The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
Damon Whiteside joined the Academy of Country Music as CEO in 2020. In his time leading the Academy, he has guided the trade association through the COVID-19 pandemic including the launch of the timely ACM Lifting Lives Covid Response Fund; innovated the future of awards shows and made history when the 57th Academy of Country Music Awards became the first-ever major awards show to exclusively livestream globally through a pioneering deal with Amazon’s Prime Video, kicking off the partnership with a supersized show live from Las Vegas’ new football stadium; and ushered in a new chapter for the Academy by relocating the ACM headquarters to Nashville after nearly 60 years in Southern California.
Serving as Executive Producer for the Academy, Whiteside brought the renowned ACM Honors show back to television with an exclusive FOX partnership, and will oversee the return of The 58th ACM Awards to Prime Video this May, live from the Dallas Cowboys’ world headquarters in Frisco, Texas with music’s most iconic host pairing, superstars Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks.
He has also reinforced the Academy’s commitment to creating a more inclusive environment for underrepresented groups in country music, from the boardroom to the stage, launched both a two-year professional development curriculum for rising leaders and a guaranteed income program for Black members of the Nashville music community, in partnership with the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC).
Whiteside previously spent six years at the Country Music Association, where he most recently served as Chief Marketing Officer, and was responsible for the organization’s most groundbreaking initiatives across marketing, digital, partnerships and international, highlighted by the award-winning CMA Awards 50th anniversary campaign. Prior to that, he formed Nomad Entertainment Group in Hollywood, where he represented multi-genre music artists, producers and songwriters, and worked for more than 15 years at The Walt Disney Company in marketing, franchise development and partnerships across roles at The Walt Disney Studios, Disney Consumer Products and Disney-ABC Networks Group.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Southern California. Riverside, California is where I was born and raised. I went to college in Orange County and I commuted from Riverside my first year, so I lived there until I was about 18 or 19 years old.
Were you into music growing up?
I loved music. I was in the choir during elementary school and I played a little bit of piano, but I wasn’t a hardcore musician. I just really appreciated music. It has been my passion from the time I was 11 or 12—I just loved everything about music business.
When I was 15, I frequented the local record store in Riverside. I thought it would be the most fun place to work, so I actually applied several times because I was bound and determined to get a job there. I finally got hired as a seasonal employee for Christmas. That was the start for me. From there, I knew my life was going to revolve around music.
How did your career start?
I ended up working at the record store almost all through college. I transferred to other stores in the record store chain. It was called Music Plus back then—it was a west coast record store chain—but then it became Blockbuster Music, so I got to wear the blue polo and khaki pants for a few years when it became Blockbuster Music. [Laughs]
I did a lot in college to follow [my passion for] music. I worked on campus in the concerts division, doing publicity for the concerts on campus, which gave me a taste for booking shows. I also started doing some internships to get my feet wet. I was given the opportunity to intern at the L.A. pop station, KIIS-FM, with Rick Dees in the morning. That gave me a taste of the radio world.
I really wanted to be in music, but I was also a big Disney fan. I grew up around Disneyland, and I would go as a kid. My college was really close to Disneyland, so most of my friends worked there. I used to go to Disneyland for free all the time, so I became a big Disney fan. I found an internship opportunity my last semester of college with Disney, working on their movie premieres.
What followed that internship?
With my internship, I had gotten my foot in the door at Disney and I had developed some relationships. When I graduated, they recommended me for another internship for the summer after my graduation. It was a paid internship working in the film division, so I got to actually travel around the midwest and go to movie theaters to represent Disney. That was a really great way to learn about film distribution and marketing. That ended and then I got hired on at Disney studios as a temp in film distribution. That was amazing. I wasn’t a permanent employee, but I was getting to work 9 to 5 and be at the studio on the lot. It was so great to be around it all, learn and meet people.
Ultimately, my dream was still music. I wanted to be in music, even though I started to go down to the film path. One day, the absolute perfect thing fell out of the sky for me. The woman that I was working for in film distribution told me about a job opening at the Disney Music Group doing music for all the films.
Tell me about that opportunity.
I interviewed for it and got the job as a permanent full-time Marketing Coordinator for Walt Disney Records. We did the music for all the Disney movies and worked with all artists that did Disney movies. We did Broadway cast albums and music for television shows and theme parks. It was a dream. I was there for 12 years and moved my way up. When I left Disney Music Group, I was Sr. VP of Marketing, so I started as a Coordinator and moved my way up to there.
What were some of your favorite projects that you worked on during that time?
The one that really stands out to me was the Tarzan film. Phil Collins wrote the music for it. I’m a huge Phil Collins fan and I got to work really closely with Phil and his team. They actually took that to Broadway and did a Broadway version of it, so I got to work on that as well. That was probably one of the biggest highlights.
We got to do a project with Yanni, the new age artist. It was called Yanni Voices—it was an amazing project. He had these young, incredible singers that put words to all of his instrumental songs. We did a major world tour and a television special around it.
The other thing I have to highlight is I got to work in the teen scene, because Walt Disney Records started getting into the teen music business when that became a big hit for Disney Channel. So I got to work on things like launching Hilary Duff‘s career as well as Miley Cyrus‘ career with Hannah Montana. We helped launch The Jonas Brothers, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and all of those teen acts.
When did you transition out of Disney?
I ended up staying at Disney for quite a while. After I left the music group, I ended up I worked as the Head of Marketing for the Disney stores globally. Then I opened my own agency and I was doing marketing and brand consulting, as well as managing some artists with a management partner. I did that for a few years and really learned a lot and enjoyed it, but I was getting burned on L.A. a little bit. It was really tough being independent in that market, and I started to miss being in a team environment. So, I started opening myself up and having conversations with people.
There was a recruiter that was looking for [someone to fill the role of] Head of Marketing and Partnerships for the Country Music Association. They ended up flying me to Nashville for an interview. I knew nothing about Nashville, I had only been here once or twice for quick trips, but I was open to a change. They had me go to the CMA Awards and I was totally blown away by it. Long story short, they made me an offer and I made the move across country. That was in 2014.
You stayed at the CMA for six years, rising to Chief Marketing Officer. What were some of your proudest moments from your time there?
The 50th anniversary of the CMA Awards—I’m really proud of that show. I’m really proud of all the stuff we got to do with Brad [Paisley] and Carrie [Underwood] over the years as hosts of that show. The “Forever Country” music video that we did that had 50 of the greatest country artists of all time in it was an unbelievable feat. Another highlight was getting to work with Ken Burns on launching the Country Music documentary film. That was probably one of the highlights of my life, working on that with Ken and his team.
You became CEO of the Academy of Country Music in 2020. Tell me about that transition.
It was totally unexpected. RAC Clark was the interim Executive Director at the time and they were on the search for a CEO. A board member at the ACM reached out to me about it. Honestly, I was really happy at CMA. I love Sarah Trahern, she’s a very dear friend of mine, and I love the team there and was really proud of everything we built.
It was a really tough decision, but I felt like I was ready to spread my wings. When I learned more about what the ACM was looking for, some of the challenges and some of the opportunities there, I got really excited about it. I was excited about how I could bring my experience from working in Los Angeles in the studio world, but also being in Nashville and having had time to get to know the industry and the artists really well. I felt like it could be a great opportunity for me to use all my skills to lead this organization.
I started in January of 2020 and here I am three years later. I’m happy to say that I recently renewed my deal and I’ll be there for another three years, so I’m planning to dig in a little deeper and stay a while.
You started in January of 2020 and had to respond to the pandemic a few months later. On top of that, ACM recently moved its headquarters to Nashville, among a lot of other projects and initiatives. What are you goals moving forward?
It’s really about aligning what a trade organization is in today’s world. The business model of the industry has changed so much. In terms of our award show, which is what we’re most known for, we were able to transition it to the streaming space on Amazon’s Prime Video, which makes us the first and only award show to do to that. We’ve had to really innovate how we produce the show and how we market the show—everything is different being on a streaming platform, but there’s a lot of opportunity as a global show.
Looking ahead, it’s about continuing to strengthen our partnership with Amazon and finding more ways to grow the show on a global basis. Other goals include bringing more opportunities to our artists, strengthening and bringing more value to our membership.
We are also really focusing in on our DEI efforts. Beyond our DEI task force that’s been in existence for a few years, we just launched a Rising Leaders program last year. We’re now in the second cohort of that this year. We also just launched an OnRamp program with the Black Music Action Coalition, so that’s another big initiative. There’s a lot that we can do in that space and to lift up our artists of color.
Who have been some of your mentors?
I’ve been fortunate to work with so many people. We had a lot of great leadership at Disney over those years. I always really admired Michael Eisner when he was at Disney, as well as Bob Iger—he was an incredible leader. In Nashville, I’ve had so many good mentors. Sarah Trahern was a huge mentor to me and still is. Ed Hardy, who isn’t with us any longer, was the one responsible for bringing me into Nashville when he hired me at the CMA. Joe Galante is an incredible mentor of mine. John Esposito, Mike Dungan and Scott Borchetta have all been great. Ed Warm was the Chairman of the ACM Board when I was hired. Ed is a huge mentor as well as Lori Badgett and Chuck Aly.
What is some of the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s been a rough three years in a lot of ways. COVID was tough, we’ve had to move our show three times and it has created a lot of chaos and stress. Sometimes it’s challenging. Cindy Mabe said to me once that the Academy needs to survive. She said, “What you’re doing and your efforts are on behalf of country music.” That has really stuck with me. When I get into the minutiae of my job, get down about something or feel like something is really challenging, I think about how I’m doing this for country music. It’s not just for the Academy—it’s for the country music industry, it’s for our artists and it’s for our membership. That always gives me motivation when I feel like I can’t do something. It keeps me going.
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