NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Fan Fair: Show Up or Get Lost

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

It’s increasingly evident that country music’s institutions are being removed from the musical arena by corporate pressure and by absentee landlords. The major record labels have to hustle to meet sales goals set by bean counters in corporate headquarters abroad. And they have to meet that quota by any means necessary. Country radio is pressured by corporate ownership to deliver a desirable demographic audience for desirable advertisers. Songwriters and song publishers are increasingly in the business of delivering radio-friendly songs to pull in the right demographic for advertisers.

Nobody’s in the country music business anymore.

Everybody’s in marketing now. “Grow the audience” is the corporate mantra. Grow it by any means necessary. And if that means diluting or bastardizing the product — the music — then just do it.

Fan Fair has become a case in point. Fan Fair should be on the surface a pure country music institution. For 32 years, it has put fans together with their stars. Period. It’s completely unique in the world of popular music in doing that. Over the past few years, though, the stars have been disappearing from Fan Fair. Attendance has declined proportionately. And now the pressure seems to be on to grow the event. The usual tendency is to rope a bunch of pop artists in — to supposedly attract a new audience. That’s a very shortsighted and unproven tactic.

Look at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It has an organic function and a true, unique identity. That’s why fans from around the country and from abroad flock there every year. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival feels no need to change its name to something on the order of the Southern Music Festival and to invite artists from way outside the genre, just to try to expand the attraction.

But that’s what the Country Music Association (CMA) is proposing. The CMA, which is nominally country music’s chamber of commerce and lobbying arm, runs Fan Fair. Now it’s changing the name to the CMA Music Festival and is hinting that it will dilute the country content. For 32 years, Fan Fair has built its name as the one true country music festival. Fans come from around the U.S. and from abroad because it is the authentic country music convention and experience. It’s the only such gathering where fans are able to interact with their star favorites.

In a year when overall U.S. tourist travel is down by 25 percent, Fan Fair attendance dropped by only 1.7 percent this year. Country CD sales continue, in a sagging music sales economy, to flourish at a greater rate than the pop genres. So why panic and change Fan Fair’s name to the CMA Music Festival and talk about bringing in pop acts and movie actors and racecar drivers to try to grow the audience? The new name is just plain silly — the CMA says that “Fan Fair” evokes too rural an image. I’m puzzled why the CMA hasn’t sought to market Fan Fair as a valuable “brand,” instead of suddenly dumping it. Because it has become a real, identifiable brand. Country fans I talk to are very comfortable with the name Fan Fair. Even young country fans find country’s history fascinating (witness the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack). In other words, re-writing history to eliminate a supposedly unsavory word like “Fair” comes across as … well, silly.

You have to wonder if this name change came from the same consulting firm that dreamed up the quickly-ridiculed CMA slogan from the recent past: “Country: Admit it. You Love it.” As if country music was some kind of secret vice on a par with cheap wine, spanking videos or armpit sniffing.

I talked to fans at this year’s Fan Fair who flew in from England, France, Germany, Japan, Rhode Island, California and many, many other places just because Fan Fair is unique. They are not going to fly in here to see James Taylor or Bruce Springsteen perform in downtown Nashville. Or to see some actor or racecar driver smile and sign a few autographs.

But getting back to the matter of fixing Fan Fair’s supposed attendance problem. There’s a very simple solution. Fans come to see the stars. The stars should be there. It’s time to shame the country superstars into supporting country music. Fan Fair is an institution that launched many of them and their music (and the same applies to the same star-making function of the Grand Ole Opry). Where are those artists now? They need to be at Fan Fair. It’s payback time. It’s time for the CMA to link its Fan Fair with its CMA Awards Show for these country stars. The CMA Awards Show is the big event in country music, and it’s the Mecca for these rising stars.

Either they come to Fan Fair or they can forget making an appearance on the CMA Awards Show — unless they win an award (and even then they should wonder if they can win if they haven’t already come across with the groceries at Fan Fair … .). I thought about suggesting this after last year’s Fan Fair but felt it was too extreme a move. I don’t think so any longer. It’s time for a country artist litmus test.

Is it blackmail? No. This is reality. It’s crunch time. It’s time for country music’s leading institution to crack the whip. Why should some artists turn up only to grab the glory? It’s time for those artists to show up or get lost: do they truly support country music or have they transcended it in their drive for superstar success? You say it’s unfair or unrealistic to try to force — or rather persuade — major artists to make an appearance that should actually be part of their debt to their audiences? No, it’s not. Of all the record label shows at the Coliseum at this year’s Fan Fair, the RCA Label Group night included every major artist from that group of labels. Somehow, RLG head Joe Galante was able to convince his racehorses they needed to be on that field that night.

There’s an unspoken but very real obligation that most country artists — stars or not — have honored over the years. And that’s the role of the steward. Anyone who has labored in the country music vineyard and then enjoyed the fruits of its vines has a very real stewardship role to uphold. That role is to ensure that the institution that nurtured the up-and-coming artists continues to endure and to flourish. It can only do so with continuing support from those artists. Some newly-minted country stars seem to feel they have risen above any obligations whatsoever to their roots or to their core audience. Let’s hope all country artists recognize and honor their debt to a musical genre that is far greater than the sums of all of their careers.