By Holly Gleason

Damon Whiteside was barely two months into the job as the CEO of the Academy of Country Music when the tornado struck Nashville, but he hit the ground running, helping to spearhead several relief initiatives. As normalcy returned, the former CMA Chief Marketing Officer watched as COVID-19 froze the entertainment business, necessitating the postponement of the ACM Awards, originally set for 4/5 on CBS and rescheduled to 9/16. The pandemic also curtailed his ability to commute from Nashville to L.A., the ACM’s Los Angeles base.

For an exec who’d launched his career at Disney—where he’d applied his marketing expertise to the Hannah Montana, High School Musical, Cars, Toy Story and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises—it was a dauntingly unprecedented way to begin his Academy tenure. But Whiteside was—and is—laser-focused on seeking silver linings amid the dark clouds.

Welcome to your new job, right?
Well, I’d be drinking from a firehose anyway by being new to the job, so this just goes with all of it, I guess. Being thrown into the fire is sometimes best, because you have to keep moving. I like the crazy pace of it, and I almost wonder, am I gonna be bored to death next year?

That’s funny, but it makes sense.
Being new, it’s an opportunity to look through different lenses, to pick things apart for a lot of reasons—and to do it with some urgency. We’re all asking, “Why do we do it this way?” It’s not just COVID but strategically as well. And our board has been fantastic; the amount of time they’ve put into the organization, the troubleshooting, me… They get on endless calls and video conferences and really talk this stuff through.

There’s plenty to talk about.
One thing after another. I wasn’t in Nashville when the tornado hit, but that feeling of not being there was frustrating. Driving around when I got back, it hit me hard. Our Lifting Lives board chaired by Paul Barnabee helped figure out how to get aid to people who need it. We had a day of cleanup with the board and our members for a volunteer event that really pulled us together. And then, the Diane Holcomb Emergency Relief Fund, which was established to help people in crisis, was something we were able to tap into. We took some funds, established a dedicated tornado-relief fund, set up a website and got the info out to the industry to let people know we were here to help.

How did your COVID Response Fund work out?
Within eight days, maybe 10, we were looking at the applications coming in. Every night, the board was meeting and taking the applications, and the next morning we were paying out of the fund. So far, we’ve paid out $1.4 million, solely to the country-music community.

You also had to deal with the postponement of your awards show.
When we postponed, we knew that once we got our new date from CBS, we were going to have to make it work. Our events team and dick clark productions’ events team immediately started looking at available options—because we typically need two weeks from load-in to load-out. Can we handle the expenses? Can the venue handle the set? Because we got a brand-new set last year. Everything was taken, because everyone who’d canceled was doing the same thing.

Ultimately, the ACM decided on Nashville.
Yes, because of the heath concerns and travel, but also from a cost standpoint for the artists. To travel all those people when they’re not working didn’t seem right.

This will be the first ACM Awards to be held in Nashville.
Let’s celebrate the places where country music comes to life. The Ryman, the Opry and the Bluebird are places that mean so much to so many artists, songwriters and musicians. We’re very cognizant of coming into CMA territory two months before their show, and we wanted to be very different. It’s going to be very different for us too.

You came from the CMA, so there’s a relationship.
We had conversations with them, of course. They were amazing and supportive, because this is all about country music. And for the Academy, it’s our first time here, so what statement could we make? These iconic venues are a way of celebrating the history and the roots as well as our nominees.

You've gotta be pleased with the response to the CMA Our Country special.
For the viewers, we had such amazing feedback from the Our Country special, which aired April 5—it really hit the audience right now. I’ve never seen another TV project where people emotionally needed that more; it was almost comfort food. These venues offer some of that. There’s a real normalcy for the artists too. I think it will be a great night, with some measure of familiarity for the artists and the viewers.

N.Y. Governor Cuomo recently announced that the MTV Video Music Awards would take place at Barclays Center.
I was astonished they put it out so emphatically, but then I had a sigh of relief. We can watch them and see how they’re handling things like red carpets and green rooms. I’d love to be the first back-in-a-venue live show. We’ll still likely be the first on broadcast television.

Do you think this can be a first taste of normalcy?
If the show goes as I hope—with the Ryman being pre-taped, the Bluebird being more in the Round and the Opry being the bigger performances–it will be a slice of normalcy. Being onstage, dressing up and being in the audience even with social distancing will all be much more like what people think of as an awards show. It’ll also connect a lot of fans with artists they love in a way that recognizes and honors them in a really crazy year.

That’s for sure.
And I think things could be changing right up until it happens. I think there’s a ton of desire for this. [Executive Producer] RAC Clark, who’s so amazing and creative, thinks with his heart. We have four scenarios, and we’re figuring it out.

For Nashville, with the tornado, COVID, Black Lives Matter, so many parts of our industry are underwater—they’re not touring and can’t make any money. So this is a night to honor the artists and how they connect people through music. It’s historic.

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