Expert Testimony: Working at the Grammys

Jariel Johnson
Jariel Johnson

For the past two years, Jeriel Johnson ’05 has worked for The Recording Academy® in Los Angeles. He was recently promoted to the role of senior project manager and oversees the awards process for the R&B, rap, and reggae style categories leading up to the Grammy Awards. This time of year at the academy is particularly busy as they gear up for the next edition of the Grammy Awards. Nonetheless, Johnson took time from a busy schedule to describe the arc of his career and the behind-the-scenes work leading up to the awards broadcast.

Johnson grew up in Philadelphia in a musical family, and took an interest in the drums at the age of two. His father led a band that played in their church, and during rehearsals at the Johnson home, young Jeriel was always sitting on the drummer’s lap. He played the drums avidly throughout his school years. After the Johnsons moved to Cincinnati, OH, an influential high school band director there, Drew Cremisio ’84, introduced Johnson to jazz and fusion music and encouraged him to apply to Berklee. He received a scholarship and attended Berklee. Ultimately, he chose music business/management as his major.

Following his studies, he moved to Los Angeles hoping to work in A&R at a record label. But finding those jobs to be few and highly coveted, Johnson started paying his dues working initially at Starbucks and then later in a succession of internships, temp, and full-time jobs at Hidden Beach Records, Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros. Records, NBC Universal, and elsewhere.

Johnson found that his day jobs in a variety of corporate environments and his side hustle with promising artists had prepared him well when he learned that The Recording Academy was seeking a project manager for urban music in the Awards Department. After several interviews, Johnson was hired. These days he is involved in a range of initiatives including reaching out to urban music artists, and conducting panel discussions.

As a ramp-up for the 59th annual Grammy Awards presentation, Johnson and Bill Freimuth, the Senior VP, Awards, shared information about the work of the Recording Academy and the nomination process.

Jeriel, when you were hired by the Recording Academy, did you feel that you had reached the career path you wanted to follow?

A&R was where I wanted to go, but while I don’t sign anyone to deals in this role, a big part of my job is to discover new music and to connect with artists, managers, publicists, songwriters, and producers. So I get to do some things an A&R person does in terms of building relationships and keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening musically in the genres that I manage.

How do you stay ahead of the curve in finding up-and-coming talent?

In the awards process at The Academy, we receive thousands of entries across The Academy’s 84 categories. I am exposed to a lot of music that way. But due to the contacts I have built up over the years, I also end up going to a lot of artist showcases, studio sessions, and playback sessions to hear what people are working on. People reach out to me for feedback.

I spend a lot of time connecting in the rap, R&B, and reggae communities at festivals, concerts, and other events going on around the country. I also do a lot of outreach. For the past two summers, I moderated and helped put together Grammy panel discussions for the Essence Festival in New Orleans.

Is education a component of your work as well?

Being able to connect with the community as a musician representing The Academy is very important to me. There are misconceptions about The Academy. I don’t know that a lot of people know that there are musical minds working here. Education in the rap and R&B communities is key. For so long, members of these communities didn’t know what they didn’t know. I’ve been helping to demystify the Grammy Awards process over the two years I’ve been here.

Bill, can you describe the nominations process?

Every year in July we contact people in the industry, our Recording Academy members, and members at the media companies that are registered with us to let them know the entry period for upcoming awards is about to begin. We have two rounds where our members and the registered media companies submit music to be considered. Our Awards Department receives the entries and verifies that they fulfill all of our eligibility requirements—release dates, recording dates—and we verify the credits for songwriters, producers, and make sure that the spelling and grammar for every entry is correct. Then we do an initial listen to all of the music to make sure that things entered in each category are in the ballpark. After that, we form screening committees to make the final decisions about the category the music will go in on the entry list that goes out with the ballot to the voting membership. These screening committees comprise artists, songwriters, producers, senior label executives, academics, music historians, and radio personalities. All are experts in various genres. We press play and the committee decides whether an album is a rap album or a pop album. We ask the members not to take into account chart position, radio play, or record sales. Their decisions are based strictly on the music.

We listen and have a discussion. A producer may think a track sounds like a pop record, but then the label rep says the artist is a rapper. A historian may have a different point of view. There is some really interesting conversation. If the room is split, we take a vote, and the results of the vote are final. After all the music is in the right category, everything is finalized for the first ballot. Our voting members receive the entry list and a ballot, fill it out, and mail it to Deloitte and Touche, our accounting firm.

Deloitte tabulates the votes and reports the top five vote getters in most of the categories. We form a nominations review committee made up of music creators: artists, songwriters, producers, and engineers. There are no academics, or representatives from labels on this committee. The names of [prospective] committee members—the cream of the crop among music creators—are submitted by the 12 Recording Academy chapters across the country. Those names go to Neil Portnow, the president and CEO of The Recording Academy; John Poppo, the chair of The Academy; and myself. The three of us make recommendations to the Board of Trustees. The names the board ratifies end up on the nominations review committee.

That committee then receives the lists of the top 15 vote getters and digs into the music. They are charged with giving a creative critique as opposed to the work of sorting done by the first committee.

The voting is done by secret ballot, and Deloitte is on site to collect the ballots. They let us know the top five nominees voted on by the nominations review committee. That brings us to the first week of December when we announce to the world all of the nominees across all of the categories.

How is the final balloting handled?

We prepare the final ballot that’s mailed out to the voting membership. Members receive the entry list in their Grammy user profile and fill out the ballots. The completed ballots must be sent back to Deloitte by the week of January 13 so they can tabulate the votes. We find out who won on the night of the show when the rest of the world finds out.

Jeriel, what is on your plate at this point in the process?

We are in the thick of things now [September 13], my reggae committee meets tomorrow and other meetings start on September 28. We are getting ready for the 59th Grammy Awards. It’s really exciting. I feel really blessed to be in this position. For me, there is no better place to be than at a company that means so much to music. The Grammys represent so much to music creators around the world.