Heads Carolina, Tails Taste Of Country: CMA Music Festival Has Competition

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Lady Antebellum and Cam perform during the 2016 CMA Music Festival at Nissan Stadium on June 9, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

When promoters called the booking agents for Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line about headlining the last two days of the Carolina Country Music Festival in 2016, both reps gave a definitive "no" -- then decided that maybe they would check.

McGraw and FGL ended up agreeing to the dates, which represented a new form of competition for the Country Music Association. That second annual Carolina Fest -- held in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with the Atlantic Ocean serving as the stage backdrop -- joined the Taste of Country Music Festival at New York's Hunter Mountain Resort as multinight events that battle the long-established CMA Music Festival head-to-head for talent during the same four-day stretch.

It seems an unfair competition. The CMA festival, which was founded in 1972, is considered a genre-promoting event and does not compensate its artists, who sometimes lose money by paying their bands and other incidental expenses. The Carolina and Taste of Country events are paying gigs, so they would seemingly be prioritized.

In fact, the CMA is still apparently considered the most important among acts. Chris Young will play all three festivals on successive days this year: June 9, for roughly 18,000 fans at Taste of Country; June 10, for more than 50,000 at the CMA Fest; and June 11, for more than 20,000 at the Carolina Fest.

Plenty of other acts are playing the CMA Fest and one of the other two events, including Miranda Lambert, Sam Hunt, Darius Rucker, Maren Morris, Chris Lane and Brett Young.

"I think they are happy that they have a chance to get a paycheck during a week that they normally don't tour," says Full House Productions president Bob Durkin, who oversees the Carolina Fest. "It's a primetime summer weekend, and that's when country music seems to flourish."

"What I think is pretty cool is that there's actually enough fans to support three [country] festivals that weekend," says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern.

The competition did not happen by design. The local calendar drove the dates in Myrtle Beach and Hunter Mountain. In Carolina, the festival was slated two weeks after Memorial Day weekend, allowing the city time to recover from an annual biker gathering. In upstate New York, Taste of Country was slated one weekend after the tenured Mountain Jam rock festival, similar to the back-to-back Coachella and Stagecoach festivals held in Indio, Calif., in April.

Both the Carolina and Taste festivals landed on a different weekend than CMA Fest when they debuted, but they've fallen on the same weekend ever since. That creates some logistical issues. It's beneficial to announce at least one headliner for the following year at the close of an event, but even the acts that commit to the festival may not settle on a specific date until the CMA determines its rundown after the first of the year.

"Often they'll wait, or they'll say, ‘We can give you Sunday night, but we can't give you Saturday because we would rather play Saturday at CMA,' or something like that," says Townsquare executive vp live events Dhruv Prasad, whose department books Taste of Country among numerous festivals for the radio-centered company. "It's a little bit of back and forth, but there's no question it's tough."

The CMA Festival has a number of selling points, despite its free status. The most obvious is the annual ABC TV special, CMA Music Festival: Country's Night to Rock, which mostly allows performers booked at Nissan Stadium to reach millions of fans in August. That special has also gone international and is carried in an estimated 40 countries, according to Trahern, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, South Africa and Norway.

Additionally, artists have the opportunity to book related fan-focused activities, including autograph signings at the Music City Center, fan club parties or numerous intimate benefits in the city's thriving club scene. At least half of the revenue from CMA Fest is donated to music-education programs. And at the end of the day, since most country artists are based in Nashville, the majority end up sleeping in their own beds instead of a bus bunk.

"CMAs are the monster of country music festivals," says Durkin. "And Nashville's their hometown, so we'll be able to accommodate the artists, no matter what."

Location is a key factor in making Taste of Country and the Carolina Fest work. Both are in the eastern region of the United States, less than 16 hours away from Nashville by bus, and thus reachable.

"The only travel snafu I can remember happening at the [Taste] festival was one year Randy Houser's bus broke down on the way," recalls Prasad. "He ended up playing the whole show, him and a guitar player, totally acoustic. They did a 60-minute set, and it was lights-out good. It was one of my favorite moments of Taste of Country, actually."

Country festivals aren't the only competition for CMA Music Fest. The multigenre Bonnaroo Music Festival usually overlaps with CMA in Manchester, Tenn., 60 miles from Nashville. LANco, Luke Combs, Cam, Tucker Beathard and Margo Price are all on this year's Bonnaroo schedule.

"I like to see country artists peppering the lineup at Bonnaroo," says Trahern. "I think that country artists out there help promote the genre."

That said, if any other promoters should eye that second weekend in June for a country festival, they're likely to hit a wall, says Prasad. 

"If I were going to do a new festival, I think you almost have to back it up into April and take more chances on weather or back it up into September," he says.

CMA Music Fest has its own potential scheduling issue on tap this year. The NHL's Predators are in the Western Conference finals and have a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup. CMT has already moved its June 7 awards show to the Music City Center, freeing up Bridgestone Arena for the Preds.

Says Trahern, "It'll be wild in downtown Nashville if it takes."

And for the artists that might miss the game while they're in Myrtle Beach or upstate New York? That's one scheduling conflict no one was predicting.