Point of View
asks the following question...
What does the future hold for the
CMAA and country music?
by Mike McClellan
Doing the Tamworth Two Step
I am returning to Tamworth in late January for the Country Music
Festival. I have been there in early January in recent times to teach at
the Country Music Academy (as it is now called) but have usually left
before the festival really gets underway. This will be the first time I
have played a concert there during the height of the festival for many
years. I will be there for at least five days so I’ll get the chance to
soak up some of the music and atmosphere that I haven’t experienced in a
In common with most festivals, numbers in recent years have been down.
The economy, particularly in the demographic that loves country music,
has been stagnant for some time and they have not travelled as much as
they might have in the past. In addition the Country Music Association
of Australia (CMAA) has been through a very difficult time, struggling
to maintain sponsorship funding for its Golden Guitars Award night,
experiencing a decline in membership (and consequent loss of revenue)
and dismissing it’s general manager after a highly embarrassing gaff two
years ago when the wrong singer was given a major award without the
mistake being corrected on the night.
For all the admirable things the CMAA has achieved (the Academy being
just one of many) it cannot escape criticism. I have been a member and,
in common with several with whom I have spoken, let my membership lapse
in the last 12 months. I have been critical of its failure to
communicate with its members – in the years in which I retained my
membership I was never once sent a copy of its annual report (that it
may never have issued one is another matter). I had no information about
membership numbers, its financial situation, what it had achieved during
the year, the problems it encountered or what strategies were to be
adopted to address the major issues it faced.
I wasn’t asked to participate in any research into what the membership
might think of its own organisation or how it might improve its services
to members. Industry bodies exist only to serve the needs and interests
of their membership – damned near impossible if you don’t know what they
are. The failure to tangibly demonstrate care and concern for membership
needs and then communicate outcomes is, I suspect, one of the principal
reason why membership has declined. I should caution that on the subject
of membership numbers I am speaking from anecdotal reports – I don’t
have any concrete figures to back up my assertion – again another
measure of the failure to communicate with the membership.
That the Awards have continued despite the serious financial state of
the CMAA is due largely to the indefatigable Joan Douglas who recently
retired from the board and her role as Chairperson. She has been
instrumental in securing Council funding to enable the CMAA and its
Awards night to continue. Council support is simply recognition of the
significant income the festival generates for the town – revenue that
for many businesses is the difference between making a profit and merely
existing. It is also due recognition of the bond that exists in
Australia between the twin brands Tamworth and country music.
And that bond will remain if for no other reason than that the CMAA
doesn’t own the brand name "Golden Guitars". It is owned by Tamworth
Regional Council. Do I hear a collective intake of breath? Yep, the CMAA
doesn’t own the brand name of its own awards. The brand "Golden Guitars"
was 'sold’ to the council some years ago in return for financial support
to continue to grow the festival. As inexplicable as that may seem the
CMAA and Tamworth are now so intertwined that it is mutually beneficial
they both work together to support the short and long term interests of
So, what does the future hold for the CMAA and country music? I’m not
sure I know. Hopefully my trip to Tamworth in January will go some way
towards answering that question. But one thing is certain, country music
is changing inexorably, as is the music business in general. I have
heard it said by a number of people that country music isn’t creating
the stars of the past – "where are the John Williamsons, Lee Kernaghans,
Gina Jeffreys, Troy Cassar Daleys and Kasey Chambers of the future?"
they say somewhat despairingly. It is true that any entertainment
category, irrespective of the audience it seeks to appeal to, needs
"stars". However, any preconceived notions of how you went about
creating 'stars’ has gone out the window in the digital age with the
increasingly fragmented nature of the media and the entertainment
environment. At the top end of the market record companies no longer
simply make music and sell it. They have been forced through financial
necessity to become vertically integrated businesses seeking to earn a
piece of the action at every touch point between an artist and his or
her audience – CD sales, downloads, merchandise, concert receipts,
sponsorships, copyright royalties, endorsements, TV appearances, etc,
etc. The manner in which shows such as The Voice, Australia's Got
talent, Australian Idol and The X Factor churn out instant stars who all
get their 15 minutes of fame is indicative of the way in which talent is
now manipulated for the financial benefit of the investors – they being
the TV channels, the record companies, publishers, telecommunications
companies, the production companies, etc.
How then does country music sustain itself in such an environment and
how do the young aspiring stars of the future reach an audience and
create a viable market?
I saw two of my past students from the Country Music Academy on The
Voice this year. They sang well without ever being likely to progress
much further than the first round or two. That Keith Urban was a judge
probably led them to believe that they might get a sympathetic hearing.
But Urban, for all his country credentials, is, in the broadest sense of
the phrase, a "pop star", albeit a slightly more sophisticated one than
Justin Bieber and, given what his brief must have been from the show's
producers, was unlikely to settle for anyone who couldn't deliver across
the genre divide. That they chose to enter reflects the perception among
the younger market, country or otherwise, of the road to commercial
success. Country music is awash with talent quests, few of which lead
anywhere and most are simply a way for the local pub or club to pull an
audience without having to pay for the entertainment.
That said there is within that much maligned entertainment format a
lesson to be learned. Go to any local talent quest and you will find
most performers have gathered up 20 or more friends and family to come
along and support them. Often it is the performer with the biggest
supporter group who wins the night – grassroots fans with a personal
involvement with the talent. These days it's the performer with the
biggest and most active Facebook page, website, YouTube or Twitter
presence who wins. For those starting out in any genre, country, pop or
rock, it's coming down increasingly to building an audience from the
ground up not from the top down for those who want to sustain a career.
Building grassroots fans takes time and commitment to the process – it
is a much more demanding a process than recording a killer song, getting
it played on the radio and watching it rocket to the top of the charts.
That helps of course but that's a lottery few will ever win, certainly
in these changing times.
And what must the CMAA do to remain relevant and not be completely
subsumed by the power that the Tamworth Regional Council now commands?
That's a tough one. But it needs to be answered and the membership needs
to be kept fully informed.
I will continue these reflections on my return from Tamworth. Whether I
will have gathered any significant insights remains to be seen, but the
research will be fun.
© 2013 Mike McClellan
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