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Innovation In Music Awards Honor John Esposito, Bobby Bones and More Industry Vanguards

The inaugural Innovation in Music Awards (IMAs) were celebrated at Nashville's Westin Hotel, honoring mostly major players in the industry who "have played a critical role in the development and…

The inaugural Innovation in Music Awards (IMAs) were celebrated June 6 at Nashville’s Westin Hotel, honoring mostly major players in the industry who, according to the awards criteria, “have played a critical role in the development and advancement of the music industry” and are “driving forward the direction of today’s musical landscape.”

The show was the initiative of Cold River Records president Pete O’Heeron and the label’s senior vp radio promotion and artist development, John Ettinger, who brainstormed in January, then quickly got to work on making it happen. In addition to his label gig, O’Heeron is the CEO of tissue engineering technology company SpinalCyte, so he’s quite used to working with innovators and bringing their inventions to market.


Ettinger tells Billboard, “Pete and I decided … we needed to honor people that were doing great things that don’t normally get honored.” They formed a nominating committee, which included executives from Amazon, record labels, two booking agencies and a management company. The committee ultimately chose the first class of honorees, who have now been tasked with helping choose next year’s IMA recipients.

The idea, said Ettinger, is to make the choices “a meritocracy. If you’re great at what you do, regardless of where you work or [whether or not] you work with a big artist, you can get recognized by the IMA. We’re looking for smart. We’re looking for real execution of ideas.”

2017’s honorees were:

John Esposito, Warner Music Nashville: innovator of the year

Mike McVay, Cumulus Media/Westwood One: heritage award

David Macias, Thirty Tigers: executive

Shane McAnally, SMACKSongs: artist and creative

Brian O’Connell, Live Nation: live/touring

Leslie Fram, CMT: national media

Bobby Bones, iHeartMedia: national radio

Gogi Gupta, Gupta Media: digital media

J.R. Schumann, SiriusXM: digital broadcast

The show was heavy on recognition for radio. In addition to honoring McVay, Schumann and Bones, awards were given out in three market-size categories. Those winners were:

Tim Roberts, WYCD Detroit: major market

Bev Rainey, KBQI Albuquerque, N.M.: medium market

Kory James, KPLM Palm Springs, Calif.: small market

Roberts thanked the artists and producers who “make the great music,” adding, “We’re lucky to get to play it.”

Two other people, including one prominent radio programmer, were recognized with “Makes Sh*t Happen” Awards, honoring “individuals who are known as hard working, dedicated and exemplifying [qualities] of a forward thinker,” according to the IMA. Those awards went to KEEY Minneapolis’ Gregg Swedberg and Universal Music Group Nashville digital guru Tony Grotticelli.

The ceremony was peppered with musical performances, with Hunter Hayes, Drew Baldridge, Bailey Bryan and Walker Hayes each doing a song. “Because of the innovators here tonight,” Bryan told the crowd, “I can stand here as an artist not afraid to take risks and create.” Fram, a longtime supporter of female artists, demonstrated that support once again when she opted to give her acceptance speech time over to artist Mickey Guyton in order to give her a chance to perform. Two other artists were also present. Kristian Bush delivered a lengthy speech about innovation rather than performing a song. Brett Eldredge also didn’t perform, but rather turned up as a surprise to honor his label head, Esposito, who won the night’s biggest award.

Esposito tossed aside his prepared remarks to speak off the cuff. “I ain’t claiming any innovation,” he said of his career. “I’m claiming tenacity.” He added, “There is no better feeling than seeing artist development happening and knowing you had a little to do with it.”

Walker Hayes speaks onstage at the Innovation In Music Awards on June 6, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.
Walker Hayes speaks onstage at the Innovation In Music Awards on June 6, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.  Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Innovation In Music Awards

Songwriter, publisher, producer and Monument Records co-president McAnally was the only honoree not present, but one of the evening’s highlights came when Walker Hayes and songwriter Josh Osborne teamed up to pay tribute with a medley of some of McAnally’s hits, including “Somewhere With You,” “Body Like a Back Road,” “Different for Girls,” “Take Your Time” and “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Hayes said of McAnally, “He doesn’t just write songs. They change the industry.”

McAnally accepted via a video message, in which he spoke about the almost 15 years he spent “chasing radio” and not being who he is. Success came after he embraced his true self, and he advised attendees to “stop worrying about making money, stop worrying about chasing your heroes, and just create.”

In a similar vein, Macias — quoting Van Morrison — said, “Music is spiritual. The music business is not.” But he said it can be if the industry will just remember “the thing that matters is the art.”

Bones was inducted by iHeartMedia country brand manager Rod Phillips, who spoke about the morning radio host taking risks with music. “I wish there was method to the madness,” said Bones. “I just play music I like.” Bones also read a series of jokes from his mobile phone, poking gentle fun at his fellow honorees. “Leslie Fram has broken more artists than the amount of dollars I’ve been fined by the FCC,” went one. Of the prolific McAnally, he said, “In the time we’ve been here tonight, he’s written two hit songs, produced two albums and delivered a baby in the bathroom.”

In a polished speech, Schumann noted, “Music is special, because it’s an emotion expressed in its purest form … We work in an industry like no other and can do for people like no other. Don’t fear change. Create and innovate through it.” He also thanked “everyone who hired me, everyone who fired me, everyone who did not hire me, and everyone who did not fire me.”

McVay joked during his speech that “the thinly veiled attempt to get me to retire by giving me a huge award is not going to work, because I’m still having fun.”

Rascal FlattsJay DeMarcus hosted most of the show until he had to head out to tape the band’s CMT Crossroads performance with Earth, Wind & Fire. (Ettinger took over from there.) DeMarcus said he appreciated innovators, because his whole career happened when, 17 years ago, publishing executive Donna Hilley and label exec Randy Goodman “took a chance on three guys who didn’t look or sound like what was on the radio” at the time. He got a big laugh by adding that compared with today’s less-traditional country music, early Rascal Flatts “sounded like George Strait.” In one of DeMarcus’ other funny lines, while introducing Bush (formerly of Sugarland), he said, “Even though we both write and produce, and even though we’re both on album covers, we both have the sinking feeling nobody knows what we do.”