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Final Fan Fair at Fairgrounds: Annual Country Fest in for a Change, Benson Says
Annual Country Fest in for a Change, Benson Says
Every year since 1972, country music fans have come to Nashville in early summer to attend International Country Music Fan Fair. They will come again this year -- the event begins officially with opening ceremonies at 9:45 a.m. Monday -- but Fan Fair will be different, and next year it will undergo radical changes.

For one thing, the weekly schedule has been rearranged. The fan-voted awards show, known for the first time this year as Country Weekly Presents the TNN Music Awards, takes place Thursday evening (June 15), at the very end of the week. When it was the Music City News Awards, then the TNN/Music City News Awards, it took place on Monday night, at the start of the week.

The awards show moved and record companies have been bought and merged, so organizers have rearranged the schedule this year. On Monday, right off the bat, the family of companies distributed by WEA will showcase their acts at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, beginning with Atlantic (John Michael Montgomery and Tracy Lawrence) and Giant Records (Neal McCoy, The Wilkinsons) in the morning and continuing with Warner Bros., Reprise and Asylum (Chad Brock, Bryan White) in the afternoon.

Sony, corporate home to the Dixie Chicks, rolls out their stars Monday night. In between dates in Portland, Ore., on Sunday, and Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, the Chicks will fly into Nashville for Fan Fair. They are not scheduled to appear on Sony's show Monday night but, says Country Music Association chief Ed Benson, "There's always a possibility an artist like that will do a surprise appearance on their label show."

Whether the Chicks -- and all the other artists -- play to a full house at the fairgrounds grandstand remains to be seen. The grandstand offers seating for around 21,000. A Fan Fair sellout is 24,000. Last year the event drew a disappointing 21,700, the first non-sell-out since 1981. This year, says Benson, numbers are "a little behind where we were last year. Unless we have a rush the next few days and into Fan Fair next week, we'll finish up a little behind last year's figures." He will release final numbers on Thursday.

Those who do attend will hear some good music, Benson promises. "Artist participation is better than last year," he points out. "This year, we've got seven of the top 10 sellers appearing. There are 40 platinum and multi-platinum acts and over 100 acts on the stage. The talent participation is more solid overall than last year."

Though many fans expect that every country artist will attend the event, not all do. Among those not scheduled to appear on a show are Shania Twain, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, George Strait and Reba McEntire. "You never have all the top acts," Benson says, "but you have more acts at Fan Fair than any other event that goes on in country music any time during the year. It's still the biggest festival, in terms of talent commitment, that you can find anywhere."

The event has gotten extremely complicated for the artists themselves, Benson points out. With radio station remotes, fan club meetings, autograph signings in booths, local in-store appearances, a label show, an awards show and other live appearances required, the schedule can be brutal.

"It's unfortunate," Benson observes, "but some of the artists are spending more time during the week with radio and the media than they are with the event and the autographing and their fan club events."

Ironically, the Country Music Association created Fan Fair, first staged at Nashville's Municipal Auditorium, in part so that fans would stay away from the annual deejay convention in the fall. Now, radio stations show up in force because of ready access to the stars.

"Part of what I call the 'fragile ecology' of the event has to do with balancing the artists' time, the places they are pulled and the things they are committed to do," Benson explains. "An artist who gets fully absorbed in Fan Fair week activities has a demanding, early-in-the-morning to late-at-night schedule."

It's easy to understand, Benson says, why in some cases rather than risking offense by missing an event, artists occasionally decide to skip Fan Fair altogether. Benson and the CMA's Fan Fair committee are trying to find ways to make it easy for artists to participate without getting over-committed.

Next year, the event is in for an overhaul. Benson already has announced that Fan Fair will move from the dilapidated fairgrounds, either to Adelphia Coliseum -- the downtown home of the Tennessee Titans -- or to the new Nashville Superspeedway in Wilson County. Both represent options unavailable in the past, both present new possibilities. Both would allow the event to grow from a capacity of 24,000 to one that would draw 50,000 or 60,000 fans.

Production facilities will be a key to the decision, expected in late July, as to where next year's event will be held. But the CMA's Fan Fair committee also is considering other factors.

"We have to look at how we maintain some of the traditional elements of Fan Fair, the exhibit halls and the autograph and photo sessions," Benson says. "Where do you put those in a new venue configuration? That's a big part of Fan Fair that needs to be maintained. In both venue situations we're looking at how you accomplish that."

Each of the proposed venues will color the event slightly, he believes. New elements could be added that have not been a part of Fan Fair in the past, to make it more fun and interesting for fans coming in from out of town.

The Adelphia Coliseum downtown would be accessible to the new Country Music Hall of Fame, nightclubs and after-hours entertainment. The speedway would offer unlimited parking and space where a first-class, midway carnival could be erected.

"People think of Fan Fair as a fair, and now that Opryland has gone away there's not any element of Fan Fair that's friendly to kids who come with their parents," Benson says. "We're trying to determine whether we can bring in a different experience, whether it's a midway or going beyond artist exhibits to bring in lifestyle, commercial exhibitors to complement the event."

Also high on the list of possible changes is a shift from an event that stretches over four or five weekdays to one that takes place over a long weekend. "We're looking at a Thursday through Sunday configuration," Benson says, "which would put it on the same level as other kinds of festivals that go on around the country. That would enable people to get here and attend it without taking a whole week away from work." An announcement about next year's dates will come next week, Benson says.

In keeping with the idea that fairgoers with limited vacation time should be accommodated, organizers also are considering a change in customary ticketing policy. Instead of buying one ticket for the full complement of events, attendees may be able to purchase shorter configurations.

"We're looking at unbundling the ticket to sell two-day, three-day, maybe one-day tickets," Benson says. "I think that'll facilitate growth. The sociological trend of the decline of the weeklong family vacation in America has had an effect on how we sell and market this event. It has always been a family kind of a event, but we've noticed that it's harder and harder for those guys to get together and take a week's vacation and come to Nashville."

Country music lovers who are able to come are assured of having a whale of a good time, up-close and personal, with their favorite stars. Country.com will report on the performances, the artists' booths, fan club parties and Country Weekly Presents the TNN Music Awards throughout the week. Find out more about Fan Fair 2000.
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