Nov 10, 2021 - Business
Country music revs back up with CMA Awards
Luke Bryan holding a CMA award, which he hosts tonight
Luke Bryan will host the CMA Awards. Photo: Robby Klein/ABC via Getty Images

The return of the CMA Awards tonight to a packed house of fans offers the beleaguered country music industry the opportunity to turn the page after a bruising two years.

Why it matters: The pandemic decimated Nashville's music industry — shutting down tours that fueled the country music economy and leaving hundreds of professionals out of work.

  • Axios in recent days interviewed some of Music Row's most consequential executives to take the temperature of the country music industry, which revealed Nashville is quietly optimistic about returning to its pre-pandemic normal.

What they're saying: Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern heralded the CMA Awards' return to Bridgestone Arena — in front of fans who will be asked to show proof of vaccination — as a long-awaited return to normal.

  • "I got goosebumps when I entered Bridgestone for the first time this year during rehearsals," Trahern tells Axios. "Even something as simple as picking up my credential nearly brought me to tears."
  • Jennie Smythe, president and CEO of Nashville-based Girlilla Marketing, calls the CMA Awards a "guiding light for what is possible" in 2022.
  • "They are providing a homecoming, a gathering for people to not only see a great show and watch amazing performances, but also for our industry and community to re-acquaint themselves and shed some of the worry and grief we’ve been holding on to for the last couple of years," Smythe tells Axios.

Yes, but: The genre still faces ongoing questions of racial and gender inclusivity after rising star Morgan Wallen was recorded using a racial slur. Wallen is nominated for a CMA award for album of the year.

  • Country music has seen more women of color emerge in recent years, led by Mickey Guyton. Trahern tells Axios she's excited by country music's "broadening lens."
  • "We have a lot of work to do, but I’m grateful for the progress and commitment our industry has shown to move the genre towards greater expansion and inclusivity."

How to watch: The CMA Awards will broadcast live on ABC at 7pm.

Go deeper: In Music Row boardrooms, the strategic challenges created by the pandemic have been compounded by the decline of country music's bread and butter: radio.

What they're saying: "Losing a huge radio station in one of our biggest markets should be a wake-up call for the industry," Warner Music Nashville chairman and CEO John Esposito tells Axios. "To ensure the long-term health of our format, we need to adapt to changes in the radio landscape. We also need to… adapt to changes in the tech landscape.

  • "And, after two years in a pandemic, we need to adapt to changes in the touring landscape. These are three key and constantly transforming elements of our industry."

The bottom line: Despite challenges, Music Row execs overall seem optimistic about getting back on track.

  • Warner Music executive vice president and general manager Ben Kline tells Axios that consumption of country music is slightly outpacing the music industry in general over the last year.
  • Platforms such as TikTok and video games have served as new "opportunities for expansion and visibility" for new and legacy artists, Kline says, pointing out that TikTok recently lifted the streaming numbers of the old Randy Travis hit "Diggin' Up Bones."
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