CMA CEO Sarah Trahern on Being 'Blown Away' During Her First Year on the Job

Courtesy of CMA
Sarah Trahern

It's been nearly a year since veteran television executive Sarah Trahern took over the role of chief executive officer at the Country Music Assn., joining the trade group from Great American Country (GAC), where she had served as senior vp/GM. While she was well qualified for the job -- coming into the CMA role with 27 years of experience in the network television business, including 18 years producing or overseeing country music programming -- she admits the first year has been like "drinking from a fire hose" as far as the sheer magnitude of philanthropic and educational projects the CMA is involved in, in addition to its high profile events, which include the massive summer CMA Music Festival and the summer television special it spawns, The CMA Awards, and an annual network TV Christmas special. (All three air on ABC.)

Among the year's accomplishments, according to Trahern, were striking a deal with PBS to televise the CMA's decade-old Songwriters Series as part of the public broadcaster's Front and Center series, taking the CMA radio remotes in house after a longtime deal with Premiere Networks, expanding the CMA EDU educational program to more college campuses and continuing to fund music in public schools programs through the CMA Foundation and its Keep the Music Playing project. Trahern spoke with Billboard this week about her first year on the job.

Was your first year all you hoped it would be?

Yes, and even, frankly, better … One thing I can honestly say about this job is that there's not been a dull moment, but I love that. It's been a great year.

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What were some of the things about the job that surprised you?

Just the sheer volume of things. Having come from a television world where things change every day, … you get ratings on every 15-minute increment, … so you think nothing is as constant as that. But the CMA is that constant, but in a good way. I'm amazed by how much our small staff of roughly 45 pulls off.

I am continually blown away by how many things the CMA touches. From the outside a lot of people see Music Fest and the awards show as the two big tent-pole events that we have, but I think we have something like 25 additional events honoring songwriters with the Songwriters Series or the Triple Play Awards in January or our Keep the Music Playing concert with the Foundation, the Hall of Fame inductions, what we've done to grow our CMA EDU chapters -- there's just so many different touch points.

Explain what CMA EDU is all about.

We have a CMA program on college campuses around the country [to] provide kind of a boot camp for kids that want to be in the music business. Here in Nashville, we're at Middle Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt and Belmont, but we're also around the country. We've got chapters in Texas, North Carolina [and] Florida. So when artists go through some of those communities, some of them go do a Q&A with the students, as Phil Vassar recently did. But students can also get experience when a tour is going through an area and they need help with street team, or getting people engaged in viral. Our partners here in Nashville utilize the EDU students on a grassroots basis.

Which of your skills were immediately applicable to this job and which ones do you feel like you've been developing for the last year?

I've been in organizations that have changed a lot over time. The ability to lead change was important after there had been so much change at the CMA over the last few years. Rather than coming in with a quick agenda that I need to accomplish these things in my first 90 days or my first six months, part of it was taking a breath to realize the things I didn't know, and to really learn from the people around me, whether that was the board leadership or the staff, and [figuring out] how can I help lead the change and [bring the] stability to the organization that we need it to be long term.

With 75 people, the CMA board is huge. How does it function?

There are 100 people in the Senate, and getting three quarters of them to agree on something is quite an achievement these days, and that's what we have to do at the CMA. But it's not insurmountable because everybody comes in wanting country music to win. We may have different ways of going about it, and I would almost always rather have contention in the room and open discussion rather than a bunch of back room stuff. I feel like we have a format … where people can raise their concerns and have and open and respectful dialog for the betterment of the business. As the business changes, that's going to be more important than ever.

How did your relationship with ABC evolve this year?

We put our team and the ABC team in the same room looking at country not just for those three shows [that we produce together], but what do we do to raise the profile of country and the CMA as the country music brand on a year-round basis? We've just started to tap the surface of how deep we can go with that. We worked directly with the Robin Roberts team this year to do a different type of special, where she did the 15 songs that influenced country music. We worked directly with the Jimmy Kimmel folks on some different things like the hologram telecast they did awards show night. What I think we can expect over the next couple of years is just to grow the depth of our relationship with ABC.

What was one highlight of the year for you?

I had this thing happen that was such a defining moment. For Music Fest, I carried in my purse a series of letters from the kids from both the Keep the Music Playing program and the Disney in the Schools project we support with the Foundation, because whenever I went to talk to a group [prior to Music Fest] -- like the camera guys or the police officers -- about why we do what we do, I felt it was important for people to realize that the musicians are donating their time to Music Fest so we can turn these proceeds over for the music program. My first night at the Hilton somebody from the hotel sent me a bottle of wine and some fruit. The guy who brought it set it on the desk and asked me, "What do you know about this Disney in the Schools project?" I realized the letters with pictures of the kids were on my desk. I explained to him that I was with the CMA and we help support that program. And he said, "My son played Simba in the eighth grade and sang and it's just changed his life because it gave him more confidence. He's always been really shy and now he's coming into his own." For me, it was the perfect kickoff to Music Fest to remind me why we do what we do.

What are your goals for the next year and beyond?

I'm looking forward to being able to lay the groundwork on some of the things we started this year. We worked pretty actively with board leadership on developing a multiple year strategic plan that encompasses a lot of things focused on the CMA as a trade organization, which is first and foremost what we are. How do we expand our research efforts on behalf of the industry and new artist development overall, both domestically and internationally? How do we regain the foothold that CMA had in the past on an international basis? I'm particularly excited about how we continue to grow the foundation. And a lot of our efforts next year are going to be teeing up towards our 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards in 2016, which I see as a year-long celebration starting next November.