If you see something, say something.
A mere eight months after the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, the Country Music Association sent an obvious message to the tens of thousands who attended the CMA Music Festival June 7-10 that it was serious about security. Clear plastic bags were required throughout the downtown campus, not just at Nissan Stadium, where Jason Aldean, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Luke Bryan reigned on successive nights. The malleable borders at Chevy Breakout Stage at the Walk of Fame Park were closed, forcing access through baggage checks. New breakaway emergency exits were plentiful — and more accessible — at the largest daytime stage at Riverfront Park. And most bars along lower Broadway diligently checked customers’ baggage along with their IDs.
Plus, there were plenty of those now familiar signs: If you see something, say something.
Outside of a pop-up lightning storm on June 10, the four-day event breezed along without a major incident, leaving fans to their historic approach to CMA Fest: They hoped to see something in the way of music that caught their ears and/or eyes; artists and the industry at large hoped fans would say something about what they had witnessed when they returned to their homes in all 50 states and 36 foreign countries.
The CMA gave them plenty to talk about. The high-profile shows at Nissan included surprises, such as Backstreet Boys‘ unannounced appearance with Florida Georgia Line on “God, Your Mama, and Me” and Bryan bringing out Cole Swindell to close the festival with “Roller Coaster.” And sprinkled in among such current hitmakers as Luke Combs, Brett Young and Brothers Osborne were a mix of newcomers and established legends. In a remarkable juxtaposition on June 8, the lineup segued from 11-year-old Mason Ramsey‘s national anthem into 80-year-old Charley Pride‘s performances of “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” and “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.”
“One of our goals is to expose artists at all stages in their career,” says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. “I felt we checked the box on that well this year.”
Indeed, the Fan Fair X exhibit hall alone presented 365 acts in numerous settings — performances, meet-and-greets and public interviews. Billboard and/or the CMA livestreamed four of those Q&As — with Kelsea Ballerini, Dierks Bentley, Dustin Lynch and Garth Brooks — reaching 58,000-72,000 remote viewers and expanding the reach of the festival.
Many of the on-property metrics expanded, too. Fan Fair X attendance climbed 10 percent to 71,000 attendees, social media reach ballooned by 23 percent to 225 million conversations about the festival, and CMA merchandise booths enjoyed a 9 percent uptick as well. Attendance slid just a hair at the stadium: The venue failed to sell out for the first time in years, though Trahern believes that drop is a direct result of the CMA eliminating a photo line that allowed fans to wind through a photo pit for close-up pics.
Weather was brutal for much of the festival, with high temperatures in the 90s, though some alterations made it easier to experience music in a cooler climate. Fan Fair X gave Radio Disney Country a larger stage, which led to higher-profile acts in the air-conditioned indoors, including hitmakers Jordan Davis, Cam and Russell Dickerson. Food vendors that were previously stationed at the back of the Riverfront grounds were moved to improve foot traffic (and, in turn, safety), and those vendors were stationed under previously untapped shady trees. Additionally, the emergence of a number of artist-affiliated bars — including Blake Shelton‘s Ole Red and John Rich‘s Redneck Riviera — led to more name acts playing music in those air-conditioned venues. That only enhances the CMA’s goals.
“We want the maximum number of fans to be able to experience the artists in our footprint because they’re all giving of their time,” says Trahern. “But whether those interactions are at a CMA stage or at another stage doesn’t really matter to us. We’re just glad to expose country music to fans from around the world.”
Those alternate venues are key to the festival’s appeal. Acts like Lauren Alaina and American Idol finalists Maddie Poppe and Caleb Lee Hutchinson took the field at the City of Hope Celebrity Softball Game. Craig Campbell rounded up LOCASH, Jerrod Niemann and Lindsay Ell for his charity cornhole challenge. And Joe Nichols played such covers as “Good Ole Boys Like Me” and “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me” during a fan club brunch at the Listening Room. Those are the kinds of intimate, personal experiences that the event — originally known as Fan Fair — were designed to offer at its inception in 1972.
“Go watch your artist in a different facet other than the stadium,” suggests Thomas Rhett. “If they’re doing a fan club party or doing a writers round, that’s always interesting to go watch an artist play stripped down.”
The experience continues to open eyes among artists from other genres. “Meant to Be” singer Bebe Rexha and Backstreet Boys were impressed by the interaction among the fans and artists, as well as the camaraderie among the acts themselves.
“Other genres of music and other formats should do this,” says Backstreet’s Brian Littrell. “I don’t know if it’s maybe attitudes and just [thinking], ‘Oh, I’m bigger and better than you, and I sold more’ [is why] they don’t do that. I’m not quite sure. Maybe we should head up some event and try to get other [pop] acts.”
Not that the CMA Festival went without a hitch. On day one, fans were forced to wait perhaps 30-45 minutes to get inside the Music City Center for Fan Fair X. It had all the earmarks of a security issue (it was, it turned out, a staffing glitch that was fixed the next day), but it emphasized the impression that CMA was taking extra precautions. In fact, the organization did increase its budget to more than $1 million for security personnel, says Trahern, and industry insiders suggested that law-enforcement sharp shooters were stationed on rooftops at the downtown bars. Trahern declined to comment on personnel usage for safety reasons.
After the Vegas shooting and the May 2017 bombing at an Ariana Grande pop concert in Manchester, England, fans expect extra precautions. Making those adjustments without impinging on the experience is difficult, as Bryan discovered when he arrived for the red carpet at the CMT Music Awards on June 6. In the past, the singer would have run across the street to slap hands before he ducked into the building. This time, at the urging of his security team, he waved and went inside. His wife, Caroline Bryan, felt his fans deserved better.
“She goes, ‘I don’t like you doin’ that. You should’ve went over there and high-fived those fans,’ ” he says. “I’m going to sit down, and we’ll refigure out the security thing. It sucks, you know. You just can’t go love and hug on fans like you used to. This time last year, we didn’t have a global security word that meant ‘Clear the damn stage.’ We [now] have a word.”
The fans seem to understand. And the new reality hasn’t stopped their passion for CMA Fest, which continues to morph. Fortunately, the “If you see something, say something” cliche still applied during the 2018 event to the music itself. There was plenty to see and plenty to talk about when they get back home.