Ben Winston is exhausted. The television producer, who moved from the U.K. to Los Angeles six years ago to start The Late Late Show With James Corden, is a week away from executive-producing his first Grammys telecast. “I literally had two hours of sleep last night,” he tells Rolling Stone via Zoom.
On Sunday, March 7th, the Recording Academy revealed a slate of performing artists for March 14th’s 63rd Annual Grammy Awards that includes Billie Eilish, BTS, Taylor Swift, Cardi B, and Harry Styles. But while those names are on the lineup, Winston knows nothing about live TV is ever set in stone — especially in the time of a pandemic —so he’s been spending his days double- and triple-checking plans, waking up at 4:30 a.m. dry-eyed and restless. He’s worked to make a show “with heart,” he says — one that “doesn’t feel isolated, quiet, or alone.” He also had to take extra steps to ensure the three-and-a-half hour show, which will not take place at the Grammys’ usual home of the Staples Center, is Covid-safe for performers and attendees. Despite all that, he appears remarkably enthusiastic and alert.
Here’s what viewers next Sunday can expect from music’s biggest night, according to Winston: a multi-stage, audience-free show that highlights the year’s creative triumphs, social justice movements, as well as Covid-19’s impact on the arts. Winston hints at several “unbelievably powerful” performances on the slate, adding that the Grammys “absolutely are acknowledging what’s happened” in the country in the last year.
Winston, who in 2018 co-produced Bruno Mars’ well-received live show at the Apollo for CBS, also wanted to highlight independent venues, which are the “lifeblood of this industry” and a launchpad for emerging musicians — so the Grammys will feature guest spots from owners and workers of iconic American venues, including L.A.’s Troubadour and Hotel Café, N.Y.’s Apollo, and Nashville’s Station Inn. “I drive past the Troubadour on my way home from work every night,” Winston says. “It’s a significant thing for me when I look at it all boarded up. I always think, ‘When those boards come down, this will be over.’ That will be the sign. That will be the day where it’s like, ‘We got through this.’” Winston realized from his conversations with venues that many of them put on their last shows on March 14th, 2020, meaning the Grammys will mark the one-year anniversary of the shutdown.
Employees will come on camera to “tell us a little bit about their venue” and present some of the awards. “So, you’ve got, like, a bartender at a beautiful, independent venue — and she’s giving out Album of the Year to these megastars,” he explains. His goal is to acknowledge the people who work tirelessly to keep these stomping grounds afloat and have recently lost their jobs. “Those venues are made up by the bartender and the security guard, the manager, the box office person, and the cleaner at the end of the night.” He hopes to remind people of the importance of supporting local venues again when it’s safe to do so.
Originally, the Grammys were scheduled for January 31st, but organizers announced a move to March right after the new year. Winston says he felt American morale was at a low point in January — between political insurrection, an impeachment trial, and Covid-19 running rampant in Los Angeles — and it “didn’t feel right” to put the show on in the middle of that. The Recording Academy and CBS, which exclusively airs the annual show, both supported his decision to postpone. “I can now do everything that I wanted to do in my best-case scenario for this year,” he says of Sunday’s show.
Sunday’s location is an undisclosed building in Los Angeles, but Winston teases that the new venue is “massive,” “magical,” and “the biggest building I’ve ever been in indoors.” “I don’t want it to look like I’m criticizing Staples, because it’s the most amazing venue,” he emphasizes, sharing that he’s open to bringing the Grammys back to the arena in the future if they ask him to. While he does believe that Staples is a safe place, he says he wanted to go above and beyond to make even the most-skeptical participants feel undoubtedly safe.
A team of Covid safety officers oversaw the production set-up, and artists will enter the stage from different directions to minimize contact. Each artist also has their own backstage area. The space “allowed us to build an entire world,” he says.
The show will involve five stages of the same size and shape, four of which are for performances and one of which is for presenters. Stages are organized in a circle, facing one another, and crew members will work from the middle of the set. “People will perform while the other three or four artists on their stages watch, applaud, and enjoy. As soon as that one finishes, the next one goes, the next one goes, and the next one goes. Every 45 minutes, you change out those stages, and you bring another four megastars into the room,” says Winston, who was partly inspired for the “part-Grammys, part-Abbey Road studio session” setup by British shows he watched as a child, including Jools Holland and TFI Friday.
It’s going to be a “bespoke night of music that I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to repeat,” Winston says. “It’s about taking a camera into a room, and making an amazing musical moment by filming it quite simply and elegantly.” Performances, which started being planned in April 2020, will be a mix of live and pre-recorded — a fully live show would involve too many crew members moving sets and risking close contact — but the whole thing is intended to feel completely live. (Winston challenges viewers to try and guess which sets are pre-recorded; he designed them to be difficult to tell.)
To help plan the sprawling, immersive show, Winston brought in a suite of collaborators including co-executive producer Jesse Collins, who produced The Weeknd’s Super Bowl halftime show; co-executive producer Raj Kapoor, who handled creative direction for various artists on the last seven Grammys and produced Vegas residencies for the likes of the Backstreet Boys and Mariah Carey; producer Fatima Robinson, whose expansive background in creative direction and choreography landed her the Black Eyed Peas’ 2011 halftime show and Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 Grammy performance; producer Misty Buckley, who handled production design for Kacey Musgraves’ 2020 Christmas show; talent executive Patrick Menton from Dick Clark Productions; Corden collaborator Josie Cliff; and Super Bowl halftime, Olympic ceremony, Oscars, and Emmys director Hamish Hamilton, who Winston describes as a “legend” he’s admired since he was 14 years old. (David Wild, who has written for the Grammys since 2001 and became a producer in 2016, is the only person returning to his role.) Winston also points out that artists were heavily involved in designing their own performances.
Rather than have cameras pan over empty seats and an awkwardly small stage, the production team decided to reinvent the visual format with the five-stage setup. The pandemic’s limitations, coupled with the advantages of new faces coming in with fresh perspectives, helped them refrain from thinking in terms of what the Grammys had done before, he said.
For the most part, Covid-19 didn’t force too many changes. It did give Winston a lot of anxiety.
“There’s been so much uncertainty with what you’re allowed to do,” he says. Changing international quarantine rules made him question whether certain performers could fly in, while health guidance keeps fluctuating: “Every time my computer or phone dings, my first instinct is, ‘Oh, God, what’s gone wrong?’ I don’t know if that’s ever been my mentality before.”
While all the performers are confirmed and currently Covid-free, “you never know, one of their girlfriends could have Covid and have to quarantine, it’s all just bonkers,” Winston says. “There’s one artist that may, in the end, not be able to make it here due to rules of the country they’re currently in. There’s one immigration issue that we’ve got left.”
The show does not have replacements on hand if anyone pulls out — it’ll just cut that performance out.
Above all, Winston wants the 2021 Grammys to focus attention off of dire times. “I want people to be able to watch the 2021 Grammys in 2040 and go, ‘Wow, what an amazing show that was,’ and not go, ‘Oh, that was the Covid year, that’s why they had to do that,’” he says. “I think that’s what we could achieve if we get it right on Sunday.”
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