Academy of Country Music CEO Bob Romeo comes by it honestly—and old-school. Starting at 16, servicing fair dates for his father via The Don Romeo Agency, he built a lighting and production company that designed the first retractable stage top for outdoor concerts. After selling that, he bought his father’s company—renaming it the Romeo Entertainment Group—and becoming one of the nation’s leading talent buyers and promoters.

Romeo, who laughs now about the days of getting the highway patrol to pull over The Oak Ridge Boys’ bus to have them fill in for a scratched headliner, took The 50th Annual ACM Awards to the Dallas CowboysAT&T Stadium, where it set a Guinness World Record for largest awards show ever.

In addition to winning two ACM Talent Buyer/Promoter of the Year Awards and the CMA Talent Buyer/SRO Award, Romeo has produced myriad television specials and TNN’s OnStage concert series, and dreams, as Brooks & Dunn once sang, “as big as you want to.” Whether helping steer the Academy’s charitable outreach, encouraging young artists to find their way in country’s increasingly sophisticated business or creating opportunities that didn’t even exist until recently, Romeo believes in working hard, having passion for the music and extreme gratitude for the artists’ support, while always remembering that the fans come first.

It’s a long way from Omaha to Encino, but Romeo spent 20 years on the ACM Board—eight as Chairman—and it’s a role he’s uniquely suited to. Leading a staff that’s not afraid of the challenges of mounting a show in a ginormous football stadium is just another day in the office for a man who’s always looking for the next best way to “grow the music.”

Let’s start with the differences between the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. Being West Coast, people view you as the more progressive organization.
Years ago, I was on the CMA Board for two terms; one of the few on both. I have a high respect for them. They represent country music in the home of country music: Nashville, Tenn. CMA votes very traditional—sometimes by what moves Nashville, not the people. Chris Stapleton, who comes from out of nowhere—and wins three CMA Awards. That great performance with Justin Timberlake—his record sky-rockets to #1. The CMA broke him; they really did. In reality, a lot of people had no idea who he was. My wife was watching. I had to explain he was a respected songwriter, demo singer, part of a bluegrass band. All that aside, on our show, I don’t know if he’d have won three awards—because we have a lot of voters who aren’t part of the Nashville scene. They’re not plugged in, and they’re not invested in what’s happening there.

Historically, the CMA has always been more conservative.
I was having dinner with Dwight Yoakam, who’s a historian. I asked him, and he said, “Bob, it’s simple. The CMA represents the country music that came out of the churches. The ACM was more the outlaws and the honky-tonks, the music that came from bars. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard migrated west, because they were the rowdy part of country. The ACMs were about that style of music.”
A lot of acts win their first real award on your stage.

I remember living through Restless Heart, who were considered pop, almost rock. Sawyer Brown was too ’cause of how they dressed. They weren’t traditional in any way. They were embraced by the Academy because we were less reverent about the music and more about the people listening out in the world.

Does being less reverent impact how you do business?
Sure. We can move fast. If someone has an idea, we can start on it. “Hey, let’s go to Vegas…” Thirty days later, we were ready to go. All because Epic’s Jack Lameier said, “We need to go somewhere they won’t run out of Crown Royal.” We don’t have to do a study and debate it. It doesn’t take us five years to examine it. I remember what a big deal it was to go to Vegas from Universal Amphitheatre; we didn’t think we could fill the MGM Grand, so we went to Mandalay Bay. After three years, we moved to the MGM—and a couple years later, [show producer] Rac Clark was having trouble doing everything we wanted with just one stage, so we started doing remotes from the Mandalay, too.

If you start moving, they will come.
Well, if you start moving, they have to [laughs]. But it’s about fun, and keeping things a little different. Simple things, sometimes. If the CMA gives out one newcomer award, maybe we’ll give out three. Recognize Male, Female and Duo or Group. You know, if the CMA moves up, we’ll go down. If they turn right, we’ll take the left. It keeps things interesting. By doing that, it’s a larger circle around country music. I think all tides raise the boats if you do well.

You come to this as a concert promoter. You’ve done major fairs, festivals. Making it bigger is in your blood.
I remember when Alabama was the biggest thing there was, back when we did deals on handshakes. I went to my dad and told him I had 14 Alabama shows when they were getting $100,000 a night. That was unheard of. My Dad was like, “Well, son, if you think so…” Because no one was doing that. I called Dale Morris [their manager], saying I’d have a wire to him in the morning. Dale was like, “We know where you are—you’re good for it.” That was how it was. We put those shows up, all 14 went clean. My dad thought I was the smartest guy ever.

Business has changed, yet it’s still about growth.
When we started talking about taking the 50 [50th Anniversary Awards] to AT&T Stadium, you could tell people thought we were crazy. Jerry Jones’ family was very friendly to us, but there was no rulebook—we had to make it up almost top to bottom. There was no template: not for DCP, Rac Clark, my team. And we did a second concert special at Rangers Stadium, too. We wanted to make a statement for country music: “Hey, we can go sell 70,000 tickets to an awards show,” same way U2 does. And our ratings were up significantly. We were at about 16 million viewers, when other [awards] shows were down. But for me, people were talking about country music.

Are there too many awards shows?
I think country having two awards shows is healthy. It keeps the focus on this music throughout the year—like two spikes. Each show is going to have moments that capture people’s imaginations, keep them talking.

Is that a good thing?
We get about a thousand emails from traditional fans when we do Rihanna [with Sugarland] or Steven Tyler with Carrie [Underwood]. They like George Jones, Dolly, Alan Jackson; they’re going, “Why did you do that? That’s not country.” But it brings fringe people in, people who may not identify as country fans; then they see what’s going on.

And what does it cost to do something like the ACMs at Texas Stadium? You set a Guinness World Record.
It was crazy! 140 semis worth of stuff! A million dollars before even opening the door—and 7,000 staff people just to make AT&T Stadium work. We spent eight times what we’d ever spent on rigging. There was no elevator to take those folks up to the roof, so it was 30 minutes to climb up or down for lunch and during the rehearsals. Stuff like that. Bob Barda, our financial guy at DCP, estimated it’d be about $15-16 million. There were a couple things that had to be figured—like curtains to block out the daylight—but he was within a few hundred thousand. I’m just lucky. My Board was willing to take the risk; they knew we could’ve lost $3½ million, but they believed.

You guys aren’t afraid to take a risk—or change your minds. After controversially making the Entertainer of the Year Award fan-voted, you’re now returning to an industry vote.
Seven, maybe eight years ago, we were discussing making the show more interactive, involving the fans more. We decided to do it for the big award and Newcomer. We worked really hard to keep people from voting 100 times, putting security in place—but we never figured on social media. Or the cost. It’s hard to talk about, because I am passionate about the fan vote. It’s why we do all of this—for the fans. They’re the ones who buy the tickets, the records; they’re the ones listening to the radio. But eight years later, artists started marketing aggressively. It got pretty expensive. How do you create protocol for that without telling artist teams what they can and can’t do? Throw out the rules? In the end, we can’t have artists’ camps complaining to us about other artists’ camps. It creates acrimony, and we’re trying to create a family, not tear the genre apart.

You’re bridge builders.
We try. We want to support. It’s why we do ACM Lifting Lives, the charitable things like the Diane Holcomb Emergency Relief Fund—founded by Gayle Holcomb, who comes from William Morris and is very involved in the fair business. It’s earmarked for medical and disaster relief. It’s the most humbling thing: We hear about someone in trouble, and we very quietly can get money in their hands when they need it. No big fanfare, just help when it’s really critical. It’s why we started ACM Party for a Cause Festival with all the Best New Artist nominees—to raise money for Lifting Lives. We took a break to do the Fremont Street Experience in Vegas, but we have the most generous artists—and we realized we could be making a difference. Whether it’s Alive Hospice, Vanderbilt Kennedy Hospital, Musicians on Call, Creativets, the Louis Armstrong Center for Music in Medicine at Beth Israel, those are just some.

This year, we’re making it an actual hybrid paid fundraising event. Carrie headlines on Friday, Dierks Bentley Saturday and Kenny Chesney Sunday. They’re coming in with a lot of great artists over the three days, and it helps offset the cost for the artists—even at a favored rate—to come to Vegas to be part of the awards show, especially for the younger acts. But we’re doing it to really make a major difference in both our summer Music Camp for kids with Williams Syndrome and other disabilities—and in our charitable giving across the genre. We gave the Country Music Hall of Fame $3 million to help secure some of the jewels of our genre—like the Carter Family’s instruments. And, as I said, we reach out to people struggling in other ways.

And then there’s the future.
To me, now that we’ve done AT&T Stadium, it would be cool to bring the ACM Awards to the people. Look at the markets that have at least a 15,000-seat venue, 750,000 total population, two or three solid Country stations within a few hundred miles and a CBS-TV affiliate. Is it in our DNA to take it on the road? Maybe. I can tell you when the hype hits town, people get excited—and folks on the fringes get converted. You see this music, watch it happening before you, it’s a very different thing.

I grew up in the business, and I know the value of bringing people to see the music, to let them experience that excitement. Kenny Chesney takes his music to those stadiums because it keeps the fans fired up. Why shouldn’t we? Someday can we go international? Why not? Take it to London, to the C2C Festival at the O2 Arena. A lot of our acts are having success over there. Think about the possibilities! It sounds nuts, but this is a seed.

A seed?
Crazy ideas? Anybody with a crazy idea, bring it to me! To me, that stuff is cool. And it’s how you start, because once you do, the mind will drift and find ways. I encourage my staff, my team, my Board to dream—that’s where all the best stuff comes from. People thought we were crazy talking about going to Dallas. Look what happened. •

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