Dan + Shay, Maren Morris Among Acts Vying For Early-June Attention at CMA Fest

Robby Klein
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Roughly 80,000 people a day will participate when the Country Music Association’s annual mass event, the CMA Music Festival, takes place in downtown Nashville June 9-12. After bringing together so many bodies with one shared passion — country music — it might seem appropriate that the record labels who count them as customers feed them new product.

That’s taking place in a big way in 2016, with at least 12 new albums and EPs set to be released either June 3, the Friday prior to the festival, or June 10, its second day. The roster includes new projects from Little Big Town, Dan + Shay, Drew Baldridge, Craig Morgan, Cassadee Pope and Maren Morris. The festival isn’t the sole reason most of those releases have been slated for the first half of June, but it definitely wasn’t a deterrent, either.

“The chart path of the lead single, ‘My Church,’ the start of the Keith Urban tour [Morris is the opener] and key media appearance opportunities were drivers in our decision,” says Sony Music Nashville senior vp marketing Paul Barnabee of the June 3 release for Morris’ Hero. “But, being able to introduce Maren to thousands of country fans in Nashville June 9-12 was an additional opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”

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To that end, every act with new music on the way plans to make some sort of festival splash. Some of those — including Frankie Ballard’s instrumental rendition of the national anthem on June 10 and Little Big Town’s half-hour set on June 12 — will take place at the high-profile Nissan Stadium concerts in front of approximately 50,000 fans. Pope and Morgan have Q&A sessions at the Fan Fair X exhibit hall on their agendas. And most acts will participate in autograph-signings, making a one-on-one connection with consumers and perhaps selling some merch — a ball cap, a T-shirt or that new album — in the process. That’s even true for Big Machine Label Group acts Pope and Tara Thompson, who have new EPs coming during that window that are otherwise digital-only releases.

“For CMA Fest, we will have physical product available during their signings at the Big Machine booth at Fan Fair X,” says BMLG senior vp sales, marketing and interactive Kelly Rich. “We look at the week of CMA Fest as an opportunity for thousands of fans to hear their new music and meet the artists.”

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Historically, labels have played a big role in the festival. For about the first 25 years, when the festival was housed primarily at Municipal Auditorium or at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, the marquee concerts were label-specific showcases that highlighted artists all signed with the same company. The artists generally viewed the week as a method of thanking their fan base and growing their audience by making an impression on new followers.

Selling perhaps hundreds or thousands of physical albums — on cassette, vinyl or CD — was a nice byproduct for the labels. The official CMA concerts no longer group artists by the logo on their product, and the digital age has brought about a decline in album sales, but the festival is still advantageous to record companies. To that end, BMLG and Warner Music Nashville will have artists available in their own downtown venues with merch for sale. And now that the majority of artist contracts are so-called 360 deals, in which the label benefits from such revenue streams as concert ticket sales and merch, the impressions made during the festival have a long-term impact. That’s a factor in WMN releasing three albums June 3 and June 10: Dan + Shay’s Obsessed, Ballard’s El Rio and Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Town.

“It’s about all the other social activities that can take place around new music being in the market, driving other revenue streams, merchandise, fan clubs, fan parties,” says WMN senior vp/GM Peter Strickland. “All those things now are affected by having new music in the marketplace around CMA Music Fest.”

With several hundred artists performing during the four-day festival, WMN has made it a priority to create events within the event in recent years. Hunter Hayes got huge attention for a pop-up concert in 2014, and Blake Shelton — whose schedule prevented him from attending in 2015 — still created goodwill in absentia by buying beers for patrons at 10 different bars during a one-hour period. Both of those mini-events, announced with little lead time, use the same sort of surprise tactic that Garth Brooks employed 20 years ago when he signed autographs at the fairgrounds for 23 hours straight, creating a buzz by simply making himself available.

Similarly, it won’t be a huge surprise if Dan + Shay should use the festival for their own mini-event.

“The lead-off track on our record is a song called ‘All Nighter,’ ” says Dan Smyers. “You want to maximize that first week of release as much as you can, and we’re like, ‘We should do an all-night signing.’ We’re going to try to pull an all-nighter.”

Tying a new release to an event provides multiple hooks for attention, which is part of the scheme for Ballard. In addition to playing the anthem at Nashville’s NFL stadium and releasing El Rio, he also plans a late-night concert on June 9 at aVenue.

“There’s a lot of people who are wiped out,” acknowledges Ballard, “but there’s a lot of people that are still wanting to go out and have some action, you know. So this place we’re playing is not very big, and as you come right back across the river over that bridge, you’re basically walking right past this place, so it’s going to be a great afterparty.”

Even those who walk past the bar will have an impression of Ballard and his energy that they take with them when they return to their home states. That’s a basic tenet in the marketing strategies around new product at CMA Fest.

“You can’t re-create the excitement that is Music Fest,” says Black River senior marketing director Tanya Welch, whose label represents Morgan. “Fans carry that home with them, so having new music readily available when consumption is at such a heightened state is nice.”

In fact, Strickland argues that in the streaming era, a new album at CMA Fest is ideal, in great part because the genre is no longer limited to the United States and North America. The foreign contingent at the festival is sizeable, and when fans return to their homeland, they’re able to stream or download music without waiting for physical product to wind its way through international distribution channels. New music thus takes advantage of an era when country is most able to reach beyond North American borders.

“When they go back to their territories, they spread the news of what’s going on here in Nashville,” says Strickland. “That means so much to us on a global level.”