NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Bright Lights, Big City

CMA Awards Gallop Off to the Big Apple

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

On the afternoon of the announcement that the CMA Awards show was decamping to New York City in 2005, the news quickly began appearing in dozens of stories, from Australia to Canada, from Seattle to Washington, D.C. The media is indeed the game here, as the CMA emphasized in its two press conferences (in New York and Nashville). Going to the world’s media center is the primary reason for this one-time move for the Awards show. By the following early afternoon, Google News listed 164 CMA stories appearing in outlets ranging from the UK’s BBC to Crain’s New York Business.

In Manhattan, the two tabloid newspapers acted predictably. The New York Daily News posted this headline: “Yee-Haw! N.Y.C. Hosting Country Music Awards in 2005.”

The New York Post headlined its story: “Hayseed Mike Welcomes Country Gala” and reported that “A funny-looking urban cowboy rode into town yesterday — one who closely resembled Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg — to announce that the Country Music Awards would head north from Nashville to the Big Apple for the first time ever.” Well, New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg did look a bit silly in his 40-gallon Resistol cowboy hat, which would be more appropriate for a Tom Mix than a Tim McGraw — whom the mayor mistakenly referred to as “Tom” McGraw. And Bloomberg also mangled “Shania” as something approximating “Shanaga.” That’s OK. He’s got plenty of time before the 2005 award show and apparently is willing and eager to learn.

Coincidentally, the Village Voice’s “Best of NYC” issue was published just prior to the CMA press conference in New York, and this item appeared in its music section: “Best way for New Yorkers to maintain the illusion of class privilege — NO COUNTRY MUSIC RADIO STATION.” I like to think that was tongue-in-cheek.

But we can expect to see much more of that sort of attitude from snobs and from that section of the New York media that still likes to think of itself as being hip. You can look for a lot of references to hicks, hay bales, hillbillies, incest, moonshine and Deliverance. Fortunately, there are many critics and writers in New York City who actually pay attention to country music and listen to it and evaluate it on its own terms.

Personally, I think the move to New York is good for country music. And also good for New York City. I know several New Yorkers who are grateful to this day to Alan Jackson for writing and recording what remains the most complete song to address 9/11.

The move to New York is not so good for Nashville. (I wondered aloud at the Nashville press conference that since Nashville is sending its plum musical event to New York City, it should get something choice in return — like maybe a fast wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans.)

Nashville is losing a hell of a lot of money over this and New York City is gaining a lot — although it is giving some back in granting the CMA a package involving hotel rooms and other undisclosed costs. This, in the end, was also about a tale of two cities fighting over tourism and about New York City ultimately fighting harder in landing a major event. The awards show will bring New York City an estimated $30 million in revenues. The CMA, not surprisingly, said no study had been made to estimate how much money Nashville will lose.

But a jaunt in Manhattan will be good for country music. Playing Madison Square Garden, trying to get into restaurants where no one knows your name, enduring some tough club audiences, running a true media gauntlet — not one sanitized by hovering publicists and worshipful regional media — all this should be a bracing experience for artists and all concerned.

I lived in Manhattan for 15 years and found it and its environs to be mostly very receptive to country music — except for the usual bitter, hip hardcore, which country music doesn’t need anyhow. There is a very knowledgeable music audience in New York that accepts or rejects music for what it is, not so much for how it’s labeled or packaged. And there is a genuine love and respect for music that’s handmade and heartfelt, rather than music that is the product of a machine or an assembly line. So, that will be a test for certain artists.

Regarding the Voice’s boast that there is no country radio station in New York City, it’s not because of a lack of audience interest. It’s because of the radio industry’s greed factor. It wasn’t that long ago that New York City had two flourishing country radio stations. They were profitable but not as profitable as management thought they could be by flipping their formats to sports talk and “Lite AC.” Which is what happened. Mainstream radio is not in the music business. It’s in the business of selling ads, by any means necessary. Satellite radio may be the answer for markets like New York — in the long run.

Meanwhile, all in all, I think a one-time trip to Manhattan is a good thing for country music’s prime showcase and for all parties concerned. Although they may end up getting more media than they had bargained for.

I’ll tell you what, though. If I worked for the ACM (for all you New Yorkers, that’s the Academy of Country Music, the rival L.A. country music awards organization), I would find a way to take advantage of the CMA’s sudden power vacuum in Nashville in 2005. When the cat’s away …