Grammys 2014: A conversation with executive producer Ken Ehrlich

For more than three decades, the Grammys' longtime executive producer Ken Ehrlich has navigated a gamut of hurdles to pull off the annual telecast. A dizzying lineup of talent has been confirmed for Sunday's ceremony, including Paul McCartney, Beyonce, Madonna, Daft Punk, Pink, Nine Inch Nails and Taylor Swift. But this year, the workload is even heavier.

The night after the Grammys, as many are recovering from a weekend of partying and schmoozing, Ehrlich and Co. will pull off another big production -- a Grammy salute to the Beatles’ historic debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The special will mark the 50th anniversary of the appearance and air in February, featuring talent already in town for the awards.

Before Ehrlich got bogged down with rehearsals, he caught up with Pop & Hiss to talk about juggling multiple productions, schedule challenges and onstage collaborations.

FULL COVERAGE: Grammys 2014

This year there’s the Grammys and the Beatles’ special back-to-back, what are the challenges of managing both?

There’s really no good answer. We kind of knew what we were in for. What I didn’t know was how much impact moving the show up two weeks because of the Olympics [would have]. We kind of have a policy where we don’t book the show until nominations come out, and I pretty much stick to that. We will break it occasionally when we do some of these special segments. But this year I discussed it with the academy and said I needed to go further and while I might stop short of committing I need to have more conversations with more acts prior to the nominations than we might normally do.

The two-week shift must have had a major impact on the production schedule.

Not only was it the two weeks, but it was the perfect storm scenario of both holidays occurring on a Wednesday. It might not sound ominous, but as you know, that meant the people who were leaving [town] and coming back took both full weeks off. For all intents and purposes a great number of people in the business left Dec. 16 or 17 and didn’t come back until Jan. 6. Under normal circumstances when I have some of that time to work with because the show isn’t until Feb. 8, or somewhere in there, but [the holidays and the date change meant] I’ve basically lost half of December.

We really try to push the envelope more each year and put more into it. It’s not a question of making it bigger, but it’s about looking for more of these moments we can create. We bit off a lot this year. And then factor in this second show.

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How much concern is there with balancing the nominated acts with what’s current on the charts?

I think people have come to expect that the show is not going to be 100% nominated material. We try and base things so that primarily the show is a reflection of the nominations. At the root of the show is what happened in the past year so [we try to] be reflective of that.

It’s a collective decision that we want people to look at the show and say, ‘If I spend 3 1/2 hours in front of a television watching the Grammys on a Sunday night I’m going to get a pretty good look at what’s happened in music this past year.’ But what I think people have also come to expect, at least I hope, are the connections we try to make. Whether it's historical, cross genres, or other ways of tying things together. That’s something that separates the Grammys from other music award shows.

The show has become known for its onstage collaborations -- for better or worse. What’s the conversation like when an artist is resistant to collaborating but wants to be a part of the show?

You want me to say that I force them into doing them? I don’t. I’ll be more than honest in saying early on there was more resistance on behalf of artists than we do now. Many more artists have come to us with an idea.

In terms of those manufactured moments that we’ve created I put Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand together on the first Grammy show I did [in 1980] to sing "You Don't Bring Me Flowers." In modern history, it’s the tribute to Joe Strummer with Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello; Elton and Eminem; Prince and Beyonce -- those were all things we came up with and went to artists and said this is an idea we have. If there’s any magic involved in it you think of all of those artists. They are really open to collaboration and understand their place in the music business.

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I’m proud of the fact that we have set this kind of standard where artists look at [the Grammys] where they don’t just have to come on and do their latest single or whatever. We aren’t dictating to them what they should do, but we are giving them an opportunity to say I want to score on this show and be the best thing on the Grammys. Now everybody else wants to do them, or they try to do them. Some of them do them pretty well, some of them don’t do it as well.

There’s a few set for this year. How have those come together?

The artist community is really open to collaborating. By the way, let’s not negate the fact that there’s a certain amount of risk involved. More often than not there’s an artist on stage with someone they’ve never been onstage with before. So I give them a tremendous amount of credit.

This year, I’ve got six or seven of those that stand up as well as anything we’ve done. We’ve announced most, but there’s still a couple more. I had the guys from Daft Punk in here two hours ago going through this collaboration they are doing with Stevie Wonder and it’s going to be groundbreaking.

Any other collaborations you’re looking forward to?

It’s hard for me to pick and choose. I am really thrilled about this country thing we are doing that brings Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson together with Merle Haggard and Blake Shelton. It’s genuine country music history. When we’re able to do things like that, which we should do, I really get a thrill. The same way I do with Imagine Dragons [teaming with] Kendrick Lamar. It’s going to be pretty cool -- it’s a true mash-up. These are two acts that really like each other, so I think there’s going to be a great moment on the show with them.


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