Fan Fair, as thousands of country fans knew it, is facing another identity crisis.
With low pre-sales in the Nashville region, the four-day country music event needed an attendance boost to succeed downtown — which means creating a new image and inviting roots-oriented musicians from outside the country genre, says Ed Benson, executive director of the Country Music Association.
But that doesn’t mean the fan element is going anywhere, Benson insists.
“We’re not taking anything away from Fan Fair,” Benson tells CMT.com. “It’s going to have all the things [fans] like and have liked in the past. It’s going to have some things for them now that it didn’t have in the past, and we think all these changes are for the better.”
The biggest change, of course, is the name. CMA Music Festival is now the official title of the event.
“Research we’ve got tells us that the word ‘fair’ was a problem,” Benson says, “because it [describes] how people feel about something that is more rural, more agricultural, more like a state fair.”
Now that the event is held downtown, instead of at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, the CMA preferred the word “festival” for the concert portion, noting the urban setting. Meanwhile, the exhibit halls, where autographs and photos take place, will retain the name Fan Fair.
“We’re going to continue to look at what kind of celebrities can go there,” Benson says about the exhibit halls. “I think of movie stars, racing stars and what-have-you.”
But not an overwhelming number of rock and pop stars, he clarifies.
“Don’t expect to see a rap or hip-hop star any time soon appearing at Fan Fair because that would be too far away from our musical center,” Benson says. “But I do believe and know for a fact that our fans who come here from all over the world are not just simply fans of country music and country artists. A lot of them are interested in music in a broader sense, so music that is compatible with what we do is fair game in looking to the future. But a majority of what we do is going to be country music.”
Artists from other genres will be expected to play the festival without getting paid, as all the country performers do, Benson says. However, the CMA pays scale to the musicians backing the artists, with record labels sometimes paying the difference in their regular fee.
He also said that country artists will not necessarily be “squeezed out” by the non-country artists.
“It could be that some of the broader singer-songwriters we’re talking about … would fit better on the riverfront and they may be given a riverfront spot,” he said, referring to the stage where B-level acts play during the day. “Some of the acts we’re talking about would be Coliseum acts right off the bat. I don’t think people are going to be squeezed out. We’re going to do a lot of different music, and the roster of acts changes every year, so I don’t think anybody’s going to feel like they’ve been squeezed out because nobody has an automatic spot on any of those shows on a yearly basis.”
Although it may be tough to persuade non-country acts to perform at the CMA Music Festival, the larger challenge remains ticket sales.
Pre-sales were down 10 percent prior to the event this year. However, twice as many people showed up strictly for the nightly concerts as last year. All told, the aggregate headcount this year totaled 124,300 people, a 1.7 percent decrease. (Aggregate headcount means every time you attend an event, you’re counted. If you attended four events, you’re counted four times.)
In today’s economic climate, Benson considers those numbers a success. His goal is to increase participation in 2004 by attracting more first-timers in the region. Only 20 percent of Fan Fair attendees are considered “perennials,” which means they have come to the event for more than three years, according to Benson. Another 25 percent have come two or three years. The remaining 50 percent are first-timers.
Regardless of how many times people have come to Fan Fair, they expect to mingle with the stars. Benson insists that will be the case at next year’s CMA Music Festival.
“We would like to re-emphasize that we are not taking anything away from anybody,” Benson says. “We’re not making radical changes in the event. It’s still going to have the same things that have made it succeed in the past — and that is lots of stars and lots of chances to get up close and personal with those celebrities that are their favorites. That’s really the key to making this thing work. Because it’s going to still provide for the fans everything they used to expect and then more.”