Inside the CMA Music Festival's Head-First Dive Into Digital: 'We Want to Be Relevant'

Hunter Hayes performs at the 2014 CMA Music Festival
Donn Jones/CMA

Hunter Hayes performs at LP Field on Sunday, June 8 during the 2014 CMA Music Festival in downtown Nashville.

The CMA Music Festival typically stuffs 80,000 extra bodies into a physical campus in downtown Nashville for four days of concerts and artist/fan interaction.

But when the 2015 edition takes place June 11-14, the Country Music Association will be taking numerous steps to make it a digital event that lives beyond its real-world confines.

Such companies as Vevo, Spotify, Pandora, Fandango, Tidal and AT&T are adding dimensions to the festival that underscore how much the audience lives in the cyber world. Though country listeners were once considered slow to embrace newer technologies, the participation of those partners shows the genre's fans are completely engaged in the virtual world.

"In country, they really held on to physical [product] so long that they're almost skipping over the digital-download sales phase, which the other genres went through a little bit earlier," says CMA senior vp marketing and strategic partnerships Damon Whiteside. "We're seeing our fans transition right into streaming, so it's almost like country has kind of leap-frogged a little bit."

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The CMA festival practically does a high jump with this year's advances on the digital front:

•  AT&T becomes the first company to live-stream performances from the
festival, transmitting an estimated 36 artists -- including Dustin Lynch, Lauren Alaina and newcomer Ryan Kinder -- as they play the company's stage at the Fan Fair X exhibition hall in the Music City Center.

• Pandora is participating on several fronts, hinting at its artist-discovery strengths by using the video screens at the LP Field concerts to recommend similar acts on other stages. Additionally, Pandora is creating a CMA station that will live on consumer phones even after the festival ends. 

• The app itself is being enhanced with better scheduling functions and the capability to share schedules with friends (making it easier to connect or compare notes), and will present users with information specific to their immediate location. It will also include a trivia game with an autographed guitar offered as a grand prize.

• Spotify will present the house music inside LP Field, encouraging interaction from fans, who will have some voice in the song selection.

• Vevo will present videos between acts at the stadium.

• YouTube will conduct a series of artist interviews and post them online, offering a connection to fans who were unable to attend the event.

• Tidal, the new artist-driven streaming service, will present a Jason Aldean live stream from Acme Feed & Seed at 4 p.m. CT on June 11.

The digital advances -- most of which the CMA coordinated or sanctioned -- are ambitious, and they're likely to become even more so in 2016. The CMA expects live streaming to become an even bigger part of the mix a year from now.

"Digital is where the consumers are -- they are either there or they are moving there," says Whiteside. "We want to be relevant. We want to be reaching the audience and the places that they're engaging with music."

Reaching the audience is a key piece of the puzzle for the digital partners. 

"Pandora's audience kind of looks like America, so its bias is really toward what's popular and what people want to hear," notes Lars Murray, senior vp of Pandora's Music Makers Group. "Country spins about 80 million times a day on Pandora, so it's a big, big piece of what we're doing."

The recommendation function the company is using on the LP Field video screens has an obvious connection to Pandora's basic mission -- "The discovery element is such a big part of what we're doing," says Murray -- but the festival helps in other ways, too. Pandora will have a booth at Fan Fair X that gives visitors a chance to experience the service a little more. 

Additionally, it will also take the opportunity to enhance its relationships inside the industry. Pandora will have a hospitality area at the stadium, and it intends to gather content, particularly interviews and other audio, from artists, who can then have that material installed on their own Pandora channels. It's an effort to raise the company's perception inside the industry and to better communicate the advantages it says it offers artists. Pandora has digital research available to acts through the Artists Marketing Platform (AMP), introduced in October 2014, which could aid marketing and business decisions. 

Leading into the festival, Pandora presented a June 5 concert in Nashville that featured Lynch, Thompson Square and Kelsea Ballerini. Pandora did the bulk of the legwork to generate attendance, identifying users who would be most interested in the lineup.

"One of the big missions here is using the scale we've got to connect artists to their fans," says Murray. "Country artists and fans tend to have tighter links, from my observations, so [CMA Fest is] an opportunity for us to demonstrate how Pandora can facilitate those interactions. That's why it's such a great genre to be experimenting in."

Fandango's public presence at the festival is comparatively light -- it'll introduce two videos, featuring Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker, from its new I Love Movies YouTube series -- but it will gather more content for future editions from the likes of Rascal Flatts, Hunter Hayes and Jason Aldean. The McEntire and Rucker pieces mark the first music entries in the series, and Fandango never doubted that the country audience would respond to its online product.

"Country is as broad now as NASCAR, basketball, baseball, and you have a whole group of artists -- Taylor Swift, Luke Bryan or Brad Paisley -- these guys are all as mainstream as they come," says Fandango vp marketing Adam Rockmore, who previously experienced CMA Music Fest while marketing ABC's daytime soaps. "I wouldn't really say that [country fans are] any more behind or any more ahead [in their digital use]. They represent probably every type of consumer out there."

If anything, as the country consumer leapfrogs to digital acceptance, fans have surprised marketers with the breadth of their interest. Though younger demos were quickest to adapt, AT&T's U-verse product -- which includes an interactive Country Deep program with music, videos, performances and interviews -- has had a more even response across age groups than the company expected.

"That's what kind of jumped out at us," says AT&T vp U-verse and video products GW Shaw. "It's not just a small sub-segment. The whole base is growing and becoming more technically advanced and having high expectations of being able to interact with the experience as we go."

Marketers have their own expectations about the audience's appetite for digital experiences and enhancements. It's why the CMA got aggressive this year with virtual partnerships.

"There's tremendous opportunity out there," says Whiteside, "and because digital is moving so quickly, I feel like you have to be really nimble and jump on these opportunities, or else you quickly get left behind."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update newsletter -- sign up here.