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After 45 RPM Start, CMA Music Festival Morphs Into High-Tech Maturity

The Oak Ridge Boys' Joe Bonsall looks at the CMA Music Festival's high-tech revolution, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood

As the Country Music Association prepares for an expected 80,000 fans a day to partake in the 45th annual CMA Music Festival this week in downtown Nashville, it’s amusing to consider the event’s 45-rpm beginnings.

Satellite broadcaster SiriusXM and streaming services Pandora and Spotify will have official roles or adjunct events in conjunction with the June 9-12 gathering. And the festival’s signature concerts — four nights of Nissan Stadium shows with big video screens, elaborate lighting and such headliners as Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Jason Aldean — will be captured and condensed into an Aug. 3 ABC TV special, creating a multitiered entertainment vehicle that could never have been predicted in the event’s humble early days.

“Technologically, the production has just changed so much,” says Conway Entertainment Group president Tony Conway, who produced the festival for 11 years as a volunteer CMA board member. “When we were at Municipal Auditorium [in the 1970s], they didn’t even have video screens, you know. I don’t think they had been invented yet.”

The festival’s progression from its compact infancy in 1972 to a sprawling, multimillion-dollar operation in 2016 roughly parallels the advances in the technology that have enhanced the CMA Fest experience in modern times. The 45-rpm vinyl single was the primary medium for recorded-music sales in those early years when such artists as Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff and the duo Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton were among the attractions. Cassettes and vinyl albums, of course, increasingly became the primary medium for country and shifted again to CDs, then to downloads. Now streaming is moving toward dominance.

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Like the 45, the festival — Fan Fair, as it was originally called — had a simple start, housed almost entirely at the 9,000-seat Municipal Auditorium, with exhibits and artist signings all taking place in the basement and the hallways around the building’s perimeter. The sound for the entire production was generated through a Shure Vocal Master PA, a 4-foot-by-5-foot speaker stack that sat on the stage.

“It sounded pretty crappy in there,” says Joe Bonsall, who has been to every CMA Fest since he joined The Oak Ridge Boys in October 1973.

The official history says the first Fan Fair drew 5,000 fans, though committee chair Jerry Bradley admitted years later that the real figure was significantly less. The Municipal audience, recalls former CMA executive director Ed Benson, skewed toward seniors, who arrived in organized tour buses and were able to comfortably navigate the air-conditioned confines.

By 1982, the event had outgrown that venue. Urban Cowboy — accompanied by a brisk-selling, two-disc vinyl soundtrack — led a spike in country popularity that saw country acts like the Oaks, Willie Nelson and a solo Parton able to headline arenas on their own. Fan Fair moved to the Tennessee State Fairgounds, with a 17,000-seat outdoor venue, ample parking space and — at the top of a challenging hill — exhibit halls that lacked AC, but had enough room for autograph hunters.

“It was kind of like the shift from the 8-track to the cassette,” notes Conway. “It was better, but it really wasn’t that great.”

It was during that era that speaker technology improved and in-ear monitors were introduced. The video screen became relevant for the nightly concerts (though not particularly useful during the afternoon performances), and multiplatinum artists like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Shania Twain made their first Fan Fair appearances. They attracted noticeably younger fans, while the fairgrounds itself was more favorable for an able-bodied audience. Attendance peaked around 25,000 people, but the venue’s limitations became a sore spot within the industry.

“The artists kept saying, ‘Look, if we’re going to do a free show in our hometown, the production value should be the best that it possibly can be, security should be the best, it should be in air conditioning,’ ” recalls Conway. “And we needed to take care of the fans, too. They didn’t need to be walking up and down these hills with un-air-conditioned buildings and waiting in line for hours and hours and hours.”

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Several options emerged: moving the event to a new speedway in rural Wilson County, going downtown once a new NFL stadium provided a larger venue or scrapping the festival entirely.

The stadium option won out 15 years ago. The audience, now asked to tramp around to multiple venues during the day and to walk over a foot bridge for the stadium shows, is even younger. And the production is massive. Where the lighting once consisted of two trusses suspended over the Municipal stage, the stadium uses a 30-foot LED screen, 700 lights and gigantic speaker stacks. And those video screens allow interactivity with the audience as fans tweet messages from smartphones.

“Technically and aesthetically, the event turned into a much bigger, nicer project,” says Conway. “So that made us a CD. It’s a little crisper and cleaner. Maybe it doesn’t have the warmth of the fairgrounds, but it’s digital.”

That digital component is notable. The CMA Fest app lets fans plot their days and keep up with events occurring at multiple locations. And their smartphone cameras now allow them to blast the events of the day out to the world at large within minutes after the acts perform for more than 50,000 people. The difference between the mid-’70s Municipal shows and the instant effect in the current atmosphere was noticeable to Bonsall when the Oaks did a George Jones tribute at the stadium in 2013.

“They put big George Jones pictures up on the screens, and we sang ‘Same Ole Me’; great response,” recalls Bonsall. “Nancy Jones came out onstage, and I swear to you, when we finished with all we had to do that night, we got on the bus and headed back for Hendersonville. That was on YouTube on my iPhone before I got home.”

The continued upgrades — in both venue and technology — have made a difference in the audience.

“It absolutely amazes me to go to Music Festival and see the coliseum full, but especially to get out and walk on the field and down through the seating area and see how unbelievably young the crowd is compared to where it was many years ago,” says Benson.

A portion of that audience has probably felt the impact of that other change in CMA Music Fest. Fifty percent of the profits are now invested in music education, thus the 45-rpm edition of the event is actually streaming money — $10 million since 2006 — back to the community.

“We’re past CDs,” says Conway. “I guess we’re just digital now.”

This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.