When Florida Georgia Line prepared to play the BMI Tailgate Stage outside Nashville's LP Field at the CMA Music Festival in June 2012, the duo could hear Hunter Hayes doing soundcheck for his performance on the main stage inside the stadium.
It was an odd moment. FGL's Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley weren't even signed to a record deal, but they were playing the Country Music Association's signature festival for the first time. Here was Hayes, 21 at the time, unwittingly making it clear to the duo that it had not yet arrived.
"I remember saying to Tyler, 'Man, it'd be amazing to be in there and play. How cool it would be to be there right now,'" Kelley recalls. "LP Field is one of those places in Nashville you wanna check off your bucket list of places to play."
In the most dramatic ascent at the 2013 CMA Festival, Florida Georgia Line did indeed play LP Field's main stage. In fact, in an appropriate twist of events, the duo could be heard playing "Get Your Shine On" during soundcheck while one of the Tailgate Stage acts, unsigned Native Run, prepared to play the BMI stage.
Because the festival takes place at the same time every year, it becomes something of a career marker for many of country's stars. They can gauge changes in their careers by their ability to play larger stages, by the amount of merchandise they sell, by the number of events on their schedule or by the number of fans waiting in their autograph lines.
"Sometimes you lose track of time and everything's running together and everything happens so fast," Hubbard says. "So to look at CMA Fest every year and think about last year and the year before that, it is a good marker, a good time of year to kind of meditate on where you're at and where you're going."
The CMA Music Festival is a genre-specific mash-up of a music festival and a convention. The four-day event, held June 6-9 this year, features music on a range of outdoor stages in downtown Nashville, as well as Fan Fair X, an exhibit hall at the Music City Center that allows fans a chance to get photos and autographs with the stars, see memorabilia or buy lifestyle merchandise.
The festival typically attracts 70,000 people per day, and highlights are also captured for an ABC-TV special. Thus agents, label executives and managers lobby for the best slot for their acts.
It's one of the reasons the FGL story is so compelling. A year ago, Big Loud Mountain general manager Seth England, the group's manager, had to battle for every bit of exposure. The act's debut single, "Cruise," went on sale digitally just five weeks before the 2012 festival. Some secondary radio stations and SiriusXM jumped on it early, but the act was building a fan base outside the view of most of Music Row.
By the time Florida Georgia Line tried to secure one of the festival's traditional performance slots, they were all booked. England twisted a few arms just to get a spot in the kick-off parade, and BMI's stage -- which was making its debut -- was about the only place the duo could gain any exposure.
As it turned out, an estimated 1,000 fans showed up at that untested venue, and music executives drinking beer in the VIP section were shocked to see many of them singing all the words to songs the execs had never heard before.
"We took a chance putting them on the bill, but we looked like we were brilliant," BMI assistant VP writer/publisher relations Clay Bradley notes. "But that's what we want. We want to have a stage where we can risk something and see if it pays off."
It paid off big for Florida Georgia Line. Big Machine Label Group president/CEO Scott Borchetta saw the performance, and barely a month later, the act was signed to BMLG's Republic Nashville imprint and a remastered version of "Cruise" was re-released to radio. It ascended to No. 1 on Hot Country Songs; became one of country's 10 most-downloaded songs of 2012, according to Nielsen SoundScan; and has since reached the top 5 on the Hot 100 through a remix that features Nelly.
"The fans that showed up and were singing, that was kind of an indicator of things to come and things that were changing throughout that summer," Kelley reflects.
Florida Georgia Line was not the only act using the 2013 festival as a career marker. Warner Music Nashville artist Brett Eldredge, preparing for the release of his debut album, walked the red carpet at the CMT Awards for the first time, an obvious change from years past.
"I've always been at home on the couch watching this," he says. "It's cool to be on the carpet." Gloriana, attending the festival for the sixth or seventh time in its career, sang the national anthem at LP Field, marking its debut on the big stage. And Hayes, it turns out, was feeling somewhat out of place doing that soundcheck last year at the stadium. The fact that he got to return to the football field this year was a marker in itself, an assurance that his ascent was more than just a fluke.
"There is something really, really special to driving in downtown Nashville and seeing the sign on the lampost of who's playing LP Field," he explains. "Last year I looked and there was Kenny Rogers, there was me -- I didn't know what I was doing there."
Florida Georgia Line had one other career marker at an event adjacent to the CMA Festival. A year ago, songwriter Craig Wiseman ("Boys 'Round Here," "Live Like You Were Dying") had the duo open his annual Stars for Second Harvest benefit concert at the Ryman Auditorium, which typically sells 600-700 tickets, according to England.
"Last year, Craig went out and had to over-explain why they were on the show," England says. "This year, they headlined the event. We basically sold it out and raised over $100,000. That's never been done in the last 10 years."