CMA Head Sarah Trahern on Her First Six Months, Music Fest's Resounding Success (Q&A)

Blake Shelton performs onstage during the 47th annual CMA Awards

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As country music fans from all over the globe prepare to make their annual pilgrimage to Nashville for CMA Music Fest, taking place June 5-8, Music City is bracing for the onslaught of fan club parties, charity benefits, autograph sessions and concerts that make it Country Music’s biggest party. Launched in 1972 as Fan Fair, the first gathering drew 5,000 people to Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium and expanded to the Nashville Fairgrounds a decade later. Since relocating to downtown Nashville in 2001, where it was rebranded CMA Music Fest, the event has grown exponentially. In 2013, the festival’s daily attendance was a record-setting 80,000. This year’s Music Fest sold out 15 weeks in advance. Attendees are traveling from all 50 states as well as 24 foreign countries.

CMA Music Fest 2014 will feature 450 artists on 11 different stages, totaling 130 hours of concerts. The nightly stadium shows at LP Field will once again be filmed for an ABC TV special, “CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock,” hosted by Little Big Town and airing Aug. 5.

CMA Chief Executive Officer Sarah Trahern took a moment out of her crazy busy schedule to talk to Billboard about CMA Music Fest and her first six months on the job.
 
Billboard: No other genre of music has anything quite like CMA Music Fest. How do you describe it to the uninitiated?
Trahern: I would call it the ultimate country music experience. It’s a derivative of the original Fan Fair that we created back in 1972. We’ve taken the heart and the best part of what happened at Fan Fair and then we’ve super-sized it. We’ve taken that footprint that used to be just the fairgrounds and now it runs from Broadway all the way across the river [to LP Field]. Our staff is making sure we provide a great experience for the fans first and foremost, and then as we tape the TV show we take that into our next mode: “How do we take what we capture this week and broadcast the best of Nashville to that national and international TV audience in August?”
 
Obviously it’s a fan experience, but do you feel like there’s a lot of business that gets done behind the scenes?
For the industry people it gives them a chance to see some of the artists that they haven’t had a chance to see. I certainly hope our Board members get out to a good number of stages just to take in the experiences. One of the things I love, even before I came to the CMA, I loved to go out and watch the fans and just listen to the fans. You learn a lot by listening to the fans, what they like and what they don’t like, so certainly this week I’m going to be spending some time in the TV truck and some time back stage with the artists but what I’m what I’m really going to make a point to do every day is walk the footprint, listen to what the fans are saying, how they are reacting to talent at the River Front stage or the Bridgestone Plaza stage and really take into count what’s working and how do we make the fan experience better.
 
This year’s festival sold out 15 weeks in advance. How are sales going for 2015?
We’re over halfway sold-out for next year already. It’s great! I’m really eager to see what the final count is after we get through with the whole week and what that says is people are coming for the Music Fest experience. It’s not that, “I just want to see one artist that I’m a fan of. I’m coming because I love country music and because I love Nashville.” When you put something that’s as hot as the city is right now, and you take one of the most formidable festivals of its type in the world and you put the two together, it’s a great fan offering.
 
It sold out even before talent was announced. So fans bought tickets not even knowing who they were coming to see?
People now are planning ahead and planning their vacations around Music Fest as a travel destination and they know over the years we’ve delivered great quality of talent. They know that Nashville is a wonderful place to visit.There was a study done last year by the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, which shows that Music Fest has a $31.5 million impact on the city of Nashville. Fans coming here are spending money in hotels and restaurants, which is great for our city, and one of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that we turn around and take at least half of our net proceeds each year from the festival and turn it over to our foundation. Our foundation is then giving that money to musical instruments in the schools programs, not just here, but in other places around the country. We’ve given over nine million dollars to date for music education programs across the U.S.

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You assumed the CEO post at CMA in January after serving as senior VP/GM of Scripps Networks Interactive’s Great American Country (GAC). What appealed to you about the CMA gig?
A couple of years ago I was talking to a friend of mine about the next chapter for me, whether I was a TV person or a music person because I’ve been really fortunate in my career to get to do both simultaneously for a long time, and I said, ‘I’d love to head the CMA,’ so when the job came open, this person called me up and said, ‘What are you going to do?’ and I was thinking it’s just such a great fit for me. I spent 10 years at Scripps. It was a wonderful company to work for, but this is a great way to marry my love, passion and experience in country music for the 18 years that I’ve lived in Nashville with my expertise in TV, since we have three very large TV properties [the CMA Awards, CMA’s “Country Christmas” and “CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock.”]
 
When CMA was searching for a new leader, Warner Music Nashville president/CEO and CMA Board Secretary/Treasurer John Esposito told Billboard one of the key traits they were looking for was a consensus builder. How do you feel about that role?
Some people had joked to me about this position, ‘Gosh you’ve got 79 Board members... that’s just got to be like herding cats.’ Some of that is making sure that a lot of different voices get heard and pushed forward. Consensus building happens between the Board members. Certainly the Executive Committee really helps set that direction. Then my job is to work between the Executive Committee and staff to make sure we’re aligned in executing that vision. That’s one of the things in my experience at Scripps I did really well and one of the things that I’m most excited about jumping into is the people piece. I think I have good skills on the music side, but the place I hope I can shine the most is in that consensus building role.
 
What have been some of the highlights of your first six months on the job?
Oh my gosh! It’s so hard because there have been so many.The Keep The Music Playing recital we did in January with the young students is one of my favorite things, seeing the faces of those young kids who have instruments and music education in their schools because of the CMA Foundation. And I love that we actually got to honor songwriters at the Triple Play. One of my favorite things was getting to call Mac Wiseman and Ronnie Milsap and the family of Hank Cochran telling they are being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. That was pretty cool!

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