Talking CMAs With CEO Sarah Trahern

Country Music Association head honcho Sarah Trahern had her hands full last week prepping for this year’s highly anticipated awards show, the follow-up to the org’s widely acclaimed 50th anniversary telecast, while also advancing the Association’s international reach and overseeing an array of initiatives benefiting music education and more. The last thing she wanted to add to her schedule with the CMA Awards telecast just days ahead was a conversation with us, but we got her on the phone by pretending to be a more reputable publication.

Let’s start with the New Artist of the Year nominations.
Every year, all our nominations take a different flavor, and it’s always an interesting mix. The second ballot has 20 names, then the final round is narrowed down to five, and the CMA members choose the best of the best for the year. I really love this year’s because musically they’re all very different. It shows the breadth that’s out there. Hopefully, through all of them we’re gaining new fans. There are people who were fans of Lauren Alaina’s from when she was on American Idol; people who come in because they’ve seen Old Dominion on the Chesney tours. Brett Young, Jon Pardi, Luke Combs—they’re all coming in from a different perspective.

How are you helping spread the word about them?
We just launched a digital series, CMA Insider, which is our first foray into branded entertainment; we’ve already received amazing feedback on it. One of our strategic initiatives for the CMA over the last couple of years has been how we continue to develop talent and support the next generation of superstars. While we’re honoring the entertainers of the year and those that have had an outstanding year in our format, there’s a chance for us to be there and support the newer artists. We specifically didn’t start running it until after the final ballot closed. We take the integrity of the awards incredibly seriously and didn’t want to release one before someone else’s during the voting period. Now that voting is done, it’s all about educating the fans about the great artists we have. I think the series does a great job of giving you a glimpse inside the artists’ personalities, so you’re going to care a little more about them.

Let’s talk Album of the Year. It’s a very mixed bag; I like the diversity.
I often call the CMA, both the Association and the format of Country, “The Big Tent.” And under our Association brand we have everything. The Grammys represent creators and RIAA represents record labels. We include everyone who makes a living in the Country Music industry. Of course, the Artist category is the largest group of members, but we also have producers, record companies, entertainment services, composers and PROs We also have Spotify and Google and Country radio. Of course, there are people with competing interests, but under the big tent we all get together at CMA to push the format forward. In our artists’ big tent, we can have someone like Jason Isbell, or Chris Stapleton, who not so many people knew before when he came from the bluegrass world. You can have Country Music Hall of Famers like Emmylou Harris and groundbreakers like Marty Stuart still out there waving the country flag. Carrie Underwood can do a pop song like nobody’s business, but there’s no one stronger at fanning the flame of country in the Opry and the traditions that we came from. I think that Album of the Year reflects that, and I’m glad to see a mix of tempo and temperament in the category.

How does the voting work?
We have a three-round voting process; the first ballot is a nomination ballot in which the members can nominate one individual or project per category. Then those are vetted to make sure the albums nominated were released during the eligibility period. We then have a second ballot, where we go to a list of the top 20 vote recipients that receive at least 10 votes per category, with the exception of Entertainer of the Year and that category is Top 15. And all three ballots go to the individual members of the Association, which is over 7,000 industry professionals. We work extremely hard to ensure a credible process for our winners. We work with [major accounting firm] Deloitte & Touche, LLP and even I don’t know who the winners are until I’m sitting there, nor does our producer, Robert Deaton. Which makes for great, fun live TV.

Robert’s been running the show for years now. How does he change it up?
I am so proud of last year’s show. Robert spent a lot of time focused on it, thinking, “How do we make the 50th special?” We showed everyone live in the same time capsule, and I hope it shows 49 years from now when they’re celebrating the hundredth and we’re long gone. They’ll pull that show out and say, “Wow, that was a great show.” I think we both approached this year’s show with a little trepidation: Where do we go from there?

Our hosts, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, have been involved since May or June. In my 30 years of television, I’ve never worked with a pair of hosts on any project as engaged year-round as they are. I had lunch with Carrie in July, and she was thinking about the show; I saw Brad at a show in August, and he said, “I’ve been thinking about jokes.” They take helming the show seriously. We knew going into it this year that we wanted to have fun with them and celebrate their 10th year.

We also wanted to focus on some of the young talent and giving the opportunity for performances from people you haven’t seen before. And there’s also the fact that our industry has suffered many tragic losses this year and how do we honor that and take that big-picture approach? I am now as excited going into this show as I was last year. It’ll have a different feel this year, but it’ll be fun and emotional. Yesterday, Robert—who is a genius and lives for music—sat with our senior team and walked them through the show. At one point he’s laughing out loud, then he’s stopping the meeting getting teary-eyed as he’s thinking about the creative. Last year’s open was hard to beat, with all the artists paying tribute to the history of the music, but we’re going to have some great moments in our opening number this year.

How involved is ABC in the show?
ABC has been a great partner. They’re there to guide us and be sounding boards. They just announced that Monday night [11/6] is going to be the Robin Roberts special, and this year they’re really focusing on Luke Bryan—life on the road for a musician. He’s a two-time Entertainer of the Year nominee, and that show also features a package with Brad and Carrie talking about their 10-year anniversary. Then, we’re working with them on a GMA appearance from Nashville on Wednesday, the day of the show, here in town. We’re talking with Jimmy Kimmel’s folks about what we can do to strip a couple of nights that week leading into our show for promotion. The Chew went live on November 2 with Brad and Carrie, and then there’s an ABC radio tour and an ABC-affiliate satellite media tour. Then a whole bunch of print interviews with USA Today and AP and People, to name a few.

Starting Sunday afternoon [11/5], we go into lockdown with our hosts. I think it starts at like three or four in the afternoon, and we have all of our radio remote partners from around the country in town. We decided a few years ago that CMA would pay for the remotes to open it up to competing radio groups to get the largest reach. So Brad and Carrie will kick off the radio remotes on Sunday night and then other artists will be a part of the radio remotes all day Monday and Tuesday. By then, Brad and Carrie will be in rehearsals all day.

Who are your point people at ABC?
Scott Igoe and Rob Mills are our two programming execs.

Last’s year’s campaign for the 50th was great. What’s the theme this year?
“The Heart of Country.” It started running a couple weeks ago. Now we’ll start running the list of performers to get the fans in. But the “Heart of Country” spots are really heartfelt; one features Brad and Carrie, another features Garth, Carrie, Keith and Kelsea. I think it’ll help to set the tone for the show as well. We filmed the promos before the tragedy in Vegas and around the time Don Williams died. We’re using this as the launch for the next 50 years, so we really set out to do a classy, high-end celebration of the year. I think you’ll see several moments that may drive you to tears, because we all love music, and music is the thread that helps us through tough times. But you’ll also see a celebration of humor and fun. There will be a tone set from the beginning of the show that we are here—we are a community. We see ourselves and our fans through tough times, and music is the thread that pulls us through that. Those promos reflect that. Robert has some great plans, and it’s going to be an emotional night for a lot of reasons.

Tell me about the foundation and its connection to MusicFest.
We’re getting ready to announce that this year we’re giving another $2.5m to music education, thanks to the generosity of our artists. I so wish you could have been with me in D.C. week before last; Tiffany Kerns runs our foundation, and we were up there the first day for a meeting on the Hill with a group of 30 mariachi students from Wenatchee in Washington State. Their mariachi teacher was named one of our CMA Teachers of Excellence last year. He runs a program where 97% of the kids go on to college, which is unheard of even in super-affluent districts, let alone in his district. I got to spend the day with them and it just fed my soul, because music is one of the things that keeps them in school.

We started getting involved in music education at CMA in 2006. We used to give money for cancer research, homeless shelters and other causes, and it was all being really spread out. Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn is the leader on our board, and back then he said, “What if we hyper-focused on one issue in America where we could really move the needle?” So we focused on music education, and we started in Nashville. We’ve given over $20m nationwide, and $13m of that started in Nashville alone. So now there are instruments in all the schools K-12. We support 57 different programs in 17-18 states. We’re going to Houston with Luke Combs to announce two donations through the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation: a $200k donation to their Music Rising foundation to help replace instruments that were lost in the hurricanes in schools down there, and another $500k to the Houston schools on a multiple-year rollout to do what we’ve done here in Nashville—to provide access to music education for every student.

There’s a program we support called Notes for Notes that puts recording studios in Boys & Girls Clubs. We have 13 studios in Detroit, Austin, San Francisco, California and New Orleans, and we’re getting ready to open another here in Nashville. When we opened the one in Detroit, civic leaders asked me if we were interested in producing the next country artist. We explained that we support kids learning music, the universal language, and we said no—it doesn’t matter what kind of music. If they write hip-hop, jazz or classical, we’re just looking to give them a means of self-expression and a way for music to be a key factor in their lives.

What are your plans internationally for the CMA Awards?
When I first started here, the CMA Awards were only on in three countries: the U.S., Canada and Australia. Now we’re in 43. This year we’re going back to the BBC in the U.K. for the first time in years. We have a partnership with Sky, which takes our other two shows. We’re doing an interesting deal in Australia, where we’re going live on CMC, which is their MTV for country; we’re live in the afternoon, and then their NBC-equivalent station is doing a 90-minute cut-down of the best of the awards next Saturday.

Last year, we did our first deal with TV exposure in Norway, and one in five people in the country saw the CMA Awards over their two airings. We took a small group of artist/songwriters over there, and we plan to come back and do the same thing in Europe and Britain in March of next year. We’re also going to do a tour in Australia and New Zealand next year, and maybe stop off in Japan. I think as much as anything it’s getting those artists out in front of people. When I was in London and Australia last year, I met with the Spotify and Apple people to talk to them about how to increase what they’re playing in country and making sure they have access to the artists. We’re rolling out a digital series called Postcards From Nashville targeted to specific markets. The first one will feature Maren Morris and will be focused on her visits to the U.K.—what she’s learned and what she likes the most. It’s content that works for those audiences and gives us the chance to work with those partners, whether it’s a promoter or a label or radio or streaming partners, to get them content before they’re actually on the ground. 

The rich get richer. (7/30a)
The dominant platform keeps growing. (7/29a)
Thunder from Down Under (7/29a)
A day in the park (7/28a)
Perpetuating a grand tradition (7/28a)
From tender shoots to mighty oaks.
Let's do the numbers.
It is not the name of a Henry Miller novel.
Could be. Dunno.

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