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