Changing Qualifications for ACM's 'New Artist' Award Confuse Nominees, Observers

Joseph Llanes

Brett Eldredge

As Academy of Country Music members began filling out their final ballots on March 10 on the first day of voting for the 49th annual show, perhaps no category better illustrated the current hurdles for the country music business than new artist of the year.

All three nominees -- Brett Eldredge, Justin Moore and Kip Moore -- are solo male acts. No females. No groups or duos.

Each required at least three years to arrive among the finalists for the first time. Kip’s first single, “Mary Was the Marrying Kind,” was released to radio via Play MPE three years ago, on Feb. 14, 2011; Eldredge’s debut, “Raymond,” was shipped Aug. 30, 2010; and Justin’s first single, “Small Town USA,” arrived five years ago, on Jan. 9, 2009.

The category itself is in an ever-changing state of flux. During the last 10 years, the trophy is listed with three different titles -- new artist of the year, top new artist and top new artist of the year -- in the ACM’s awards database, but it was only presented seven times during that decade. The other three years, three new-artist trophies were handed out -- new male, new female and new duo or group. Furthermore, there were years in which a preliminary vote awarded trophies in each of those three categories with the winners squaring off for the overall new-artist honor.

If observers are confused by the process, so are the current contenders, who are to a man happy to be under consideration, even if they’re not entirely sure how they got there. Some of that is by choice -- they all profess to focusing on what they can control and letting go of the things they cannot.

“I really honestly haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to it,” Justin says. “You’ll drive yourself crazy.”

The ACM board was apparently flummoxed by it all, too. This year’s new-artist finalists were determined after fans voted on eight semifinalists in the latest balloting procedure. Two of those eight acts, Lee Brice and Kacey Musgraves, appear in four other categories on the ACM slate, yet neither made the final new-artist list.

And there was much debate about Justin’s qualifications. The ACM’s TV committee, comprising music industry personnel, considered him a household name, according to ACM chairman Bob Romeo. But executives at CBS, which will telecast the show on April 6 from Las Vegas, had never heard of Justin Moore -- or his competitors.

It is something of a paradox. The Internet can create seemingly instant stars in the pop world -- veteran Korean rapper PSY became an international sensation through the viral blow-up of his dance track “Gangnam Style,” and Carly Rae Jepsen rose from obscurity with “Call Me Maybe” in part because of a tweet by Justin Bieber.

Yet country songs by new and developing acts tend to labor 40 weeks or more to become a hit while terrestrial radio cautiously evaluates whether the titles deserve airplay in the dayparts with the most listeners. As a result, most modern country acts have found it an exceedingly slow process to build a public identity beyond the genre’s most avid devotees.

“It does really raise a question about how the business has changed and at what point is an artist an established artist vs. a new artist,” says Romeo. “It’s even caused us to think in some terms here, ‘Do we start to get away from the word ‘new’ and maybe talk about the word ‘emerging artist?’ ”

That issue’s development is, ironically, the exact opposite of the way the Country Music Association has handled the topic. The CMA didn’t acknowledge newbies until its 15th annual awards show, in 1981, when it introduced the Horizon Award, designated with a name that allowed both brand-new acts and developing artists into the fold. The CMA trophy was retitled “new artist of the year” in 2008.

Justin’s five-year climb from debut single to new artist nominee is not entirely unprecedented. Kenny Chesney took five years from the release of his first single to win the ACM’s new male award in 1998 and six years to score a Horizon nomination from the CMA. T.G. Sheppard was named most promising new male artist in the Music City News awards in 1982, more than seven years after he debuted on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Hank Williams Jr. won that same MCN trophy in 1980, 16 years after he earned his first hit.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Recording Academy disqualified Whitney Houston from eligibility for best new artist when her debut album came out in 1985 because she’d previously sung as a duet partner on a Teddy Pendergrass single in 1984. The Grammys soon changed its criteria, and Shelby Lynne subsequently -- weirdly, even to her -- won best new artist more than a decade after her first album’s release.

Defining new artist has obviously been a difficult topic for years, and that’s perhaps one of many reasons the ACM left room in its bylaws to amend eligibility restrictions in balloting. Justin has had two albums certified gold by the RIAA -- even one is supposed to disqualify an act from consideration for new artist, according to the criteria. “The board has a right to amend the criteria as we see fit,” Romeo notes.

Oddly enough, the final threesome sort of represents the sound of current country -- it’s all guys, but each of them is a little different: Justin mixes traditional country elements with fiery Southern rock, Kip has earned frequent comparisons to classic rocker Bruce Springsteen, and Eldredge offers a blue-eyed soul element.

“We’re all polar opposites,” says Kip.

The three artists also waged their battles for recognition around the same time, even if Justin broke through ahead of the other two.

“I remember going in the exact same vocal booth singing a demo vocal after Justin was in the studio one time, and I would be in the same writers building as Kip,” Eldredge notes. “So we’ve all been going through it.”

The three artists now find themselves in an odd situation. They’re competing with each other for fans’ votes, a process that practically begs for campaigning. Drawing the line between appropriate hinting and unfettered hustling is tricky. Justin feels “a little skanky, for lack of a better word” about it, and Kip isn’t interested in shilling at all. “I don’t wanna be the guy that’s like, ‘Vote for me, vote for me,’ ” he says.

Eldredge, by contrast, considers it something of a trade-off with his fans. The most loyal ones are already invested in his success, so he thinks of it more as a team effort.

“I’m online talking with my fans on Facebook, Twitter, like all the time,” he reasons. His ascent is “something that you share together, so it doesn’t bother me that much at all. If they can help me out, hopefully I help entertain them and then we’re all just pulling together. So I’m fine with it.”

Meanwhile, those new artists, however you choose to define them, continue to create some issues between the ACM and the network. Each new act gets to perform a mere 90 seconds during the show. By trimming their songs in half, they essentially allow one more established artist a slot in the lineup. With four weeks left before airing, three performance slots were still undecided last week, and Romeo ran down a list of nine recognizable artists, all of whom were vying for the openings.

Despite the controversies about who makes the finals, the ACM continues to fight to keep the new artists in the mix on the telecast. Such artists as Luke Bryan, The Band Perry, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban are among the previous winners of ACM “new” honors that now would be no-brainers for performance slots. As slow as their development might be, the introductory acts of today are the front-runners for the genre’s future.

“The ultimate goal is to, 20 years from now, keep playing music for a living,” Justin notes. “At the end of the day, if we get to do that, then we’ll be happy.”  [ends]