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Monday, May 16, 2022

That Country Twang in the Land of Glitz, Glamour

In the week leading up to its annual awards show, the staff of the Academy of Country Music decamps for Las Vegas where it coordinates the three-hour awards presentation, a two-day fundraiser and a second show featuring country stars. But instead of heading west from Nashville – the mother ship for country music – the 23 Academy employees head east from … Encino? That’s right, one of the top two national organizations dedicated to the promotion of country music is in the San Fernando Valley – and it’s not going anywhere. Indeed, the Academy was founded in 1965 to help broaden the reach of the musical genre by locating itself in the media capital of the world, said Bob Romeo, chief executive for the last 11 years. “It’s great to have a presence here so that we can reach out and carry the banner for country music,” the 56-year-old Romeo said. Here’s another fact music lovers who turn their nose up at country may not know: Los Angeles is home to the most- listened-to country radio station in the nation, Go Country 105 FM with a weekly audience of 1.2 million. There are other signs of a deep love for all things down home and country in a city best known for its glitz. The Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival featuring traditional country musicians draws thousands each April, as does the Stagecoach Festival with its mainstream and up-and-coming country, bluegrass, and roots rock performers in the Coachella Valley. And areas around Chatsworth still cling to the days when the north San Fernando Valley doubled as sets for Western films and television shows. Given that background, having the Academy in the Valley is not unusual. With a mission to promote country music, the 4,600-member organization does that primarily through its spring awards show broadcast live on CBS. This year’s sold-out show was scheduled for April 6 at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino and Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino and is produced with long-time partner, dick clark productions. The 2013 ceremony drew 15.4 million viewers, an increase of 17 percent from 2012. “It is a cool thing to say ACM nominee or winner,” said Tonya Campos, the program director at Go Country 105 FM. “It adds credibility to the music we are playing. Listeners lean in a bit more even if they are not familiar with what the Academy does.” ‘Outside the box’ Still, that’s not necessarily to say that the Academy is the leading country music organization in the country. That title might arguably go to its bigger, older and more profitable rival, the Country Music Association in Nashville. In the 2011-12 fiscal year, the Academy had revenue of just over $10 million. The biggest single expense was for the awards show, which came in at $4.3 million, according to its Form 990, which non-profits must file with the Internal Revenue Service. Membership dues cover the cost of servicing the members, which includes a quarterly newsletter and the secured online voting for the awards. The Academy also makes money from ticket sales for its shows, and a licensing fee from CBS to broadcast the awards show, Romeo said. By contrast, the Country Music Association, founded in the late 1950s, has more than 7,000 members and in 2011 had revenue of $38.1 million, nearly triple that of the Academy, according to the group’s Form 990. The association brought in $22.3 million in licensing income, $11 million from the ticket sales and $757,000 from membership dues that year. Attempts to reach a representative of the CMA for an interview were not successful. Chief Executive Sarah Trahern did provide a statement. “We are very fortunate to have two extremely successful and outstanding organizations, one in Nashville and one on the West Coast to promote and advance country music,” Trahern said in the emailed statement. Still, Romeo doesn’t consider the CMA a competing organization, and he even served for a time on the group’s board of directors. Being in Los Angeles and away from country’s center in Nashville opens doors for the Academy to be edgier, he said. “It gives us freedom to get outside the box whereas in Nashville it definitely is more of an established situation there,” Romeo said. One example is how the Academy six years ago opened up the voting for Entertainer of the Year and New Artist of the Year to fans who can cast their vote up until a half hour before the winners are announced. Romeo said that is something that the CMA would just not do. Country music has a long history in California that goes back to the arriving refugees fleeing Dust Bowl states in the 1930s. They mostly settled in the San Joaquin Valley where the music evolved in the early 1960s into what became known as the Bakersfield Sound -– a harder, rockier music best exemplified by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens that was an alternative to the songs with lush orchestrations and background singers then coming out of Nashville. White House concert That brings up another difference between the Academy and the CMA, an insight that Romeo said came from a dinner conversation with L.A.-based country performer Dwight Yoakum, an amateur historian of country music. “The music that made the CMA was music that came out of the Southern churches versus the music that made the Academy which was the music that came out of the honky-tonks,” Romeo explained. California country music also was buttressed by the “singing cowboys” who settled in the Los Angeles area when Western movies and television series filmed here. Gene Autry was an Academy supporter in the years after its founding. Romeo is convinced that country music is about to enter its biggest boom in two decades as its most popular stars become more mainstream. Guitar wizard Brad Paisley serenaded President Barack Obama at the White House a few years ago. Millions tune in to see Blake Shelton on “The Voice” and Keith Urban on “America Idol.” All-time star Garth Brooks is going on tour next year again after a 20 year break. And younger stars like Zac Brown and Luke Bryan are playing at larger venues. “When you put all of those things together, I think this will be a banner year for country music,” Romeo said. And when programming its awards show, the Academy considers it important to reach out to other musical formats and bring on non-country performers. That is how Lionel Richie was on the show two years ago, and why James Taylor played along with Zac Brown and Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler performed with Carrie Underwood in 2011. “When Steven walked out on that stage with Carrie, people just went nuts, as I’m sure they did at home,” recalled Romeo. With its 50th anniversary next year, the Academy is making big plans to celebrate. It is publishing this fall a book on its history and a look back at the music and the performers. The group solicited letters from its Artist of the Decade winners – Loretta Lynn, Alabama, Brooks and George Strait. “Depending on who it was, some memories were sharper than others,” said Lisa Lee, the staffer compiling the book. Next year’s awards show will relocate for one year to Dallas and broadcast from AT&T Stadium, the 80,000-seat home of the NFL Cowboys. The nearby 48,000-seat Globe Life Park will host the two-day fan festival. This big party has been in the planning stages for about four years and the emphasis is on the bigness. AT&T Stadium has a width of 230 feet as compared to a 100-foot wide theater space at the MGM. To make it affordable for fans, the Academy will price 20,000 tickets at less than $200 and that includes the fan festival and awards show. After all, the fundamental appeal of country music is that it is fan-oriented, with songs that tell stories that anyone can relate to, said Campos of Go Country 105 “Everybody has lost somebody in their life and there are songs that deal with that,” she said. “If you listen to them at the right time you can say, ‘This is my life.’”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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