When Chris Young hit the chorus on the second song during his CMA Music Festival performance at LP Field on June 13, thousands of voices enthusiastically sang along with “Voices.”
The audience connection was clearly solid, but it wasn’t built overnight. Young signed his first recording deal nine years ago, and while he has been hitting CMA Fest steadily since then, this year marked only the second time he has played the stadium during that run.
Even the smaller stages, though, were significant. It’s where many of the people singing along this year first experienced him live, and some of them continued to use their voices to tell their friends about Young in those past years even after they left the festival.
“It’s a great network,” says Young of those smaller stages. “There’s people here from Europe, there’s people here from Australia, there’s people here from all over the U.S., people from Canada, and all the fans converge on our town. It’s a big opportunity to hit as big a part of the market as you can in one weekend.”
Young and the other artists who played the LP Field stage during the festival June 11-14 got the most attention. Carrie Underwood, Alan Jackson, Brett Eldredge, Zac Brown Band and Randy Houser were among a long list of acts who presented their music to approximately 50,000 fans.
But the smaller stages are where the real work of the festival gets done. Nearly 500 acts performed during CMA Festival, and more than 80 percent of them were in front of anywhere from a few hundred at the Belk Stage in Walk of Fame Park to more than 5,000 at the Chevrolet Riverfront Stage. Many of them put the pieces in place for a possible future slot at the stadium.
“You can build a house, but if you don’t build it the right way, chances are it could crumble at some point,” says Jason Aldean.
Aldean played LP Field again this year, but his first CMA Fest appearance was in the stadium parking lot, when he was an unknown entertainer providing music for an archery tournament. It didn’t feel very impactful, but it probably made an impression on a few fans, and those consumers’ awareness grew throughout the year as Aldean received increased airplay and continued to tour. For some of those fans, it’s the personal touch at CMA Fest that cements the relationship.
“It’s these kinds of festivals that take people from buying an album and liking a couple songs and ‘Yeah, I kinda like that guy’ to going and having a two-second conversation and shaking their hand and signing their hat,” reasons Aldean. “All of a sudden, you’ve got a fan for life.”
Music discovery — that initial kernel of exposure to a fan who was previously unfamiliar with an act — is key to CMA Music Festival, and research recently released by the CMA indicates 56 percent of attendees leave the event having found at least one new artist they weren’t aware of before.
With 11 stages total, the opportunities are particularly good for such acts as Ryan Kinder, Canaan Smith or A Thousand Horses to win over potential fans from the reported 88,000 who attended daily, but the setup also allows music professionals to scour the landscape and get a sense of what’s out there. Three stages — the Bud Light Plaza Stage at Bridgestone Arena, the Belk Stage and the Chevy Roadhouse Stage — are all within a block-and-a-half, which allowed plenty of booking agents and publishing pros a chance to gauge what’s on the horizon. It’s a path that SiriusXM senior director of country programming John Marks wore out.
“For me, the highlight of this year was to go to all of the stages and see all of the new and emerging talent and kind of put into my head what some futures might be like for [the music on the] Highway [channel],” says Marks.
SiriusXM, in fact, made a point of highlighting its new-music position in the marketplace, hosting a Highway Find stage at Riverfront Park on June 10 that presented 23 acts the satellite firm has championed early.
Here’s a sampling of some of the new and developing acts that likely won over new supporters, either in the industry or in the fan base, away from the big stage:
• Lanco — Produced by Jay Joyce (Thomas Rhett, Eric Church), the band had a grinding undercurrent and a lot of showmanship. Marks says it has “strong potential” on the Highway.
• Chris Janson — One of the best-attended shows at the Bud Light Stage, Janson smartly reminded people that he wrote “Buy Me a Boat” at the start of his set, then wriggled and laughed and stomped his way forward, an evangelist for good times and country.
• Haley Georgia — Oh, my God, Becky, what was that? Georgia’s “Becky” is sort of the female equivalent of bro country, a hip-hop-laced fascination with a good ol’ boy that has a lot of personality. The Universal Music Group artist is fun and has great potential as “a brand and a celebrity,” says Marks, in part because she’s so unique.
• Chris Carmack — He’s best known as Will Lexington, the gay character he plays on ABC’s Nashville, but Carmack showed a musical command and conviction in his set that outstrips what he has been able to transmit through the TV show and its soundtracks. There’s a built-in prejudice against actors jumping into music, but he deserves to be taken seriously.
• Caitlyn Smith — The co-writer of Cassadee Pope’s “Wasting All These Tears” combined smart phrasing and scintillating tone while floating across country, blues and pop.
• Ben Rue — Performing just before the arrival of Brett Eldredge, Rue had a bigger crowd than most at the AT&T Showcase Stage, and he impressed with a clean tone and guy-next-door demeanor.
• Haley & Michaels — A married indie duo, they plugged into riff-laden ’80s power pop but also threw in an effective wedding-inspired ballad. The week’s humidity finally broke into a downpour, and the crowd dashed from the foot of the stage to tents — though nobody left. It was, said Ryan Michaels, “the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
• Muddy Magnolias — Fierce, piercing harmonies from a powerhouse female duo that reimagined the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright” as a Joplin-esque shouter. Dynamic, signed to I.R.S. Nashville.
• Brothers Osborne — One of nine acts to play a SiriusXM Superfan concert, they blended an easy-going sense of humor with deft musicianship. “Stay a Little Longer” was still echoing in the brain hours after their show was over.
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — subscribe right here.