With the Country Music Association logging one of its first profits from the annual CMA Music Festival, the organization’s Cause for Celebration charity program is distributing more than $400,000 to nonprofit agencies, including $200,000 to the Salvation Army to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina.
More than 400 artists donated their services to support the multi-day festival that took place in June in downtown Nashville, and 247 of the participants selected 114 separate charities as beneficiaries of this year’s Cause for Celebration donations. The festival moved to downtown Nashville in 2001 as an evolution of Fan Fair, an event that for many years made its home at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. Last year, the CMA saw its first net profit and supplemented the amount to cover a $100,000 donation to the Cause for Celebration account.
Kix Brooks, chairman of the CMA’s board of directors, noted the artists this year designated their charities months before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
“These charities have come to depend on that money,” Brooks told CMT.com. “I think everyone felt that if the hurricane had come before the festival, 90 percent of the artists would have donated their money to hurricane relief.”
As a result, the CMA decided to give the Salvation Army the $200,000 from its net profits that had been earmarked to promote next year’s festival. Brooks noted, “They didn’t want to go back to the artists and say, ‘Do you want to take this away from the charity you chose and do this?’ I think it was a nice gesture to go ahead and give that 200 grand. And it’s really the artists that are giving the money.”
Brooks is particularly candid about the history behind the CMA’s Cause for Celebration program.
“It’s part of a lot of initiatives the CMA is doing to try to let the artists know that it very much is an artist organization,” he explained. “Over the years, at least before I joined the board, just as an artist, the CMA was really viewed as some kind of backroom executive organization that was out for itself, and the artists had to kowtow to whatever. It was an eye-opener for me when I came on board. The main thing I found out was that the organization didn’t really know how to show the artists what good they could do for them.”
Indeed, many artists privately complained about performing for free each year at Fan Fair when they could have been performing lucrative concerts on the road.
“I’m certainly not taking credit for it, but when I came onboard, I started letting them know what bad blood existed,” Brooks said. “And some of it was just PR faux pas — like the thing with George Jones [when he refused a request to perform an abridged version of "Choices" at the 1999 CMA Awards show] … and things that just made bad blood. I think a lot of people on the board were surprised, and the first thing they did was make this Artists Relations Committee which basically just tries to come up with ways to let artists know they’re part of this organization.”
Brooks said one of the morale issues involving Fan Fair pertained to the physical conditions at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, which consists of a racetrack and several exhibit buildings.
“In the mid-’90s when we [country music] were hot, Fan Fair sold out,” he said. “But by the late-’90s, Fan Fair was losing attendance every year. Artists were basically getting to a point where they were just refusing to play. There was really no upside. The conditions were horrible. No air conditioning and all that kind of stuff. The grandstand had a cool, folksy quality, but everything else around it was really pretty horrendous.”
Brooks added, “We had two choices: Either we put Fan Fair to bed — because it’s going away. I mean, no major artists playing it anymore. Or we do something that’s really good for our industry and good for this city. It looked like the only real solution was to take the thing downtown. … All of a sudden, we’ve got this beautiful stadium there that’s right across the river, so why not take advantage of all those things? Especially, if we could get a network television show which, of course, is the carrot that the awards show has, as well, to get exposure for young acts and old ones, to boot.”
Pointing to the success of the CMA Music Festival, Brooks said, “I really think we’ve turned the corner. This is the first year it has actually made a profit. … In the previous years, we haven’t shown a profit, but the CMA has gone into its coffers and pulled out $100,000 [to fund its Cause for Celebration program]. They said, ‘Even if we lose money, as long as we’re doing this, we’re going to take 100 grand and give it to the charities the artists choose.’ At least the artist feels like he’s doing a charity concert, if nothing else. But we did turn the corner this year and made 400 grand.
“One of the cool things about the festival being downtown is there’s really the potential for this to make some money and, even down the road, hopefully, to get to a place where it can be a festival on its own two feet that can pay the artist to play there. That’s a long-term ambition.”
Based on the wishes of the artists, the top recipient of the Cause for Celebration funds this year is the Nashville Alliance for Public Education, which funds the purchase of new musical instruments for Nashville’s public school system. Other donations are being made to the Country Music Retirement Community, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Music City Christian Fellowship.