Dugan’s Attorney Hits Back At Recording Academy After Ouster

Deborah Dugan
Amy Sussman/Invision/AP, File
– Deborah Dugan

Reaction to the stunning news that Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan was placed yesterday on “administrative leave” just 10 days before the Grammy Awards and five months after taking the reins of the organization from predecessor Neil Portnow, was swift – with her attorney promising to “expose” the “story that needs to be told” behind the action.

Not only did the ouster take place on the eve of what would have been Dugan’s first Grammy Awards, which take place in Los Angeles Jan. 26, it threatens to throw cold water on what should be a celebration of award show producer Ken Ehrlich’s 40th and final year at the helm of the production.

The Academy issued a statement late Thursday (Jan. 16) announcing that Dugan, a former CEO of Bono’s (RED) organization and label executive, was placed on leave “effective immediately” citing “concerns raised to the Recording Academy Board of Trustees, including a formal allegation of misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team.”

Dugan attorney Bryan Freedman released a statement of his own today, saying, “What has been reported is not nearly the story that needs to be told. When our ability to speak is not restrained by a 28-page contract and legal threats, we will expose what happens when you ‘step up’ at the Recording Academy, a public nonprofit.”

In less than 24 hours after the announcement, there was no shortage of reports of palace intrigue circulating in the press and on social media, ranging from reports of a “coup” by longtime Academy insiders and holdovers from the Portnow era to complaints that Dugan allegedly “bullied” staff members.

Whatever the cause, the timing of the announcement shocked many in the Recording Academy’s orbit. In Dugan’s absence, Recording Academy Board Chair Harvey Mason Jr. is standing in as interim CEO.

At least one industry leader took to Instagram to express her displeasure at Dugan’s ouster.

“What’s so incredibly frustrating is a woman is a bully but a man a leader? This woman has had a flawless career but at the Academy she’s a bully? Smells like fish to me,” said Lou Taylor, the CEO of Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group, who has worked with Britney Spears, Florida Georgia Line, Mary J. Blige and more. “Until proven otherwise I stand for Deb. #standwithdeb.”

When asked about Dugan’s leave in an interview Friday about other topics, John Legend said: “I truly have no comment because I have no idea what happened.”

“It was definitely shocking to say the least for someone that they searched so long to find to … be put on administrative leave, or whatever, because of misconduct. I don’t know any details around it but makes you wonder what happened,” added Legend, who is member of the academy’s L.A. chapter and is friends with and has collaborated musically with Dugan’s interim replacement, music producer and Board Chair Harvey Mason Jr.

The Grammys have been criticized over the years over the diversity in its top prizes, which rarely goes to rap and contemporary R&B stars, including heavyweights like Beyoncé, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem and Mariah Carey. While those acts have won in the rap and R&B categories, when it comes to main prizes such as album, song and record of the year, the winners tend to be in the rock, country and pop genres.

The organization has also been targeted for its lack of female winners in the top categories, and things took a turn in 2018 when only two female acts won awards during the live telecast. At the same show, Lorde was the sole female nominee up for the top prize — album of the year — but the pop singer wasn’t given a slot to perform during the show, which angered fans and some music industry players.

Neil Portnow, who began his post in 2002 and was president at the time, was asked about the lack of female winners and responded with words that essentially ended his run at the academy.

“I think it has to begin with women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, who want to be producers, who want to be part of the industry on the executive level to step up,” he said backstage after the show.

Drama ensued. An online petition posted by singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton calling for his resignation surpassed its goal of 10,000 signatures; more than 30,000 people had signed the document. The remarks were criticized by Pink, Sheryl Crow, Katy Perry, India.Arie and others.

Portnow called his comments a “poor choice of words” and later said he chose not to seek an extension on his contract, which ended last year.

The academy took the hit seriously and announced it was creating a task force to uncover unconscious biases and other barriers that impede women’s success in the music industry.

That’s when Dugan was hired. And on Friday her lawyer fired back at the academy, even using the words “step up” to defend the just-ousted chief.