With CMA Fest Quieted By COVID-19, Music Row Looks to Virtual Events — and to 2021

CMA Fest
Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Atmosphere during the 2018 CMA Music festival at the on June 8, 2018 in Nashville, Tenn. 

Had things gone as planned, 80,000 country fans would converge on downtown Nashville June 4-7 for 300 or more performances and the opportunity for autographs and selfies with country's stars during CMA Fest.

Thanks to COVID-19, Nissan Stadium will sit quiet, the streets are likely to have minimal foot traffic, and the Country Music Association will mark the occasion with a June 4 online panel for organization members, CMA Fest Through the Years, about the festival's history.

"I'm going to moderate it," says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. "I have a feeling that going into that, it's going to be quite sad."

Sad is a good word for it. So is depressing, confusing or just plain weird.

"It's weird for the world," says The Artist Management Group (AMG) CEO Rob Beckham (Brad Paisley, Chris Young). "It's not just the world of entertainment. It's not just music and country music. I think that as a whole, the world just stopped for a minute."

The festival, a Nashville tradition since 1972, is a landmark on the country calendar, an early stop on the intense summer touring schedule that represents a major chunk of annual revenue for much of the music industry, particularly artists, touring musicians, road crews and booking agencies. But with over 100,000 Americans dead in about three months (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) from a coronavirus that is not yet completely understood, holding a shoulder-to-shoulder event in the sweat of a Midsouth June would have been a logistical impossibility under social-distancing guidelines — not to mention an utter disaster if it led to infections that visitors brought back to other states and numerous foreign territories.

"I hate it that one of the asterisks on my career achievements when I leave this job will be, you know, 'She's the one who had to make the decision to postpone the Fest for the first time in 48 years,'" says Trahern. "But going into this week, it's so clear that we couldn't do it. It's just such a big event."

Replacing it isn't really possible. Even if a fan can share a Zoom screen with an artist, it's not quite the same as an in-person selfie hug. Even though a Devin Dawson or Keith Urban performance can be viewed on an iPad, it's not the same as sharing the experience with thousands of strangers.

"The world has tried to replicate everything in the entertainment space, but the only thing you can't replicate is a concert," notes Beckham. "Even though you can have a live [show], like what we did with Brad on that Bud Light event we had a couple of weeks ago, there's still not an audience there. There's just no way to replicate that."

It is possible, however, to mark CMA Fest's absence. In addition to the CMA member panel, the organization is expected to announce a two-part event in the next two weeks that will take place this summer — most likely in July — while several artists are planning virtual fan club parties as a best-option alternative to events they had to cancel that would have taken place during the festival's run. Among those acts are Carrie Underwood, Phil Vassar and Brothers Osborne.

\That kind of solution is a good way to serve the existing audience, but the development of new fans is a major loss from CMA Fest's cancellation, particularly for new and developing acts who might have caught the ear of a passing attendee in previous years. Such artists as Travis Denning, LANCO and Ryan Kinder have watched crowds grow during their sets by attracting people who simply liked a few notes or a chorus and stopped to watch the end of a performance.

"It's unfortunate for the artists, especially newer artists that really use this as kind of a launching pad to be able to have so many fans from literally around the world," says F2 Entertainment president Fletcher Foster (Runaway June, Jessie James Decker). "Those fans can take it back to their community."

The AMG had seen Payton Smith and Kameron Marlowe gain that kind of initial traction last year and was expecting to earn CMA Fest exposure for Essex County and Alexis Wilkins.

"We were really counting on those side stages — or the B stages, if you want to call it that — to be able to get fans to know who they are," says Beckham. The loss of those platforms "is hard. It's very hard."

At the other end of the spectrum, some new members of the Country Music Hall of Fame had expected to deliver celebratory sets. In a typical year, the new class is announced sometime between February and April, then inducted during an October medallion ceremony. Thanks to the coronavirus, CMA has not yet announced the 2020 inductees. The reveal likely will happen in a month or so, notes Trahern. New Hall members will keep their status private until the announcement date, though holding the secret apparently has not been a problem for at least one new inductee.

"Maybe they don't all know," says Trahern.

Ultimately, it's doubtful too many observers disagree with the decision to shut down the festival. Pandemic-related job losses prevented a large amount of fans from making the pilgrimage to Nashville, and playing to half-empty venues would have been detrimental to the event. Only one-quarter of consumers have asked for a refund, says Trahern, while the other 75% are in line to attend next year's festival, to be held June 10-13, 2021.

In the meantime, CMA has used the unexpected down time to update some policies and procedures, finalize marketing materials and strategies that will carry over to the 2021 event and even start work on the 50th CMA Fest, which will take place in 2022.

For now, Nissan Stadium stays quiet, lower Broadway alcohol sales will remain low, and Music Row staff who usually end the week with sore feet and sleep deprivation may rediscover that absence makes the heart grow fonder as they miss a CMA Fest that never happened.

"Next Sunday night, I think I'll be really emotional, just thinking, 'OK, now I can put this year behind us, and we can just have a killer 2021 show,'" says Trahern. "Let the planning begin."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.

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