Inside the ACM Awards' Decision to Abandon Fan Voting: Bickering Artists, Crafty Fans & 6-Figure Label Campaigns
As the final round of balloting opened Feb. 29 for the 51st annual Academy of Country Music Awards, voting members of the ACM carried an extra bit of power in the process.
After an eight-year experiment intended to improve consumer engagement -- and Nielsen ratings -- the ACM has abandoned fan-voting for entertainer of the year and its three new-artist categories, thanks to the cost of participation and several rifts that had developed among artists.
The program was controversial from the start. Kenny Chesney, after winning the first fan vote for entertainer in 2008, criticized the process backstage, complaining that instead of acknowledging artists' hard work, the vote had devolved into a marketing contest that rewarded people for "seeing how hard you can push people's buttons on the Internet."
But in 2015, the controversy seeped into the ACM board room, leading ACM CEO Bob Romeo to reluctantly cancel plans for fan voting beginning with the 2016 ceremony, scheduled for April 3 in Las Vegas.
"Fundamentally, I still believe the fans should have input," he says. "I don't believe there's anything wrong with them having input in the final five, but we found out our best intentions were starting to, if you want to use the word, bite us in the behind."
As a result, entertainer finalists Jason Aldean, Garth Brooks, Luke Bryan, Eric Church and Miranda Lambert -- and the 14 total candidates for new male vocalist, new female and new vocal duo or group -- have to put their focus on industry voters instead of their fan base if they intend to campaign.
At least some of those artists are comfortable with that. A year ago, three different acts got into heated disagreements, accusing their competition of breaking the accepted rules. Romeo declined to name the acts or the perceived infractions, though he does say he did not believe any artists were intentionally cheating.
The biggest of the rules in fan voting was that an artist was not to give anything away in exchange for a vote -- no free downloads or concert tickets, for example. A board member, speaking on background, said some artists were engaging in negative promotion, putting down their opponents to build up their own case.
"At the end of the day, that's just something the Academy can't be behind," says Romeo. "It's a no-win for the Academy to be put in a position that would [set up] acts to bicker to each other."
However, that was not the lone problem. The growth of digital media created policing issues. Initially, the ACM attempted to avoid cheating by allowing only one vote to be cast from a specific IP address, a number that tracks a computer or digital device when it connects to the Internet. But as smartphones, iPads and other devices have given individuals an increasing number of connections, it's conceivable that a single user could still have five or more ways to vote, notes Romeo.
Complicating that situation, the ACM typically allowed voters to cast one vote per day for a specific period. If the voting period was two weeks, that could create as many as 70 legal votes from one fan who was hyper-motivated to see their favorite performer win.
Artists found clever, if obvious, ways to encourage voting. In perhaps the most famous example, Taylor Swift shot a video with her cat, Meredith, to mobilize her followers, tagging the clip with a message to "vote now and every day through April 1st at VoteACM.com."
In a 2013 campaign, which TopSpin details here, Bryan's website was temporarily fitted with a splash screen that encouraged visitors to vote for him, even allowing them to click through to the voting page on the ACM's site. Fans who went the extra mile and posted a message on Facebook or Twitter telling their friends how to vote also received a free video download.
The potential payoff for a successful campaign is obvious. But not every artist feels comfortable asking for votes. It's akin to being a salesperson -- a Donald Trump, if you will -- and many acts likely fear that going on the digital stump waters down the emotional messages that are ideally at the heart of their work. Artists with that viewpoint are at a disadvantage in fan voting.
"I had a few artists tell me last year that they just didn't feel like campaigning," allows Romeo. "Some people have an issue with that, so that starts a split in the nominees -- three of 'em like fan voting; two of 'em don't care for it. That was an issue for some of those people."
The antagonism wasn't entirely relegated to the artists. Labels have routinely waged campaigns on behalf of their acts, though the cost of wooing the industry -- or, at least, reminding them an act is on the ballot -- is typically smaller. Romeo indicated campaigns for entertainer of the year were regularly running $100,000-$150,000. "That was never our intent," he says.
Adding to the issue, according to the board member, other awards shows have enacted fan voting and social media components. The volume of calls to action for self-serving goals is beginning to create fatigue among many artists' fan bases.
In the end, removing fan voting eliminates a discrepancy. The winner, for example, of entertainer will now be voted on by the same people who select the male or female vocalist winner.
But it's a change that may not be forever.
"It'll come back," predicts Romeo. "We're just ahead of our time. It'll come back."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.