Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Winning Isn't Everything

CMA Awards focuses on changing faces

By Beverly Keel

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  Once again, we're in the midst of country music's biggest week of the year. An autumn scheduling is apropos: The changing of the seasons is the perfect time to recognize the changing faces in the music industry. Last year it was Deana Carter; this year, it'll be the Dixie Chicks, or maybe Jo Dee Messina.

While some of the faces onstage change annually, many industry executives have been sitting in the audience for more than a decade. For them, it's just another awards show, another set of dry cleaning bills, the culmination of another year battling in a highly competitive field. Those whose labels produce CMA winners this week may relax a bit, but only for one night.

After a week of pitched activity, these industry types may find themselves tired at the awards show, but they're anything but apathetic about the show's outcome. Not only are the awards an acknowledgement of their marketing and promotional successes, they can help take an act to the next rung on the career ladder.

An award win marks neither the beginning nor the end of developing an act's career, however. It's just another tool to get ahead. It's not as powerful as a Grammy win, nor as influential as a multiplatinum record, but it can generate more record and ticket sales in the short-term and a heightened industry perception in the long run.

According to some people in the industry trenches, a win promises much but guarantees nothing. "When you win the award, it's great and it goes in your bio and everybody talks about it," says Asylum Records president Evelyn Shriver. But, she says, if an artist doesn't perform on the show, "that moment is really lost. I'd much rather have a performance spot. Awards are wonderful, but some of the greatest acts in musical history haven't won that many awards. I remember when I saw Prince do "Purple Rain" on the American Music Awards. It was one of the best performances I've ever seen."

Both the Tractors and Mary Chapin Carpenter, for instance, gained substantial career momentum after their memorable CMA performances. Of course, for every impressive CMA debut, there are plenty of forgettable ones. "A bad performance can hurt you, but it doesn't tend to stay with you for that long," Shriver says. "Quite honestly, people don't deliver that well on television frequently."

In other words, it's all about the exposure. As Shriver points out, "You can get the award and reap nothing, other than getting the satisfaction of winning the award." So it's far more important to make an impression. That explains why it's not always what you win, but how you look. Take Reba McEntire's famous low-cut red dress (much like Ashley Judd's recent high-slit Oscar dress) that she wore to the awards a few years ago. It may be the one thing viewers still remember from the whole show.

Newer acts, naturally, are the most likely to benefit from a win, especially if it's the Horizon Award, which is given to the performer who has shown the most career development in the last year. This particular award gives an act an air of viability, creating the appearance that he or she has moved up in the industry.

For instance, when Garth Brooks won the Horizon Award in 1990, his career entered a whole new phase, says former manager Pam Lewis. "Phone calls started being returned more. It gave him credibility, especially to those people who perhaps didn't understand what he was all about."

Up to that point, Lewis had been battling the media's inclination to lump Brooks with Clint Black. She'd even declined an opportunity for Brooks to share a People magazine cover with Black. Then Brooks swept another awards show, the Academy of Country Music Awards. That solidified his status as a contender. "The very next week," Lewis says, "People called and said, 'You win, you've got the story.' That was a very clear example of how the TV exposure and awards definitely tilted the scale."

After a certain point, though, a CMA Award doesn't really mean that much for an artist's career. Now Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, and Reba McEntire are superstars, so if any of them wins an award this year, it will have little impact. If anything, it will just reinforce the idea that these performers are still relevant and influential.

That said, the timing couldn't be better for the winners: The event is typically scheduled one week before the World Casino Convention, and only a month or so before the annual fair buyer's convention. At both of these confabs, entertainment-industry professionals do much of their booking for the upcoming year. "Believe me, they are hotly watching the awards to see who wins, who gives a good performance, who seems poised and confident," Lewis says. "That affects who they are going to book and what price it will be."

Without a doubt, though, the most immediate benefit from a CMA win is the increased publicity. It may not automatically guarantee media coverage, but it may be the one thing that convinces a journalist to write about a certain performer.

"It gives you extra ammunition if you are pitching a newer act," says Sandy Neese, Mercury Records' senior vice president of publicity. "There are those who pay attention to the awards, depending upon what award it was and how much notoriety your act received." In the month leading up to the show, she says, newer acts tend to be turned down for national TV talk shows because the shows are only interested in superstars or high-profile nominees.

Despite its impressive television ratings, a CMA win still plays second fiddle to the Grammys. "The Grammy is the mother of all music awards," Neese says. "It's immense because you still have a lot of booking people, etc., who only see the top echelon of our industry as viable, bookable acts. When you are on the phone pitching to people in New York and L.A., and can say, 'She won a Grammy,' they are hearing that more than a CMA."

Music Row has generally given a bit more respect to a CMA win than to an Academy of Country Music nod. The Hollywood-based ACM show is considered somewhat cheesy; new acts are forced to lip-synch their hits amidst highly synthetic sets. But the public and the rest of the industry consider them equally impressive.

Creative Artists Agency's Rod Essig says that any career enhancement is really only short-term, lasting maybe three or four months. Fortunately for labels, this window of opportunity lands right in the middle of the Christmas buying season. Last year's winners, meanwhile, have already been forgotten.

"When they announced this year's CMA finalists in a room full of agents, managers, publicists, and the press," Essig says, "someone asked who won the Horizon Award last year. There were a lot of wrong answers."

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