to be a constant for us to deal with. I’m not even going to put a time stamp on it but for quite some time.”
Mason, still a tireless music producer, can’t avoid stretching himself thin. He is in the studio working on music for artists and films like the Aretha Franklin Respect biopic, which has been delayed from a summer to winter release. Above all, he has more to prove in his power seat at the head of The Recording Academy table.
In our conversation with Mason, he shares additional steps taken to support music professionals during the pandemic, the legacy of The Underdogs, the future of R&B at the Grammys and more.
Before becoming Interim CEO/President of the Recording Academy, you mentioned as Chair of Board of Trustees that the music community will have a place to turn to in the time of need. Besides the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund, what other positive actions can you share that the Board has taken to support those most affected in the music industry?
There’s been a lot of positives. It’s hard to talk about the positives because it’s so many people who are still really struggling. I have to acknowledge that I’m not sitting here patting ourselves on the back. We have moved the needle in Washington, D.C., during some of the negotiations around stimulus packages. We had our advocacy team and our lobbyists in D.C. jumping up and down in making sure our musicians and music people’s voices were heard, so we could be included in some of these packages and some of these legislations that passed. I feel very fortunate we were able to be part of that and be able to partake in some of the relief that has been granted to people around the country. We also have done some cool things online with webinars to make sure that we’re able to educate music people that want to know how government packages can help them. We had over 25,000 people viewing the webinar that were walking individuals through the process of getting payment protection, loans or unemployment money or different ways that people can access some relief funds that the government has set aside. Being able to educate music people on how to access some of that money feels like it was very positive. But again, those are just a couple of things in the long line of things that still need to be done going forward in making sure that we’re being helpful to the music community.
You added Interim CEO/President for the Recording Academy to your responsibilities as a producer and songwriter. How do you successfully manage working on music, while becoming settled to your new role?
It’s been interesting for sure because I’m still in the studio everyday creating, producing and writing, and then juggling that with my job as [Interim] President and CEO of the Recording Academy. It’s been about trying to balance those two things. It’s made for a lot of long days and late nights but the Academy is very important to me. It’s a priority for me, especially with what’s going on in our world right now. So, to answer your question, I balance it because there is so much need right now and there’s a lot of work to be done. It gives me a lot of focus and motivation and then ultimately, some satisfaction if we can continue to help people.
This past Grammys was met with a lot of criticism, particularly as it relates to Black music. One of those criticisms came from Sean Love Combs, who at the Recording Academy and Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Gala, said that “Black music has never been respected to some extent” by the Recording Academy. Many people would argue that this comment is a direct result of some Black artists like Beyoncé and Mariah Carey, who are often nominated for or overlooked in the big-four fields, particularly Album of the Year, when their respective albums receive Grammy buzz from genre experts and fans alike. How do you take feedback such as this and relay it to those involved in the voting process to make sure those critiques are considered going forward?
There are not too many people in our industry that are respected more than Puff [formally known as Puff Daddy]. When he talks and expresses an opinion, I listen and I make sure that we pay attention to that. It’s a very long and complicated process on how we take it back to our organization, our membership and our voters. It’s something that we take very seriously and it’s something that we’re working on, and it’s something we want to continue to improve. But I also say that I’ve been here just a matter of months, so I like to hope that people will realize that this is going to be a priority for me. I’m not the same person that led our organization before. The organization is in the process of having new leadership, so with that new leadership, comes an opportunity to make some changes and to address some things that are important to the Academy, but more specifically important to me. A lot of the things Puff said are very valuable and things I want to work on.
Another critique came from 2020 Best Rap Album winner Tyler, The Creator. He mentioned that the term “urban” is “a politically correct way to say the n-word.” Even some publications and fans have voiced their opinion on the negative connotations associated with an award like Best Urban Contemporary Album, which was introduced in 2013 as the successor to Best Contemporary R&B Album. What next steps are being implemented by the Recording Academy on possibly retitling this category to further be culturally conscious to the wide range of artists represented in this category?
Again, this is something that lands right on my desk and on my plate of things that we’re going to take a look at. All of our categories and awards and processes around The Academy are generated by our members. So, members propose changes or categories or procedures, and they go to the board room, and the trustees vote on what they are going to call a category or how they are going to regulate submissions or how they’re going to do X, Y, and Z. That process of submitting proposals is something that any person in the Academy or in the membership can submit. So, it’s definitely something that I will take a look at. It’s something I feel will be a point of discussion coming up for us, and I think you’ll see us be active and on point when it comes to making sure we’re adjusting to the needs of the music community.
Editor’s Note: On Wednesday morning (June 10), the Recording Academy renamed and redefined Best Urban Contemporary Album to Best Progressive R&B Album. According to press details, this change includes a more accurate definition to describe the merit or characteristics of music compositions or performances themselves within the genre of R&B.
R&B gets a lot of criticism. While traditional and contemporary R&B are still going strong, different variations of the genre at large are on a rise. Artists like Janelle Monáe, FKA twigs, Masego, Dawn Richard and Berhana who are making music outside the mainstream realm are finding it harder to receive nominations in the two current R&B performance categories. Do you believe that there is room in the R&B field for an additional performance category, such as reintroduction of Best Urban/Alternative Performance for those breed of artists releasing non-mainstream music?
It’s very possible. Again, it just comes down to someone making the proposal for that to happen. I want to make sure the Academy is representing all music. I don’t want anybody to feel like their genre, their performance, their style of art, or their creation is being excluded. I would be willing to take a look at anything that suggests that we’re not living up to that. I want to make sure that everybody has a place. I want to make sure that everybody is represented in the Academy, so it’s definitely something that we will be considering.
Given your musical experience, what are your thoughts on the recurring conversations that R&B is dead?
Well, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t know necessarily if that conversation is something that I’ve heard a lot about. I think R&B is evolving, which it always does, and I think R&B is influencing a lot of other genres of music. If you listen to a lot of hip-hop music, R&B has [an] influence there. It’s been infused in country music. It’s heavily impacted pop music, so I think R&B is still very relevant. If you’re talking about the sound of R&B, and the influence of R&B, I think it’s more important now than ever. I think it just has to do with how it’s evolved and how it’s morphed into different sounds and different genres. Is there much music coming out of people calling themselves R&B artists? I don’t know. Is there enough attention paid to R&B music? I don’t know that either, but I know the influence is still impactful. Do we need more R&B artists? I would love it. The more R&B, the better. I think we have had a long history in music, in general, and R&B has definitely been influential, so I would love to see the genre continue to thrive, but I do think it’s evolved and we need to continue to find out what is that next incarnation of what an R&B artist sounds like. It’s definitely going to include some other sounds for sure.
What is the one thing that you hope to accomplish in terms of taking the Recording Academy to the next level?
I hope to accomplish a lot of my goals, which involve making sure the Academy is the best it can be. Something we can be proud of. Something that’s a shining light in the industry. Something that sets the example for how an organization like this should run. Something that members and the music community as a whole can be proud of and say, “The Academy does a great job for the music community.” I want to make sure that we are as transparent as possible, as representative and inclusive as possible and addictive to the music community and the music business as a whole.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Underdogs. What do you want the legacy of the production team to be remembered for?
I would love it if The Underdogs were remembered for making contemporary hit records but with a musical backbone to them. We generally tried to use some cool chord progressions and tried to integrate some real musicality into our records. We also tried to go different places on bridges with melodies and harmonies. To summarize, if people look back at the records we made and said, “The Underdogs made cool records but were musical,” that would be something I would be proud of. I think also hopefully the ability to stand the test of time. I would love it if people listened to our records and said, “Those records still sound good, and I still love those records after 20 years of listening to them because they’re quality records.” We spent a lot of time making sure that we were doing things at the highest level and really like analyzing our vocal chain and making sure our mixes were top-shelf. We would spend two or three days on just some drum sounds trying to figure out how to make the snare push through the mix, and how to make the kicks heavy enough to move a lot of air. We were really scientific about lots of the steps in our record making process. If people recognize and acknowledge that after 20 years, that would be cool.