When Damon Whiteside became CEO of the Academy of Country Music, he knew the West Coast-based and -originated Academy had always been country music’s maverick trade organization. Proclaiming that “We were born in the barroom, not the boardroom,” he embraces the freewheeling appeal of the outfit he leads.

Given his history, which includes a six-year stint as SVP/Chief Marketing Officer of the Country Music Association, it’s easy to forget that Whiteside forged his vision across myriad Disney properties, including the Disney Music Group, Walt Disney Studios, the Disney Channel and Disney Consumer Goods. As country music approaches the second quarter of the 21st century, that synergy and trailblazing foundation uniquely position Whiteside to steward country’s biggest innovation since WSM and the Opry took the genre to a major chunk of America in 1925, and the ACM Awards first aired on network television in 1966.

As streaming begins to take firmer hold in country, the 57th edition of the ACMs—which will take place tonight, 3/7, from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas—transitions from CBS to Amazon Prime Video—a move that is unprecedented, groundbreaking and filled with possibilities. No wonder Whiteside is fired up about sharing the details on what will be the first awards show in any genre to be livestreamed around the globe.

This is a big deal.
We’ll be in five countries—the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada and here—live live, with 240 countries having one distribution partner globally. We’re not having to negotiate with a different broadcast partner in each country; when we go live at 5pm Los Angeles time, it’s 1am in the U.K., and they can watch it real time. Even here, with broadcast, people on the West Coast were either finding the feed or having to stay off social media for spoilers. Now, everyone can be in the same conversation, which makes this an opportunity for immediacy.

Being off broadcast television creates a different pacing.
Not having any commercials, every second of this show is going to be performances and awards—all the energy, all the colors of a festival or concert. We joke, “Everybody better go to the bathroom before it starts,” but it’s true. Get your glass of wine and popcorn, then buckle in, ’cause there’s no stopping once we begin.

Where is Amazon in all of this?
When we first started talking, their mandate was that this needs to be the most customer-obsessed show we’ve ever done—or that’s ever been done on an awards show. Working with Amazon, anything is possible. It’s groundbreaking—and no rules! This is the #1 direct-to-consumer platform in the world. No one reaches more people; we’re looking to create something that matches that scale.
Which is why you’re in a stadium.
We did the stadium show in 2015, and to date, that’s the only stadium awards show in history. So we know how to do that, but it also lets us keep the energy up. There will be four stage locations, so everything about it will feel like a giant festival, but the stages will accommodate different kinds of performances.

We’re setting it up so that there’s an incredible view from every seat. We’re shooting—in part—the same way you’d do a football game: to capture the action from different vantage points. Normally, when you’re watching on TV, the VIPs and artists are all at the front, but we’ve created fan mosh pits around all the stages, so the performers get all that energy to work off of.

And then there’s Dolly. If there was a dream booking, that was it. I can’t think of a bigger music icon around the world in any genre.

Energy and global TVQ.
Exactly. She’s global, all ages know and love her—and she has this broad appeal to people who aren’t country fans, or even music fans. She’s an icon of TV, film and other entertainment platforms. There’s nobody better.

How did you convince her?
Huge synergy. Her new album and novel with James Patterson, Run, Rose, Run, is coming out on the Friday/Monday around us. But she’s also an innovator who likes being on the forefront of everything, especially the livestream exclusive aspect and global footprint.

Is Amazon ready for Dolly?
We did our promo shoot this week. People were concerned all they gave us was two hours.

But she showed up early, camera-ready, had studied all the scripts the night before. BAM! BAM! BAM! The photos, promos, EPK stuff—and she still had time to take pictures with everyone on the shoot.

What about newer artists?
We’re going to have our Best New Artists Gabby Barrett and Jimmie Allen co-hosting and performing with Dolly. This might be the biggest opportunity of their careers on a major stage. Once we see the nominees, we’ll figure out the rest.

We had Brittany Spencer on our ACM Honors on Circle-TV, which does the Opry. We were honoring Gretchen Peters, who received the Poet’s Award, and Brittany sang “Independence Day.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Nothing like this has been done before. How do you promote it?
We’re going to be working with Country radio in varying capacities and with local television affiliates across the country to do stories and cover the show. We’re reaching out to the various DSPs.

How does Alexa feel about that?
You might think Amazon would be proprietary, but they want to go to where the fans are. They understand not only that we’re a trade organization that serves these companies, but we’re for the fans—so let’s go where they are.

What does that look like?
Playlists, created content, social-media activity they’re included in. It may not be specifically “Go to Prime Video,” but it’s a major cultural moment for country music, and we’re inviting everyone in. We’re creating our own red-carpet show, but we’re having a red carpet with all the media, all the opportunities. We want that energy to start well before we hit the stadium.

For people who don’t have Amazon Prime—and our fans can be a little lower on the socio-economic spectrum—is there a plan?
Amazon Prime is going to offer 30-day free trials. If people don’t want that, there’s going to be a VOD edit for Prime Video that will also be viewable on IMDB-TV, free with commercials the next day. IMDB has a worldwide footprint, with a lot of music and documentary content.

Is this a one-year deal?
The intention is for it to be a multi-year partnership. Amazon’s always been very clear with us that they know there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve because this has never been done. This is unique, exciting and possibly game-changing for entertainment. But we all know we can’t do everything in 2022; we have an ongoing list for 2023.

Do you have a sense of the expectations?
This could be a monster success, but we have to figure out a whole new metric. How do you define success in this space? They’ve done so well with Thursday Night Football, but that was something that grew from [streaming TNF games while Fox and the NFL Network simulcast them in 2021] to taking it exclusive [next season].

From a tech and creative perspective, this is truly country music’s chance to be on a global stage and break ground. It’s scary, but it allows us to be innovators, create opportunities—and do it literally without stopping.

I hope everything works, everything streams. When we started talking, we all agreed we wanted something that surprises and delights the fans. They will be able to engage and interact, not just music but books, films, the fashion aspect.

When we went to Amazon, we saw this as an opportunity to refresh the brand. The ACMs are about artists, the fans and the organizations who support them. Fans think of this as “Country Music’s Party of the Year.” Now we’re more expansive, and I love that Amazon came back to us with “This Is How We Country.”