Q’s With CMA CEO Sarah Trahern On What She’s Most Fired Up For At CMA Fest

Ricky Don’t Lose Her Number:
Terry Wyatt/Getty for The Country Hall
– Ricky Don’t Lose Her Number:
CMA CEO Sarah Trahern at the 2018 Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Medallion Ceremony honoring Johnny Gimble, Ricky Skaggs and Dottie West on Oct. 21, 2018, in Nashville. Here she is holding Skaggs’ 1981 album, Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine.

As Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern steps up for the 48th CMA Fest, formerly known as Fan Fair, the accomplished television executive realizes that in a world obsessed with “brand,” her four-day event on either side of the Cumberland River in Nashville is about the human side of what makes country music unite and connect with people across the world. With registrants from 36 countries, the genre’s global impact is clearly felt. Yet few music events – created by a parent organization – have the same family feel.

Though people across America can watch the three-hour “CMA Fest” special on ABC this summer, the June 6-9 multi-layered event needs to be experienced to truly be understood. Whether an intimate acoustic performance at a Fan Club Party, a chance encounter at the CMA Fan Fair X building or singing along to the biggest line-ups anywhere each night at Nissan Stadium, the CMA creates something that forges bonds among fans, between the artists and, above all, gives those fans a peek into where the music comes from.

Here, the former HGTV executive and Vanderbilt MBA (with a little help from CMA CMO Damon Whiteside) considers this year’s Music Fest, its growth and why it still matters in a world of right-now, turbo-connectedness and a different kind of immediate gratification.
Pollstar: This is always such a rush-rush, big wow! kind of week for country music fans. What are the three things this year you’re the most fired up about?
Sarah Trahern: I certainly have a few I am looking forward to. But usually my highlight is something unexpected.
First, our Executive Producer Robert Deaton has surprises and interesting collaborations planned for the fans every night at the big stadium show. He always comes up with great stuff, so the big shows are a must.
Second, we have been working closely with Ken Burns’ team this year on the amazing documentary “Country Music,” airing on PBS in September. We will have clips from it throughout the festival and there is a panel with his producer Dayton Duncan along with artists including Kathy Mattea, Ketch Secor, Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart at 1 p.m. at the Closeup Stage inside Fan Fair X at the Music City Center on Sunday.
And lastly, I am excited about how we have integrated the CMA Foundation and our music education efforts throughout the festival this year. You will see this in signage, in fan “busking” opportunities using retired pianos from Nashville public schools that were re-painted by local artists and supported by our partner US Bank, as well as some special performances by students throughout the footprint.
Having watched the incredible growth, how does Music Fest reflect the ethos of why country fans love this music?
There are so many things to love about CMA Fest. First and foremost is the passion of the fans. CMA is in its 48th year of hosting a festival in early summer.  While some things have changed since then (thankfully the smell of the barn at the Fairgrounds), the unique relationship between country artists and their fans is so special. It’s on full display, whether through the autograph sessions, intimate panels at the Closeup stage or their own private fan club parties. 
CMA Fest is truly all about music discovery.  We have over 300 artists playing on 11 stages over the four days.  We have many Country Music Hall of Fame members teed up this year, as well as over 50 independent and new artists at our Spotlight Stage. There’s really something for everyone, no matter what kind of country you like.
As for the stadium shows, I think it supports our music exposure mission in so many ways. First, you have the four nights of performances for those fans who are lucky enough to get tickets. Next, a three-hour version of the stadium shows airs on ABC in early August. And last, we then distribute that show around the world so fans in Latin America, the UK and Norway can discover new music and artists.

Over the last several years, CMA Fest has turned into a major financial boom for Nashville. How do the city powers that be view 
the festival?
Last year, we brought roughly 88,000 fans per day to the downtown festival footprint, which generated over $61million in direct visitor spending. This is Nashville’s top annual event. We had visitors from all 50 states and 36 countries last year. We work closely all year long with the city, from the Mayor’s office and Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp., to police, fire, public works, and the merchants downtown. We will begin our planning meetings for next year with them in just a few weeks when the success of this year is fresh in everyone’s mind.

What have you been able to accomplish from that added buy-in?
I think many who work for us are, at first, surprised that we give a minimum of half the proceeds each year to fund the Foundation.  Once they hear that, they often have an extra kick in their step.
Sure, there are people who don’t like the traffic, the noise, but we have so many free stages for the locals, as well as tourists, that the community knows we genuinely want it to be a Nashville plus event.
Sponsorships and a relationship with Madison Avenue has always been a place CMA has helped foster. How does CMA Fest become part of that?
Damon Whiteside: This year we have over 50 Fest sponsors and marketing partners, with 12 of those activating for the very first time. Each year we retain a majority of the prior year’s sponsors and convert new top-tier brands to experience how engaging and effective our festival is in building those one-to-one relationships between fans and brands. CMA was formed out of a need to connect with the Fortune 500 brand and advertising community, so it’s rewarding to see how CMA continues to serve that key strategic objective 60 years into our tenure.
How many people does it take to make this happen? How many of them are volunteers?
One day, I will sit down and count the actual number, but it takes an amazing number of people to make this a smooth experience.  We haven’t used “volunteers” for a few years – everyone who works for us gets paid but a number have been with us a long time …particularly at the Music City Center where we have the Fan Fair X Event Hall. This is the space that harkens back to the heart of the Fairgrounds. We have three stages, autograph booths, label booths, and artist and general merchandise. There are a number of workers who have been on our freelance team working CMA Fest/Fan Fair for over 40 years. On the flip side, we have a number of technical and industry personnel who take time off the road to help us out over the weekend at the various stages, including crew from Little Big Town, Chris Stapleton, Stone Temple Pilots, and Bad Company.  
So what does that mean for the CMA Foundation, which runs It Starts with M.E.
We give between $2.5 million $3 million to the CMA Foundation each year to support our work around the country. That M.E. for Music Education is so important to us all.
Do you remember when you first came to Fan Fair? Any favorite memories?
I interviewed for my job at TNN during Fan Fair in 1995, and stayed at the same hotel as Neal McCoy and his fan club. I saw the unique bond between the artists and fans then, so I can tell you it is every bit as special now. Every year after, I have been either at the Fairgrounds or downtown. One year, I happened to be backstage when the CMA staff, the weather and TV teams had to make the decision on whether to cancel the show for the night, or wait out the storms. It’s hard to believe that I am the one in that seat now.
So what next? What do you, the board, Robert Deaton and the folks at ABC who air the TV special dream of next?
Later this summer, we are going to jump into planning for the 50th anniversary of the festival in 2021! 
I can’t wait for us to jump into it to honor the past and the unique experience we have, but also set the stage for the next generation. It’s coming, and they’re going to be so very special, too.