"Well, why are there so many television networks? To make a buck," my dad, a lawyer and backseat economist, quipped when I told him of my latest investigation into the world of country music's various award shows.
Money makes the world go round, yes, but it's not quite that simple. Country's hottest awards programs—the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Country Music Association Awards, and the Country Music Television Awards—all came to be for different reasons. You probably know them better by their acronyms: ACMs, CMAs, CMTs. But there's good reason so many varied offerings exist, which beyond these mainstream programs also include the Americana Music Awards and even the British Country Music Awards (yes, country is, in fact, a thing across the pond!). "The many award shows cater to the growing need of an ever-diversifying genre like country," says Brandon Harrington, an industry expert and host/producer of the Nashville-based podcast . "They reflect the different 'genres' of country and even their respective fan bases."
As a country music writer, every day I see how multifaceted this music style is. One day, I'm writing about Florida Georgia Line's summer tour with Nelly; the next day, I'm grabbing coffee with the jazzy, fiery singer-songwriter to talk about her songwriting process. And the award shows are filled with similar diversity, often on the same stage within a three-hour time span. First, let's consider the "Big Two": the ACMs, which air on CBS, and the CMAs, which air on ABC. They've both partnered with NBC, ABC, and CBS over the years, but never at the same time, perhaps in an effort to reach different demographics with each station's audiences.
The Country Music Association was born in the Nashville in 1958, while the Academy of Country Music came along six years later in Los Angeles. Interestingly, southern California was a hot spot for country back then, perhaps thanks to the region's Western film productions and solid club-music scene. There, Western-based artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens strayed from the Nashville status quo and epitomized what's now known as . In describing the difference between SoCal and Nashville country, Merle Haggard was quoted in as having said, "I think the Grand Ole Opry music was more closely associated with church, and California was a little more with the barroom."
The ACM Awards started in 1966. The first (non-televised) "CMA Awards Banquet and Show" took place the following year, at Nashville's Municipal Auditorium. In 1968, the CMA Awards moved to the Ryman Auditorium, where it was broadcast on television for the first time. (Fun fact: It's the longest running annual music awards program on network TV). In 1974, the CMAs relocated to another famed Nashville landmark, the Grand Ole Opry, until 2005 when it spent a year in New York's Madison Square Garden before returning to Nashville at the much larger Bridgestone Arena, in 2006.
"The CMA Awards stage has been home to some of the most unforgettable moments in country music," says the association's CEO Sarah Trahern. "We often hear artists speak about those full circle moments—where they grew up watching the Awards, practicing acceptance speeches in the bathroom mirror, and now they're the ones inspiring the next generation."
Trahern points out that the CMA was the very first trade association dedicated to any genre of music. The organization will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year.
Just how big are the CMA Awards? "The viewership for the Country Music Awards show is a little less than half that of the Grammys, and a third that of the Oscars," says Jocelyn R. Neal, professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of . Unlike sports rivalries ('Bama vs. Auburn Tigers, anyone?) the relationship between the two awarding associations is very friendly, and not competitive. Both groups share a common mission to bolster the prominence of country music in America and celebrate the genre's artists.
Both awards shows consistently boast tens of millions of viewers. Seventeen million people tuned in to the 50th anniversary ACM Awards in 2015, and more than 70,000 attended the event in person, setting a Guinness World Record for the most-attended live awards show ever. Twelve million viewers tuned in the next year. The CMAs saw 15.25 million viewers in 2015, although it didn't fare as well for its 50th annual broadcast, in 2016, which aired at the same time as the highly anticipated World Series finale. It still managed to garner an impressive .
As for the CMTs, its roots are tied to our modern era, and our nation's bourgeoning obsession with various strains of country music. "The CMT awards in their present version are a product of the 2000s, with the increased attention to 'fan-voted' awards," says Neal. "CMT as a station was established in 1983, just a few years after MTV and during a time when music videos were becoming an important media format for popular music in general."
In terms of musical style, the Big Two are quite similar. "At various times in their histories, the ACMs and CMAs have had slightly different focuses within the many styles of country music, but the distinctions are not long-running or readily discernible in the present era. Many of the same artists are nominated in related categories on each show," says Neal.
"Back in the 1960s, the ACMs offered a slight preference toward West Coast artists and the styles of country music that emerged from California," she continues, which makes sense given the Academy's history. "All the award shows in recent years have also followed the trend of 'bro-country,' mainly because radio dubbed that sound to be the sound of country," adds Harrington.
Unlike the CMT Awards and the American Country Awards, which are voted on by fans, the CMAs and the majority of the ACMs are determined by the organizations' members.
The country music professionals who make up the Academy for each award category (Entertainer of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, etc.). From there, the 20 most voted-for artists in each category are vetted by a review committee to ensure they meet like radio airplay and touring stats, followed by two more rounds of voting by ACM members.
Likewise CMA membership is open to individuals employed full-time by the country music industry, and winners of the CMA Awards are determined by its from more than 30 countries around the world.
"In recent years, the CMTs and the American Country Awards filled the void of diverse categories and a 'fan-based' show," says Harrington, though some artists feel this creates a popularity contest syndrome.
Some critics think the creation of more recent awards shows is a ratings play, but the bottom line? They're not going away anytime soon. "More fan-based award shows cropped up in the past decade to cater to the enormous country-music fan base. We're talking about close to 110 million listeners," says Harrington. "If polka music had a fan base that huge we'd see a polka award show."
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