The Academy of Country Music’s Damon Whiteside And Lyndsay Cruz Recount 2020 [Interview]
In a challenging year for all, the Academy of Country Music, like most companies, worked hard to pivot.
Just two weeks after postponing the original April 18th show date for the 55th ACM Awards from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the Academy produced ACM Presents: Our Country, an at-home special that reached nearly 11 million viewers after airing on CBS and on CMT. In addition to the special, the Academy produced a pre-show that aired across Academy social platforms and Twitch, to which nearly 400,000 people live streamed.
During the show’s broadcast ACM Lifting Lives, the charitable arm of the Academy of Country Music, announced the launch of ACM Lifting Lives COVID- 19 Response Fund, created to assist those in the country music industry who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Since then, ACM Lifting Lives has raised and distributed $3.5 million. They reopened the fund on Giving Tuesday, in time to help more in need during this holiday season.
While gearing up for the first live awards show during the pandemic, ACM released its first single, “On The Road Again (ACM Lifting Lives Edition),” a collaboration featuring this year’s ACM New Artist nominees—including Ingrid Andress, Gabby Barrett, Jordan Davis, Russell Dickerson, Lindsay Ell, Caylee Hammack, Cody Johnson, and Morgan Wallen—and joined by the legendary Willie Nelson on the remake of his original hit.
Then, for the first time ever, the 55th ACM Awards took place in Nashville, Tennessee on Sept. 16 at three iconic locations including the Grand Ole Opry House, Ryman Auditorium and Bluebird Cafe. The 55th ACM Awards was the first live awards show during COVID-19, bringing a total of 7.63 million viewers, reaching the No. 1 driver of social videos online for the day. The Academy worked diligently to make sure safety protocols on-site including testing, sanitizing and health screenings were enforced leading up to and onsite. With all protocols in place, a virtual Radio Row and virtual Press Room was created in order to keep radio, media, press and artists safe during this time.
The Academy also launched a consumer-facing site to help promote label priorities and artists through summer and fall, ACM: The Hub. The Hub included virtual events such as Wine Down Wednesday, a happy hour series featuring rising female country music artists. On behalf of each artist, the Academy’s partner, 1000 Stories® Bourbon Barrel-Aged Wine, contributed a $2,000 donation towards the ACM Lifting Lives COVID-19 Response Fund, bringing in a total of $18,000 from the series. The Academy also launched the ACM: The Weekly, a live concert-like experience on ACM social platforms, on The Hub. The ACM Weekly features 3-4 artists each week.
The ACM’s CEO, Damon Whiteside, and ACM Lifting Lives Executive Director, Lyndsay Cruz, spoke with MusicRow recently about 2020, and what challenges and accomplishments the year entailed.
MusicRow: The start of the lockdown in the U.S. was so close to the ACM awards in April. You guys pivoted to the Our Country special in two weeks. Tell me about making that decision and how you guys were able to pull that together so quickly.
Whiteside: It was a pretty quick turnaround, but we felt like we already had that date secured on CBS and we knew that the fans were looking forward to an award show. So we were just so in that mode and, obviously, the artists were planning to perform and they wanted to be promoting their latest music. Of course, at the time, we thought maybe tours would be coming back in the summer, at that point we didn’t know. It just seemed like a really good opportunity for us to still utilize that date and a great opportunity to bring some comfort to the fans and just bring music to the fans. The [ACM Presents: Our Country] special was just an idea that was brought up between RAC Clark, our executive producer, myself, and our team Dick Clark Productions.
We just got on the phone one day and said, ‘Can we really pull this off?’ And at that point, too, there really hadn’t been any of the virtual shows yet. After our show aired, there were several after that. But we were about the first to do one of those. So we just jumped in; we took it to CBS and they really liked the idea, too. Within a day, we got it all approved and started reaching out to artists’ managers. It just all really came together. And of course, we gave direction to the artists, but we really had the artists shoot it themselves in their own homes or locations. It was an interesting flip of where they sort of put it together creatively themselves, where they were at. We just worked with them on all of that, and it obviously turned out really fantastic.
When it came time for the ACM Awards in September, you guys were really first out of the gate with a truly live awards show. What were the guiding posts of what was most important to you in planning that event?
Whiteside: It was the first true live awards show back, meaning that we had a lot of live elements in it, including the awards, which was really the first time that had been done where we had winners in the room, coming out on stage to accept awards. It was all live-hosted as well, Keith [Ubran] was there, live doing the hosting and several of the performances were all done live, too. So it was a lot of coordination. Our priority was that we really wanted to have as much live element to it as we possibly could, while being cognizant of the artist safety. That was a major part, ensuring that the artists felt safe, but that we could still be true to the award ceremony component of it by giving away the awards live.
We were able to accomplish that by being able to have artists essentially quarantine back on their buses and then as they needed to be on stage, then they were brought in. It was all very meticulously choreographed so that no artist would ever actually see each other, which would then cause them to go off and want to hug or talk to each other. We were really meticulous about that to make sure that an artist that came in to accept their award and then to do press, they would literally never see other artists. It was all staged that way so they were completely safe.
From the awards show perspective, it was all new for us, not only because of COVID, but it was the first time in Nashville in our history. We were in the three most iconic venues in Nashville, and going live to three different venues was something we had never done. So there were all of these elements that just were a first time thing for us. What was important was we wanted to really just honor the industry, of course, but also really honor the fact that we were in Nashville for the first time at these iconic venues and the fact that, artists had all been quarantined for so many months and we hadn’t seen them perform for so long. We just wanted to bring a really exciting show but also make sure that we were being really respectful of what was going on in the world and bringing some comfort, joy and music to the fans. It’s been dragging on so long that people feel disconnected from live events and disconnected from being able to see their favorite artists on a big stage, so it was important that we brought a full-sized show to them, but in a very safe way.
The ACM has given back $3.5 million in COVID relief aid and plans to continue to give back in 2021. Lyndsay, what does it mean to you for ACM Lifting Lives to have such an impact during this time?
Cruz: Oh gosh, don’t make me cry. We had a really ambitious slate of events and initiatives planned for 2020, for just the general fund of ACM Lifting Lives because [Taylor Wolf] the manager of ACM Lifting Lives—I call her my partner—we spent 2019 really trying to refine the mission of Lifting Lives. Not necessarily a rebrand, but just getting laser focused on what we do. So we’re excited about 2020 and all of the things we were going to accomplish. Of course, that all came to a screeching halt. We had always been operating a disaster relief fund, very quietly, called the Diane Holcomb Emergency Relief Fund. And that is for folks who are in the industry, who face the financial hardship or a personal disaster, whether that be a medical issue or something that happens to their home. So we had been set up to do that. And then when COVID hit, we realized we’re actually in a position to give back more. We have smart investment managers that sit on the board of Lifting Lives, we have some reserves. So we thought, ‘This is an opportunity to help people that the government wasn’t helping yet.’ We knew there was going to be a stimulus package, but we thought, ‘We can do this. We have the resources.’ So we created the application and then we started the process. We approved and allocated about a $1 million in approximately a week and a half, and these were small grants. These were $2,000, $1,000 grants based on need and criteria. Then the funds were gone.
From that point on, it was just any sort of fundraising opportunity we could grab onto, we did. We just completely focused on this fund because Stimulus checks ran out, PPP ran out, and there was no getting back on the road in sight. So we just continued to say, ‘We’ve got to keep on fundraising for this.’
[Through the fundraising efforts], we just kept banking the money and saying, ‘We know we’re going to reopen this fund. We don’t know how much, but we we’ve got to do it because the need is still so great.’ We had to close our fund, obviously, but we had a wait list. So people were just sort of waiting until we had funds to distribute.
We had about $500,000, in cash and from fundraising around September. We wanted to reopen the fund before the end of the year and we want to get money into people’s pockets before the holidays. So my awesome partner, Damon Whiteside at the ACM, and I crafted a plan to just start knocking on doors of companies that were under more financially stable footing, and the first were labels and DSPs. We got an amazing $500,000 gift from Amazon and we basically hit up every label and they all came in with a cash donation. So we raised about another $900,000, and then we made up with our reserves that difference to reopen the fund with $2 million. [As of this interview], we will have given out the $2 million. Taylor and I looked at the number today and I think we had about $75,000 left to give.
We’re so grateful that we’re in a position that we can do that, but we have a feeling that this is going to continue on for a bit longer, and so we’re trying to get ahead of it for 2021 to think about a third round.
Whiteside: I just want to give credit and kudos to Lyndsay and Taylor and their dedication this whole year. I’ve been at ACM almost a year, but I’m so impressed with Lifting Lives and the fact that it can be so nimble and it can be so many things to so many people in need. I’ve seen it just firsthand, them pivot this year from one need to another. I mean, we started the year with a tornado in Nashville and our team was out doing volunteer work and Lyndsay was working to get funds to people that needed it. And then it pivoted to COVID, and all the other things that we do on a daily basis. To me, it’s just been so powerful to see, as soon as there’s a need, Lifting Lives can identify the need and then address that need. I can’t underline enough the fact that yes, there is MusiCares out there, which was a huge fund that did great work, however, that was across the entire music industry. We’re the only ones that are doing this for country music, that’s literally serving the country music community directly with funding. So I have to applaud Lyndsay and the Lifting Lives team again on that. That’s pretty miraculous.
Damon, this was your first year at the ACM. Tell me what tackling such a difficult year was like during your first year.
Whiteside: I’ll have a better answer in January. I went into it really excited obviously, and there was a lot of major things to really tackle this year. A big part of that, too, is me just living in two cities. I was going to be half the time in L.A. and half in Nashville, so that was going to certainly be a challenge. Coming into it, I literally was just focused on the Vegas show in April and making that the best we can make it. There’s a lot of feedback I’d had from past years and I just had a lot of ideas and a lot of feedback from the staff and the board on a lot of things that we wanted to accomplish this year.
I wasn’t really [as focused on] introducing a bunch of new ideas, I really wanted to elevate what we do as an organization and elevate how we serve the industry. That would be a big win for year one. And then obviously, a couple of months in, everything started to change. I’ve said this a lot to our staff, too, that I feel like, in a strange way, the pandemic really forced us to be more innovative than we probably could have ever been. Our Country really proved it to us, where we could pivot from canceling an awards show in Vegas to immediately flipping and doing a two hour CBS special, plus the livestream. All of that was just learning, you know, there’s really no rules here. If we have a really strong idea and we have the support of the board, let’s go for it and make it happen. I think it really showed all of us that we could do things differently and we didn’t have to do things based on how we’d done them in the past. It was almost like, everything is up for discussion this year.
Is there any update on the Nashville office space?
Whiteside: Not at the moment. We’re still researching. Nothing has been decided as of yet, a lot of that being just because of the year. Hopefully early next year we’ll be able to make some decisions and determine what that’s going to look like for us. Nothing has been confirmed yet.
Of all the successes and resilience that the Academy has shown this year, what are each of you most proud of?
Cruz: All the arrows point to the COVID fund and how many people we’ve been able to help. To date, we’ve been able to help about 2,000 people. Again, these are small grants that we’re helping people just put food on the table or pay their rent or mortgage. Hearing from the folks and what a significant impact that made for them; we had people say, ‘Wow, we didn’t think anyone cared,’ and also, ‘When I’m in a better place, I’d really love to come back and help you all in some way.’ That’s incredibly powerful for us.
[I’m also proud of] the amazing partnership with Vanderbilt in Nashville. This year we had our 11th annual ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp, which is a research educational camp for people with a developmental disease called Williams Syndrome. It brings together these campers from around the country to do songwriting with the amazing Ross Copperman, and Runaway June sat in and helped write the song. We were still able to do that, even though it was virtual, and we had other artists like Tenille Townes, Michael Ray and Frankie Ballard. So we were able to still pull that off, and we expanded our partnership with Vanderbilt and were able to announce a $750,000 endowment to expand our work with people living with autism. So we’re able to create the ACM Lifting Lives Autism Lab at Vanderbilt, and it’s going to establish autism as one of our signature initiatives.
Whiteside: Obviously I want to echo everything she said, I don’t think there’s anything bigger we can point out than the COVID response. That’s just hands down, obviously our proudest moment or accomplishment of the year. But, on the ACM side, I feel like we’ve really elevated the ACM brand this year and what it means to the industry and the fans. We’ve been able to really serve the industry more than we have in a lot of years, if not ever, just in terms of having the Our Country special right at the moment our artists needed it most. It was right at the beginning of the pandemic, when people were more scared, and we got such a great response about what comfort that brought the fans. And then, I couldn’t be more proud of the show in Nashville. We started out the year thinking that we were going to be country’s party of the year, which is our normal positioning for the show, and then ended up doing a night of hurt and hits with a new host and with being the first live show back. I’m proud we were able to pay respect to the Nashville community. So between those things, it just made ACM able to really support our industry and in a huge way.