Pete Fisher came aboard as CEO of the Academy of Country Music in January, following a 17-year stint as  VP/GM of the Grand Ole Opry. But during 14 of those years, he also served on the boards of the ACM
 and its charity, ACM Lifting Lives.

At the Opry, Fisher oversaw all activities of the storied Nashville venue; executive-produced more than 300 TV specials and a Grammy-nominated concert film; produced weekly installments of the world’s longest-running radio show as well as special projects; pushed the Opry show to record attendance; cultivated the participation of superstar acts; and upped the Opry’s international profile.

He and his family relocated from Brentwood, Tennessee, to Los Angeles to take the ACM gig, but nothing in his West Coast adventure has been stranger than his interview with our own Todd Hensley.

You spent 17 years at the Opry. How does that prepare you for this opportunity?
There are a lot of similarities between the Opry and the Academy, and I’ve been able to observe the Academy from a few perspectives—as a member, as a fan, as a board member and now as the CEO. For me, it starts with what I’m passionate about: family, community, seeing diversity work together, being involved in something larger than my career, or in the case when I was an artist manager, the career of one artist or two artists; the whole, the institutional side of it.

Making dreams come true has always been a passion of mine in the 30 years I’ve been in the music business. And the Academy is very much the same in that respect. My passions aren’t going to evolve, but how I live out the passion can evolve over time. Everything I could’ve dreamed might happen at the Grand Ole Opry did happen.

Why are you the right person for this demanding job?
I believe I can add value to the Academy because it’s very much aligned with what I’m passionate about, and my career experience has taught me a lot about how a business league or a trade organization can be successful. The Opry’s an entertainment brand embedded in live, radio and television; it’s a concert venue. I learn all the best practices from corporate people and also recognize where too much corporate can dilute the personality of an organization.

I’m a people person, and I recognize the value of finding the right people and serving them by creating an environment or a culture that helps reinforce their values. To me, the people and the culture are the two most important elements of an organization. I consider myself a real strategic thinker and planner, but strategy is third. People, culture, strategy—that’s what we’re starting to do here at the organization.

The Opry is a legacy institution, as is the Academy. It represents the entirety of the country music family and industry, people I’ve been so fortunate to have an extensive network of relationships with 30 years of doing this. Every organization has a life cycle—its infancy, its teenage years, its adulthood. And I feel like I can help the Academy in that third generation of growth. For almost 20 years I’ve been a volunteer elected leader with the Recording Academy, in various capacities. I’ve been able to learn from Neil Portnow, so the opportunity to join the ACM was a no-brainer, because I was completely satisfied with what had been accomplished at the Opry and saw where I could add value. Part of my job now is to stay in touch with my friends of 30 years in the Nashville music industry.

What things do you want not to do in your new role?
I don’t think you should shoot from the hip. I think everything you do needs to be justified by a broader strategy or goal to accomplish a mission. Oftentimes, organizations may enjoy initial success, but then find themselves having to restart because the idea was not sustainable.

And to do?
The thing I’ve learned more than anything is the value of finding great people, managing or evaluating their performance and then showing them how their performance contributes to the whole of the organization, so a lot of these things are really macro in nature. My job is to create the environment, help shape the environment so that individuals can become successful.

Do you have a sense yet of what it’s going to take to not only keep the organization but the awards show relevant? What are your goals?
After the awards show, we are going right into a strategic-planning process with our board. We’re going to revisit our mission statement and, once the board gives us direction on the vision, create the roadmap to get there. That’s the broadest explanation. Then I’m going to be going on a listening tour in Nashville. I’m going to hear not only from our board, but from other industry leaders—and try to assimilate their collective needs.

The organization and the events, particularly the awards show, work together but they’re very different things.
That’s exactly right. Presenting and marketing a successful TV awards show is its own undertaking. For the Academy of Country Music as an organization to be successful, it’s simple: help the industry grow, and strengthen and broaden its reach for businesses, creators and everyone else who’s involved, as well as the fans. But we have to approach it as a service business to the broader country-music industry.

Do you see the Academy and the CMA as competitors? Isn’t a little competition good?
Absolutely. We’re not going to shy away from competition. That said, I don’t really see the Academy and CMAs as being competitive. Yes, we both produce network television shows, but when one succeeds, the other one does as well. The rising tide raises all ships. Before I even came out here, I had lunch with Sarah Trahern, who runs the CMA; I’ve known her since 1999. We worked on all those TNN and GAC TV shows—there are probably 300 of them. I have tremendous respect for Sarah. There are things that we will do together and then there are things that I think the Academy will be uniquely qualified to pursue itself.

What are some of the differences?
Number one, we’re based in California. What kind of value can we unlock from the West Coast to bring to country music? The entertainment industry—film, television and otherwise—and the incredible corporate and media presence and sponsorship opportunities are a huge plus for us. Also, each organization has its own personality traits. I think we are seen as being fan-centric. We are a nimbler organization, and I think there’s a delicate balance between being strategic but also being nimble.

The Opry not only celebrates legacy artists and the history of country music, but also upcoming acts, and many genres. How do you balance all this at the Academy?
Country music respects and celebrates legacy, respects its elders. So we want to present the full depth of country music, but you have to do it in a way that drives relevance. At the Opry, yes, we celebrate country legends, but oftentimes we would tell the story of country music with contemporary faces. You have to be mindful that what you’re presenting is relevant and resonating with fans, because we’re here to create experiences, whether live or recorded, for fans. And we’re here to support the businesses that do that day in and day out.

Tell me about the relationship between the Academy and Dick Clark Productions and CBS.
It’s been extraordinary. The awards are a partnership with DCP. I have found Mike Mahan and the DCP team to be very spirited and very much aligned with this partnership. I’ve known Jack Sussman for years. I worked on a 75th anniversary Opry Special for CBS back in 2000; we’ve known each other through that—and the Grammys—and my approach is to build up our partners, because we all will enjoy individual success if we pursue the collective success. It’s that servant approach. Let me help Mike and the DCP team, let me help RAC Clark, let me help Jack be as successful as they can be. DCP and CBS value our artist relationships, there’s no question about that. We live with the artists and the industry 365 days a year, and our mission is to serve them.

Now the awards are in the T-Mobile Arena, which is much larger than MGM. What are the challenges to maintain intimacy in a considerably bigger venue?
That’s always one of the challenges in an arena environment. When you see people who know how to do it, you recognize it right away. Garth Brooks is a shining example of that, and fortunately country music is blessed with so many entertainers who are filling arenas and even stadiums now. But from a television perspective, I think you have to serve the artists and the songs. Those artists have the inherent ability to connect, and within those songs are themes and lyrics that connect with the audience. If you serve that, that creates intimacy—and we leave it to DCP and their production expertise to capture it for television.

Party for a Cause has been changed and revamped. Tell me a little bit about the changes and what your vision for it is.
This year’s Party for a Cause takes us back to how we started in Vegas in 2003, when it was a multivenue kind of Vegas Goes Country. I was part of a strategic planning group when I served on the board, and when Bob Romeo and the leadership carried the ACMs to Vegas, it represented an opportunity. You have a built-in, world-class entertainment destination as your backdrop. Now, let’s just paint it with country songs and country artists and create this ultimate country music destination.

So regardless of how we execute it, whether it’s a festival or a multivenue deal, our job first and foremost is to create an outstanding awards show that in turn creates a halo effect, so that all these other events can exist. This year is a great example of how we are presenting and producing some of it, and how other businesses handle other parts—for example, WME is presenting the activities going on at Mandalay Bay beach. So our goal is to create a critical-mass country-music destination in Vegas. We’ll explore and learn from this year, as we have from every other year, to gauge its impact on the planning process, which will really help us and inform us as we listen to our boards and committees. We have an events committee comprised of world-class agents, managers and promoters who do this 365 days a year. My vision for Party for a Cause will probably speak to next year’s Party for a Cause.

What would you say the essence of the Academy is?
For us, the heart of the organization is ACM Lifting Lives, and we believe in just that: lifting lives through the power of music. Whether it’s the ACM Lifting Lives campers in Nashville every year for 11 or 12 years, or other opportunities to promote the healing power of music; through our annual grant cycle; or through some of the more significant contributions we make for Vanderbilt and the Lifting Lives campers or Seacrest Studios, that’s what we want to be about. Our hope is that artists and the industry understand that. That’s why they go above and beyond for the Academy—because they know the overflow of this helps worthwhile causes.

That really is the core, and a predominant personality trait of this organization. It has the biggest heart. You see it in the board meetings, how motivated they are to really make a positive impact on people’s lives. Take the Diane Holcomb Emergency Relief Fund, not too different from MusiCares or the Grand Ole Opry Trust Fund, where we provide emergency financial assistance to any member of the country music community who falls upon hard times. We often coordinate our efforts with those other organizations to help people. Someone will say, “Did you hear about this?” And we ask what we can do. It’s a confidential process, and if I could share the stories they would bowl you over. I just saw an email where we’re helping an individual three years into their crisis. That’s the overflow. Some might think these things exist to help artists or songwriters or musicians, but it could be a bus driver, a radio jock, anyone in our community. I think the Academy of Country Music is perceived as having a big heart. 

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