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ACM Eyes New Nashville Hub — And an End to Its COVID-19 Initiative

Little Big Town
Brent Harrington/CBS via Getty Images

Little Big Town performs at the 56th Academy of Country Music Awards on April 18, 2021 in Nashville.

As signs increasingly point to the abatement of the pandemic, the West Coast-based Academy of Country Music spent portions of May solidifying its connection to its future in Nashville.

The ACM announced the addition of three new Music City-based staff members — vp digital strategy and engagement Rory Levine, manager of awards and membership Haley Montgomery and executive assistant to the CEO David Sassano — on May 13, strengthening its workforce in Nashville as CEO Damon Whiteside prepares to open a Tennessee office on a to-be-determined date. And the Academy's charitable foundation, ACM Lifting Lives, spent the week of May 17 parceling out $311,000 from its COVID-19 Response Fund to unemployed professionals in the country music business. The majority of those recipients are waiting for the touring sector to fully get back into gear so they can once again collect paychecks, many of which are funneled through corporate hubs in Music City.

"Some of these tours don't start until August or September, so I think they're probably starting to notify people that they're going to bring them back," says Lifting Lives executive director Lyndsay Cruz. "But I doubt anyone's going on any sort of payroll yet."

The COVID-19 benefits are an extension of an initiative that started last April. The relief fund has thus far paid out nearly $4 million to about 2,200 individuals who needed assistance due to coronavirus-induced economic hardship. Through the end of 2020, nearly two-thirds of the recipients (see pie chart, page 2) were crew members, musicians and concert executives who make their living directly from live shows, most of which were scuttled to avoid spreading a contagious disease that has thus far killed over 585,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The ACM handed out $3.5 million in two waves during 2020, depleting the fund at that time. Through corporate assistance and a first-ever fundraising effort during the CBS telecast of the ACM Awards on April 18, which raised $40,000, the Academy accumulated $311,000 for its recent redistribution.

Cruz and Nashville-based Lifting Lives manager Taylor Wolf could have felt like Santa Claus over the last year, delivering checks ranging from $1,000-$2,000. Instead, regularly examining the industry's collective need devastated them, particularly in those instances when people who have given 40-50 years of their life to the profession suddenly found themselves unable to pay basic bills.

"It was those applications that were making me cry at my desk," recalls Cruz. "We were reviewing applications on Dec. 12, Dec. 13. I mean, we had an online Christmas party, and I was like, ‘I can't even get in the spirit.' "

Cruz hopes to raise additional capital (donations can be made here) to yield payouts for more people who are still on a waiting list and to help with post-pandemic trauma. For many touring professionals, the road crew is essentially their family. And Cruz noted that some bus drivers hop from tour to tour so frequently that they don't even keep an official residence, sleeping instead at the homes of friends and relatives. For them, the shutdown was even more difficult.

The top three issues unemployed tour workers faced were the lack of income, reduced access to healthcare and profound isolation. Even after they get back to work, COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain on the fragility of their lives, and Cruz expects that many will need mental health assistance to overcome some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I think this is going to be an ongoing effort for a while," she says. "Hopefully, our fund will become obsolete, but I still think there is going to be need from the whole year of not working or very little employment. We're still going to be willing to help people."

The ACM was established in the 1960s to support West Coast artists who felt underserved by the Nashville-based Country Music Association. The ACM Awards became the Academy's primary purpose, though it has increased its charitable efforts and its outreach to Nashville over the last two decades. That outreach has played out primarily through the annual ACM Honors at the Ryman Auditorium and through the ACM's partnership with Nashville-based Vanderbilt University Medical Center to further the study of Williams Syndrome. The ACM heightened the connection with Music City by presenting two awards shows from multiple Nashville venues during the pandemic and in conjunction with the COVID-19 fund.

Whiteside expects that as the Nashville staff grows, the ACM will have more Tennessee employees than California-based personnel, officially shifting its base to Middle Tennessee. The ACM will still act as a bridge between the entertainment sectors in Music City and Los Angeles, but will also face a greater challenge in providing separation from the CMA, where Whiteside previously served as chief marketing officer.

"I never want to give the perception that we're encroaching in any way," he says. "Obviously, we did two years of our show in Nashville and we had never been in Nashville before, and I can see how, on the surface, it can look like we're trying to make a play for Nashville, but that's really not the case. It's really a strategic decision."

An announcement could come as early as this summer. Perhaps the ACM will learn around the same time just how long the COVID-19 fund will be needed.

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

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