Untangling The Threads Of The Grammys ‘Boys Club’ Drama And CEO Deborah Dugan’s Discrimination Complaint

Though an almost ceaseless sense of frustration with the Grammys might be familiar to those who work in the music industry, this week the lid has finally blown off. What has been going on behind-the-scenes at one of the most powerful institutions in the world — at least when it comes to honoring music — is perhaps more insidious than the snubbing of a deserving or beloved artist. Or maybe, it’s an indication that resistance to change exists in a spectrum, and the fact that the Recording Academy routinely honors less deserving white male artists over masterworks by creators of color and women (Good Kid, MAAD City, Lemonade, Channel Orange, to a name a few recent ones) is, in fact, an assertion of that community’s values.

For those who are just catching up, in early 2018, the Academy’s then-president, Neil Portnow, reacted to the rightful backlash against the institution’s habit of snubbing women by asserting that female artists were somehow to blame for this disrespect, and needed to “step up.” He later apologized for the comment and called the phrasing regrettable, but the damage had already been done, both before he voiced this opinion, and in the Academy’s actions beforehand. A few months after the 2018 ceremony, word began to spread that when his current contract was up in July of 2019, Portnow, who had been serving as the Grammys president since 2002, would be resigning.

Last summer, when that finally happened, the Recording Academy appointed Deborah Dugan to the role of CEO, a woman who came highly-qualified for the position after working as a mergers and acquisitions attorney on Wall Street before she pivoted to lead the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, then worked as an executive VP at EMI Record Group for nine years before becoming president of Disney Publishing Worldwide. As if all that wasn’t enough, she later became the CEO of (RED), the nonprofit co-founded in 2006 by U2 singer Bono and attorney-activist Bobby Shriver. Variety even reported praise from her old boss, Bono, who commented: “You realize right away this is a person who is going to get sh– done. Which is good news for the Grammys: She’s not just going to crack the ceiling there — I think she’ll smash it.” Well, things have indeed been smashed, but it’s unclear if the glass ceiling was really one of them. Sometimes, those things are way thicker than the translucence makes them appear.

Now, things start to veer into rumors, gossip, and “allegedly” territory, so stay with me. Last week, on January 16, news broke that Dugan had been placed on administrative leave for “misconduct,” a word that most people associate with the rising #MeToo movement, with complaints generally lodged against men abusing their power. It struck a strange tone that the newly appointed female chief of the Grammys was effectively benched right before the ceremony, and publicly releasing the phrase “misconduct” in a statement seemed design to paint Dugan in a negative light.

As the leaks began to come, reports allege that the woman accusing Dugan of misconduct was her former assistant, Claudine Little, who it is very much worth noting worked under Portnow for his entire seventeen-year tenure, and that Little’s claims against Dugan include “verbal abuse and mistreatment.” Little has reportedly retained a lawyer from the same firm as attorney Patty Glaser, the lawyer who defended alleged serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein (in a non-sexual harassment case) and Republic Records president Charlie Walk in his recent sexual misconduct claims.

But Dugan’s leave begins to look like a retaliatory move by the board when other elements leading up to it come into play, and those come to light in a complaint she has now filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, called a charge of discrimination. According to reporting by The New York Times and multiple other sources, Dugan sent a lengthy memo to the Recording Academy’s HR on December 22nd, detailing a list of concerns, including irregularities in voting that seem to favor artists with close ties to Grammy board members, along with close ties to law firms who billed the Grammys for millions every year for legal work.

As for her relationship to Little, Dugan’s complaint says she worked with Portnow’s former assistant as an aide while looking to hire her own, and when the relationship wasn’t a fit, offered Little a different role in the organization. Little refused, went on administrative leave, and later filed her complaint against Dugan. In a statement following Dugan’s complaint, the Academy has tried to claim her action is tit for tat, saying: “It is curious that Ms. Dugan never raised these grave allegations until a week after legal claims were made against her personally by a female employee who alleged Ms. Dugan had created a ‘toxic and intolerable’ work environment and engaged in ‘abusive and bullying conduct.’” But considering her HR complaint in December, that characterization seems untrue.

In my own opinion, it’s shameful that Little’s lawsuit and the Academy are trying to use the language and cultural support for #MeToo victims by alleging “misconduct” to smear a woman who was enduring her own battle against sexist, corrupt powers that be, and is now being publicly dragged through the mud for speaking out against it. Even if Dugan was verbally abusive, would a man operating within the same framework be accused of “misconduct” for that kind of behavior and placed on leave for it? That seems highly unlikely. Sometime soon we need to have a discussion about essentialism, and grapple with the fact that because accusations of misconduct are now being taken so seriously, some people will abuse the system for their own benefit with flimsy evidence at best.

Other aspects of Dugan’s complaint include an allegation that Neil Portnow had been accused of by a recording artist (he vehemently denies this), that the board requested she give Portnow a consulting salary of $750,000 following his departure (she refused), that one of the Academy’s top lawyers, Joel Katz, had made unwanted sexual advances toward her, and that a “boys club” mentality completely governed the culture at the Grammys. Her complaint also gets into the historic underrepresentation of women and people of color in the institution’s history, other examples of discrimination in the company against other employees, and denies the leaked rumors that she requested a $22 million settlement to leave quietly, though the Academy continues to allege that to The Times.

Heading into the Grammys ceremony this Sunday, this situation will certainly put a damper on the awards and the organization’s attempts to rally around a message of reform. But, the possibility of the institutional change and actual reform that might be possible because of this dramatic reveal is something to remain hopeful about. Especially when it comes to creating a fair, balanced system for honoring artists.

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