It didn’t take long for the jet lag to wear off before Music Rowers began complaining about the pitiful musical production and numerous off-key performances at last Wednesday’s Academy of Country Music Awards in Los Angeles. The show was nothing less than an embarrassment to the country music industry and the city it represents. The whole affair was so inept that some insiders have been referring to it as ”amateur hour.“
Says one company president, ”I thought it was the weakest I’ve ever seen. The show just laid there. It was all you could do to watch itand most people didn’t. If we can’t do better than that, we shouldn’t be on TV.“
The problems were manifold, but they appear largely to be the result of one major snafu: By relying on an apparently bad sound and/or monitor system, the show’s producers rendered the awards unwatchable. Since the singers couldn’t hear anything in their monitor earpieces, their notes landed all over the place. Apparently, the sound was even worse in the venue; every time Alan Jackson sang the opening number, he was drowned out by electrical hisses. (Music Row magazine’s ”Row Fax“ newsletter described the evening as ”three hours of frighteningly erratic sound quality.“)
Only a few acts managed to sing on key: 11-year-old Billy Gilman (who stole the show), Reba McEntire, Jo Dee Messina, George Strait, and Alan Jackson. Many others weren’t even close to being in tunebut it would be unfair to single anyone out, since the fault wasn’t exactly their own. The Dixie Chicks may have been the biggest winners of the evening: They looked good, won an award, and didn’t have to perform.
With the demise of Prime Time Country and other such music programming on The Nashville Network, TV exposure is scarce for country music acts. In what was only one of two nights a year that the country music industry gets uninterrupted national network exposure, the ACM Awards producers shot themselves in the boot.
The Academy of Country Music was formed in L.A. in 1964 to promote country music, most notably California-based artists. It hosted its first awards show in 1965, two years before the Nashville-based Country Music Association began its awards. In the years since, the ACM has shed its West Coast leanings, evolving into an organization representing the entire country music industry, with a board comprised of many Nashville executives.
While the CMA holds the license to its awards show, produces it, and keeps all the profits, the ACM Awards license is held by Dick Clark Productions, which pays the Academy of Country Music a fee, negotiates a deal with the CBS network, and keeps the profits after meeting production expenses. The show’s planning is guided by a committee that includes producers from Dick Clark’s organization, as well as ACM executives and board members. ”There is a different process [than the CMAs],“ says artist manager and ACM chairman Scott Siman. ”Certainly, the committee has input and gives advice and thoughts, but ultimately Dick Clark Productions has the final say over what goes on the show, with the input of CBS.“
These days, the frequently held sentiment in the industry is that the ACMs are not nearly as prestigious as the CMAs, held annually in Nashville during the fall. It has even been accepted that they’re a cheesier, cheaper version of the CMAs. It was big news this year, for instance, when the ACMs stopped requiring best new female and male nominees to lip synch a portion of their songs while strolling through a theme park in pre-taped segments. If the CMAs are the industry’s senior prom, then the ACMs could be considered its basketball homecoming.
Even if winning an ACM award isn’t nearly as impressiveor as beneficial to a careeras garnering a CMA nod, publicists certainly milk a win in either show. And the ACMs are an asset to new acts because three artists walk away as winnersbest new female, best new male, and best new groupwhereas the CMA only gives away one trophy, the Horizon Award.
Maybe that’s why, in spite of the cheese factor, the ACMs have been accepted for quite a while now. But the industry can’t afford to accept it any longer. While many Nashville insiders know the difference between the two organizations, most American TV viewers don’t. They just see it all as one big conglomerationthe ACMAs. ”[The ACM had] better get it together, or there’ll be no CMA viewers,“ one music executive says. ”The CMAs will come on and they’ll say, ‘I saw that already, and it was bad.’ “
If the Academy of Country Music is going to produce a national awards show, then the broadcast needs to be of the same quality as every other national awards show. That’s not to say the country aspect needs to be downplayed in favor of a more homogenized soundsomething country radio has been accused of lately. By all means, twang away, but twang into the very best microphones available, accompanied by the best musicians around. Right now, the ACM show’s producers won’t pay to have an act’s own band back him or her up.
To succeed, the ACMs need to present the best three hours of entertainment possible. The acts with the most appeal and/or name recognition should be given the chance to sing, despite label affiliation or other political maneuverings. It was a travesty that Trisha Yearwood only presented an award this year. She’s the genre’s best singer, she’s hot right now, and she would have nailed ”Real Live Woman.“ Rather than having several acts sing two songs each or both a duet and solo number, the awards show could have given those second slots to a deserving singer like Yearwood. Of the Top 5 country acts, only Faith Hill and Tim McGraw performed.
”On any awards show, you are never going to get all of your superstars,“ Siman responds. ”Frankly, that isn’t our mission. We’re not here to give every superstar the entire show. We try to introduce the audience to a lot of the new acts. We give nine new-performance slots to educate fans on what’s new and happening. We show them Faith and Tim, but also Jessica Andrews and Brad Paisley.
”We have a format with very few superstars. When you only have a handful of big acts, that makes it really tough when you put together a show.“ Indeed, with Shania Twain and Garth Brooks noticeably absent, only Faith Hill was able to inject a mix of glamour and excitement into the show. Without her, the awards would’ve been hopeless.
Siman says the show tried to go for spontaneous magical moments because that’s what makes for great TV. In the case of Billy Gilman’s collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel, he’s absolutely right, but the ACM’s attempts at creating TV magic didn’t always succeed. Take the first-ever live performance of George Strait and Alan Jackson singing ”Murder on Music Row,“ which complains about the industry’s forays into the pop world. Not only was the performance lackluster at best, it was inappropriate to kick off the show with a song criticizing the industry; that’s not the way to reach new fans, many of whom likely don’t have a clue what the song is about. As ”Row Fax“ put it, the song ”was hardly the warm-fuzzy, stay-tuned message needed to boost ratings and help country music make the best of a mega-exposure.“
Instead, the ACMs should have allowed Strait to sing unaccompanied. Fortunately, Jackson sang ”Blues Man,“ which is exactly what the show needed more of: undeniable superstars delivering irresistible songs. But that was a rarity this year. Instead, viewers were rewarded largely with lifeless, often subpar performances.
What’s more, the ACM stage also became a place for taking swipes at the CMAs and at country’s recent crossover attempts. George Jones sang ”Pop a Top“ before breaking into ”Choices,“ making a reference to his snubbing by the CMAs last year. Picking up on the ”Murder on Music Row“ theme in his acceptance speech, Brad Paisley said he only wanted to be played on country radio. The battle lineswhether it was ACM vs. CMA or country vs. popshould have been erased, if only for a night. You don’t air your family quarrels in public.
Now that the awards are over, the industryboth ACM board members and unofficial Music Row tastemakersshould begin serious discussions about the future of the show. To continue in its present form will only serve as a detriment to the industry. Country music simply can’t afford to look this bad in front of so many people.
”We are asking, ‘How can we make it more interesting television?’ “ Siman says. ”Is it better production, more bells and whistles, more pyro craziness, or better sound quality...? My advice to those who would criticize the show is: Get involved. If you have a good idea, present it. These decisions are not made in the back room; they are made in the open.“
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