Neil Portnow Addresses 12th Annual Americana Music Festival

Recording Academy President/CEO gives keynote at annual Americana Music Festival and Conference
  • Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images
    Neil Portnow speaks at the 12th Annual Americana Music Festival and Conference
October 13, 2011 -- 3:23 pm PDT

(Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow delivered the keynote address at the 12th Annual Americana Music Festival and Conference on Oct. 13 in Nashville. Following is a transcript of his remarks.)

You know you've arrived when you're included in the dictionary. It's validation, a very public recognition that what you do or who you are is acknowledged by one of the world's most respected and widely used resources.

So when a musical definition of Americana was added to Merriam-Webster's dictionary in late August this year, it affirmed that the genre is now widely recognized enough to be part of today's lexicon — which ultimately means that Americana music is, and really always has been, here to stay.

The evolution of the genre has been somewhat subtle and slow in the sense that artists created and played music they felt without attempting to classify it. And over the last decade or so it has gained tremendous momentum and awareness. But the true beauty of Americana music is its diversity — not only the many musical styles it draws from and incorporates, but the varied and distinct backgrounds of the many artists creating and playing the music — truly representing the melting pot that defines the heritage of our great nation and thus earning its name: Americana.

Jazz music has long been considered an original American art form. Today, it's safe to say that Americana music qualifies for this distinction as well. Both genres encompass a wide range of music and artists, and although Americana draws from many existing genres — country, roots rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B, blues, and more — the result is a sound and style uniquely its own.

I'm pleased to say that The Recording Academy recognized the merits and tradition of Americana music long before the dictionary finally did. On the 44th GRAMMY Awards telecast in February 2002, three performances from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack were featured; the album was awarded four GRAMMY Awards, including Album Of The Year, beating out Bob Dylan, India.Arie, Outkast, and U2; and the soundtrack's producer, T Bone Burnett, received the Producer Of The Year award.

In 2006 "Americana" was added to the Best Contemporary Folk Album category, so the category then read Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. And in 2009, Best Americana Album became its own stand-alone category. That same year, the Field in which Americana lives was renamed the American Roots Field.

At the 53rd GRAMMY Awards this past February, one of the seminal moments on the telecast was the Mumford & Sons/Avett Brothers/Bob Dylan segment. And the incomparable Mavis Staples took home her very first GRAMMY Award ever for Best Americana Album, exemplifying the diversity of this genre and its creators.

As the preeminent membership organization for music makers, The Recording Academy serves more than 20,000 constituents from all aspects of the industry in 12 Chapter regions around the country. Our mission is to advance artistic and technical excellence, work to ensure a vital and free creative environment, and act as an advocate on behalf of music and its creators. The GRAMMY Awards, for which we are best known, are the only peer-recognized awards to honor artistic achievement, technical proficiency, and overall excellence in the recording industry in 29 genre Fields, without regard to album sales or chart position.

The Academy also has two charitable affiliates. One is our GRAMMY Foundation, which supports music education in schools, as well as archiving and preservation efforts. The GRAMMY Foundation promotes programs and activities that engage the music industry and cultural community as well as the general public, and works in partnership year-round with The Recording Academy to bring national attention to important issues such as the value and impact of music and arts education and the urgency of preserving our rich cultural heritage.

Our other charity — the MusiCares Foundation — provides a safety net of critical assistance for music people in times of need, and its services and resources cover a wide range of financial, medical and personal emergencies, treating each case with integrity and confidentiality. MusiCares also focuses the resources and attention of the music industry on human service issues that directly impact the health and welfare of the music community. In response to the devastating and profoundly life-altering effects of the Nashville floods in May 2010, fundraising efforts were launched right here at our Nashville GRAMMY Block Party, and MusiCares also collaborated with other partners to provide resources and relief efforts to victims. Funds were distributed within 48–72 hours, covering the most immediate and basic needs including food and clothing, gasoline and transportation, clean-up efforts, relocation costs, medicine, and other critical supplies.

Another important part of our mission is advocacy. With an office in Washington, D.C., we are working diligently to protect the rights of artists and music professionals. Recently, after entering a critical FCC issue that would have deteriorated performers' ability to use wireless microphones, we led a coalition of performers that ultimately saw the FCC not only preserving use of wireless mics, but dedicating frequency especially for our community's use. Through semiannual CEO retreats, which we partnered to create and includes leaders representing every aspect of the music industry, we've helped implement important industrywide agreements and even jointly lobbied to push the PRO-IP Act through to fruition. And most importantly, we have been at the forefront calling for a performance right on sound recordings, and our efforts have helped move legislation farther than ever in the 80-year history of broadcasting. While we haven't yet crossed the finish line on this particular issue, we are close, and we will get there.

Our nearly three-year-old GRAMMY Museum in downtown Los Angeles pays tribute to music's rich cultural history and explores and celebrates the enduring legacies of all forms of music, the creative process, the art and technology of the recording process, as well as the history of the premier recognition of excellence in recorded music — the GRAMMY Award. This one-of-a-kind, 21st century Museum features 30,000 square feet of interactive and multimedia exhibits, including the Crossroads table, which explores nearly 160 musical genres and reveals connections to others; Music Epicenters, which explores the times and places where the sounds of American music have changed, and spotlights the nation's rich and varied musical legacies; and It Starts With A Song, which allows visitors to hear some of the most significant songwriters describe their creative process and the stories behind some of their legendary songs. Americana — American music — has a proper home within the walls of this dynamic institution.

This year, The Recording Academy has undergone major changes with the announcement of a significant restructuring of our GRAMMY Awards categories. For more than half a century, we have recognized excellence in recorded music with the coveted GRAMMY Award, and we have seen the awards expand from 28 Categories in 1959 to 109 Categories with the most recent 53rd GRAMMYs. This growth has been approached one category at a time, basically without a current overall guiding vision, and without consistency across the various genre Fields. Extensive research and discussion resulted in a much more comprehensive vision of our Awards structure, with parity across musical Fields.

While tradition is important, some change is essential, and inevitable. Breaking with long-standing traditions has been challenging, but it was important that we embraced this change. And the GRAMMY Awards continue to have more categories that recognize musical excellence than any other music award.

This change comes on the heels of many other developments in our GRAMMY Awards process. Years ago, our voting members purchased LPs, then CDs, to listen to the nominated recordings. Today, they stream the tracks on a members-only website. At one time, only a commercially released physical product qualified for GRAMMY entry. Today, digital-only distribution track submissions grow by leaps and bounds. For many years, major label releases dominated the awards. Today, thanks to outreach to the independent music community, we have a wonderful balance between major and indie label releases.

Darwin said, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one most responsive to change." The same can be said of industries and communities, and The Academy subscribes to that kind of forward thinking, and we will continue to examine and refine our process and programs regularly.

With the untimely passing of Steve Jobs last week, we have been constantly reminded of his many remarkable and groundbreaking contributions to the entertainment world, particularly in music. With his creations — the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad and more — he transformed the way we all use the Internet and consume music, TV, movies, books, graphics, and more.

These devices also have dramatically changed our industry in a very short amount of time, and they have expanded the way we listen to, purchase, share, store, explore, discover and create music, among other things. And while much has been said, argued, and debated about this progress, its profound impact has been, and continues to be, undeniable.

The same can be said for some of Jobs' neighbors in Northern California. With the advent of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Tumblr, Google+, and more, in the last five to 10 years, artists and fans can now "friend" and "follow" each other around the world, allowing artists to build their fan bases more organically by interacting directly with fans. By giving fans unprecedented access to their favorite artists with real-time updates on new music, tour dates, exclusive content, and so much more, social media has taken the "fan club" to another dimension, and most artists are rightfully taking advantage. If you think about it, where else can you find out what an artist has for dinner every night, what kind of new furniture he or she just bought, or what he or she did on a day off in a particular city?

The Academy has established and developed its own robust Twitter and Facebook presence, among other social media platforms, and we now connect and interact with music fans year-round — not just through our blockbuster awards television show that airs one night of the year. And we invite all of you who are not currently members to join with us in our important missions. Go to for more information.

As part of the artist development panel that's up next, the Civil Wars have certainly harnessed the power of social media and slowly but surely have built up a following by keeping their fan base engaged, and picking up new fans as they tour from city to city. The Recording Academy's Nashville Chapter here was fortunate to have John Paul and Joy perform at its annual block party in May, as their "new model" of success that we will be hearing about shortly is keeping them quite busy for some time to come. As Johnny Cash said, "Steady like a train, sharp like a razor"….

Since the industry received some good news last week, I think it's worth sharing if you hadn't already heard. With nine months of 2011 behind us, album sales stand at 228.5 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan — up 3.3 percent from the corresponding period in 2010. Overall U.S. unit sales are up 7.2 percent to 1.18 billion from 1.1 billion last year. And when albums, including track equivalents, are taken into account — whereby 10 song downloads count as one album unit — albums have jumped 5.4 percent to 323.7 million. The positive showing for album sales can primarily be attributed to the digital format, where scans are up 19.7 percent to 74.1 million units. And though physical sales are down from last year, the dip isn't as extreme as in past years, with CD sales decreasing only 3.6 percent this year, after declines ranging between 18 to 20 percent in each of the five previous years. As to market share, using master ownership criteria, the independent labels garnered an impressive 31 percent. In what has been an extremely difficult market and environment, these rays of light are welcome news indeed!

As the music industry continues to work through the challenges of this ongoing transitional marketplace, the Americana sector, and others, has opportunities never before seen in the history of the music business.

For many decades, this important genre has had to fight an uphill battle — for limited shelf space in record stores, for limited time on too few radio stations, for broader recognition overall. When physical distribution, brick-and-mortar retail outlets and terrestrial radio dominated our industry, Americana music often was compromised by supposedly more commercially viable recordings.

Today, the unlimited shelf space of the digital marketplace, and the "cloud," and the personalization of digital radio give Americana music a much more level playing field. Now, artists and fans may engage directly with each other, even on a daily basis. And as more consumers have increased access to this music, they will discover what all of us in this room already know: Americana music is entertaining, moving, powerful, inspiring, and empowering. And to appreciate it is to understand and feel the richness of the American and human experience.

You're all here this week for a number of reasons: to hear and play some great music, to see old friends and make some new ones, and to learn ways to thrive doing what you love to do in an ever-evolving industry. For 12 years now, the Americana Music Association has presented Americanafest to accomplish those important goals, and I'd like to congratulate the staff and board for another successful conference and their ongoing initiatives. Please continue the important work you do to raise awareness for the music that speaks to all of us, and we at The Recording Academy and the GRAMMYs look forward to continue being your allies to highlight Americana music, and the talented individuals who create it.

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