NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The CMA Music Festival Money Furor

Kix Brooks Says the Artists Should Get Paid

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

So, supposedly, once again the CMA Music Festival might be in jeopardy. In danger of going away altogether. Or moving to another city. Or turning into something that is not a country festival.

This comes to light because Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn gave a speech in Nashville this week. Brooks is a CMA board member and has been active in industry activities for years, so when he talks, people listen. In a talk to Lipscomb University’s Nashville Business Breakfast, he said country artists — such as himself — are getting tired of playing the CMA fest for free while it generates money for others. So his message is that the city and the CMA need to find a way to pay these high-priced artists. Or else they may go away.

A minor furor erupted, mainly in the news media. The Dallas Observer, claiming “Dallas should have been the country music capital of the world ahead of Nashville,” thinks the CMA fest may move there. The city of Dallas is interested. So is the city of Atlanta, another southern burg that for many years has claimed that it should have been the center of country music. Both cities are correct in assuming that they came very close to doing so and could have succeeded had Nashville not also become the center of country music publishing. So be it.

What was not so long ago a low-key funfest — Fan Fair — at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville has mushroomed into a big-bucks extravaganza with a network TV deal. Money is being made from this not-for-profit event. Mainly for the city (from visitors’ spending) and the CMA for operating expenses, although last year a donation of more than $600,000 went to the Nashville school system.

Artists do deserve to be paid for their time, no question about that, and they should certainly get their expenses paid. But before they jump ship purely over the issue of money, they should keep one thing in mind: The CMA Music Festival is still their one large and still very solid link to their most loyal fans. Beyond even fan club loyalty, I think, lies an overreaching feeling on the part of many superfans that they belong to the world of country music and their annual event in Music City confirms and validates that role. The fans who travel here from around the country — and from around the world — are true country music fanatics.

Turn your back on your fans, and you may as well turn your back on a huge chunk of your career. I know one thing: Say what you will about Garth Brooks. When he signed autographs for some 23 hours straight in 1996, he was not looking to get paid. He saw it, rightly so, as a career investment. Some things are worth more than money.

I have already heard from several staunch country music fans who are offended at the thought of losing what they still consider to be their “Fan Fair” over the issue of artists’ monies. Here’s a fairly typical remark:

“I want to be reimbursed for my travel expenses to attend the music festival, reimbursed for jacked-up hotel rates to stay and attend the music festival and be reimbursed as well for my lost wages. Seeing how I have paid towards Brooks & Dunn’s income by attending their concerts multiple times and have bought all their CDs, I want some revenue reimbursement from that as well.”

Many of the major artists have already abandoned the practice of appearing at the Nashville Convention Center for the free autograph signings that have been a big feature of the fest since the first Fan Fair in 1972. They are losing long-term fans over that, but their careers have become so profitable that long-term fan loyalty may no longer be any consideration.

One suggestion that keeps coming around is to bring in more non-country artists to play the festival, to somehow make it more desirable to non-country fans. I don’t see it.

Such artists as the Eagles and Bon Jovi and Kid Rock have enough country credibility that they belong here. But beyond that, I think not. There’s not enough left in the world that is still country to go tearing down the few institutions that remain. Keep the CMA Music Festival country. Find a way to get it back toward its Fan Fair roots. And keep it in Nashville.