The Country Music Association: What Is It Afraid Of?
Copyright © 1998 Stacy Harris
"We've worked long and hard to make our business big and now that it is, it isn't fun anymore."
-Joe Talbot, former CMA President and Chairman of the Board
"Elephants will be nesting in trees before I do anything for the Country Music Association."
Country Music On The Rocks
In 1958, with
firmly established as the King of Rock ‘n' Roll, rebellious rock's disc jockeys, seeing the need for organization amid the chaos, held court at what became the genre's first annual convention.
The idea that disc jockeys should organize did not originate with the rock jocks, however. Back in 1952, the 35-member member Country Music Disc Jockey Association
was formed, after it dawned on the nation's top country & western, or country-western, disc jockeys, as they were known at the time, that they didn't know each other. They decided to remedy that.
Rock's popularity was well on the way to killing country music. Harry "Hap" Peebles,
whose Hap Peebles Booking Agency was country-music's largest and best-known talent supplier, complained in the June 16, 1958 issue of The Music Reporter, that after
booking a three-week tour featuring some of country's biggest stars, he "dropped slightly over $20,000.
I averaged about a thousand dollars a day loss on the tour." Peebles added that he and other
country-music promoters were ready to quit the business.
Once bookings dived, country would be lucky to sell 50,000 records and it became a chore to spin platters for smaller audiences of listeners. When the c & w records weren't being heard, they didn't sell and the prospects for the future of country music seemed no brighter than two years earlier when
felt the financial necessity to rock ‘n' roll.
At the urging of Starday Records' Pappy Dailey, George recorded "Rock It" b/w "How Come It" on the Starday label. Jones was billed on those releases and on "Dadgummit," as
"Thumper" (as in the rabbit from the movie, "Bambi") Jones, in order to disassociate himself as much as possible from the rock recordings.
Even as CMDJA members feared for their livelihoods (the Association itself was officially having financial difficulties though there was talk of internal theft), they knew that they'd miss the camaraderie, should country music continue its downhill spiral and these men decided to do something about it.
An Association Disbands, A New Association Is Born
The CMDJA members got the attention of other industry leaders who, according to
W. D. "Dee" Kilpatrick (who was at that time the director of WSM's Artist Services Bureau) and Len Ellis (then a CMDJA member) had already discussed forming an organization that would have a broader base than the CMDJA.
According to the October 27, 1958 issue of The Music Reporter, as early as the spring of 1958, a steering committee of temporary officers for what later became the
Country Music Association was formed. Acuff-Rose President
Wesley Rose was elected president, Hubert Long Agency President
Hubert Long served as secretary and Kilpatrick was chosen as treasurer for the unnamed coalition.
The men had but one purpose: to determine if they could preserve and enhance the popularity of the music that they loved. Unfortunately, their efforts were not enough to prevent yet another casualty of rock's assault on country: The financially-ailing, nearly-dormant Country Music Disc Jockey Association decided to disband not long after a June 27, 1958 Dinner Key Auditorium
benefit show for the Association during its convention in Miami.
THE WILBURN BROTHERS
who headlined the show, did not sell enough tickets to resuscitate the organization; at least to the satisfaction of its members.
Following the benefit, Kilpatrick, Rose, noted broadcasting entrepreneur and promoter
Connie B. Gay and Doyle Wilburn met in a room
at the Miami hotel where they were staying. During the meeting Kilpatrick, Rose and Long were asked to merge their group with the CMDJA, but the idea was rejected in favor of forming a broader-based organization that could better represent all segments of the country-music industry.
THE WILBURN BROTHERS
concert raised about $3,000 for the CMDJA. When the CMDJA disbanded, that money
was given to the Nashville group to help with what became the creation of the
Country Music Association.
A series of meetings continued throughout the summer of 1958, further convincing the participants that there just might be strength in numbers. The idea for the Country Music Association may have originated in Miami, but the principals returned to Nashville, where they recruited a steering committee of three: Tree President and WKDA Vice-President and General Manager, Jack Stapp, Jim Denny,
founder and owner of Cedarwood Publishing Company and Hubert Long.
On August 14, 1958 the caretakers' committee met at the Hermitage Hotel, where it officially decided to form the Country Music Association. CMA began with 50 charter members (who paid $100 each for their lifetime memberships) in nine membership categories: These groupings represented disc jockeys, artists, musicians, managers, promoters, booking agents, songwriters, publishers, print and broadcast media and record company personnel, not to mention "ballroom operators" and the catchall category, "Non-Affiliated."
(According to the CMA's current Executive Director, Ed Benson,
Kilpatrick and Ellis indicate that it was at the August 14th meeting that Rose was tapped as chairman and Hubert Long as acting secretary.)
The efforts of Stapp, Denny, Long and the other faithful were rewarded when, following the signing of an Application for Charter at a September 26th committee meeting at Acuff-Rose Publishing, the Country Music Association was chartered in the state of Tennessee that same day, as a not-for-profit mutual interest membership organization duly recognized under the provisions of IRS Code Section 501 (c) 6.
On October 1st the caretakers' committee met again at Acuff-Rose. On November 20th, at the same location, they convened the first of what would become yearly meetings scheduled as a preliminary event to the annual Disc Jockey Convention. (Now known as the Grand Ole Opry Birthday Celebration, the gathering was held November 21-22, 1958.)
Following meetings of the caretakers committee (at the Cross Keys Restaurant on October 9, 1958 and at the Hermitage Hotel's City Club November 6), a meeting was held on November 13, for the purpose of previewing speeches to be made at the what would the first of CMA's annual meetings.
On November 19th the caretakers joined the bylaws committee at the City Club to formulate the bylaws.
The Country Music Association's first formal organizational meeting, on November 20, 1958 at WSM Radio's Studio C, featured speeches made on the organization's pluses. A founding Board elected at that time chose Wesley Rose as its chairman.
In its October 27, 1958 issue, The Music Reporter suggested that "Full participation of tradesters... can make and keep the new association fully democratic and guard against straying into possible political ventures."
The Country Music Association Enters The Mainstream
By the time the Country Music Association opened its offices at 604 Exchange Building on December 8, 1958, CMA had a membership of 233 industry executives and artists. Its nine directors and five officers. These included such industry standard-bearers as Chairman of
the Board Wesley Rose, CMA President Connie B. Gay
(who had been elected by the Board during its election of officers on November 21, 1958) and Director-at-Large Jack Stapp.
One crucial addition was that of an office manager: Mrs. Charles F. (Jo) Walker.
Walker, the Country Music Association's first and, in the beginning, only employee, and CMA charter member/secretary Mac Wiseman were added to the "committee of three" that included Dee Kilpatrick, Hubert Long,
and Wesley Rose.
Most importantly, the Country Music Association became the first trade association of its kind established with the purpose of promoting a musical genre.
Given this goal and the fact that CMA's founders had nothing to lose, coexisting with demon rock 'n' roll didn't seem quite so impossible, especially following the response to the CMA's ad/open appeal for members appearing in the February 8, 1959 issue of The Music Reporter.
In fact, by late 1959 it seemed country's efforts at rebounding might be assisted by rock music's appearing to be sowing the seeds of its own destruction: The front-page headline of The Miami Herald's November 25, 1959 edition
("Booze, Broads and Bribes" by Dan Brown) said it all:
the Herald had gotten word of the excesses occurring during the second annual rock 'n' roll disc jockey convention and quicker than you could say Alan Freed or
Dick Clark, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight scheduled payola hearings in February, 1960.
While the convention of rock jocks spent November of 1959 getting drunk, consorting with call girls, partaking of alcohol and making shady deals, the year-old Country Music Association experienced a growth spurt, increasing its board to 18 directors and its officers to nine.
Meanwhile, back in Nashville CMA Executive Director Harry Stone, who had assumed his position in February, 1959 left his post later that year, most likely due to a combination of ill
health and the fact that the cash-poor CMA couldn't afford to pay both his salary and Jo Walker's.
Funds were so scarce that during at least one board meeting, the hat was passed in order to pay Walker, who, after Stone left, assumed the executive director's responsibilities for some time before she ever received the job title.
Walker (now Jo Walker-Meador) realized early on the necessity of the trade association's upgrading country music's "hayseed" image at a time when more than the music's integrity was questioned. At that time, country-music performers would think nothing of showing up late for performances, running out on stage disheveled, drinking or even being drunk on stage. (It would take a few years but, by the late '60s, CMA had a voluntary code of ethics
in place. Among the signatories were
Hugh X. Lewis,
Not even the Country Music Association could legislate respectability, but by 1961 CMA's Board of Directors had established the Country Music Hall of Fame, in order not merely to dignify, but to immortalize, country music's greatest contributors.
(who would be elected president of the Country Music Association in 1964) hosted CMA's first sponsored luncheon for advertisers in New York. It is not known what the lucky ad exec who won the door prize did with his Tennessee walking horse.
The Hall of Fame's first (1961) inductees,
and Hank Williams,
as well as
George D. Hay
Uncle Dave Macon
who were the next to so honored, were inducted before the Hall of Fame even had a presence on Music Row. (Ironically, as the CMA before it, the Country Music Foundation, which oversees the Hall of Fame and Museum, was also born in Miami; during the Country Music Association's 1961 Board meeting.)
It wasn't until 1967 that the building housing the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, operated by the Country Music Foundation, was erected.
By 1967, the CMA was ready to host its first awards banquet and show, but the inaugural gala, hosted by
Sonny James and
and highlighted by
selection as the CMA's first Entertainer of the Year, was not ready for prime time.
Even the first televised CMA Awards in 1968 were taped by NBC-TV for rebroadcast
on the Kraft Music Hall (beginning 19 consecutive years of Kraft sponsorship of the awards).
The first live broadcast of the CMA Awards followed in 1968; the year
won a record five trophies setting the stage for his ABC-TV network series that would bring
country music its first surge of national pre-Urban Cowboy coolness.
The CMA Grows Up... Into A Bully
When I arrived in Nashville in 1972 to enroll in Vanderbilt University's summer session I had missed the first Country Music Association Fan Fair, which had been held April 12-15. It apparently was not the big (international) deal it is today, because I don't even recall hearing much about it, nor the CMA for that matter, at that time.
By the time I returned to make Nashville my home the following year, I had amassed enough country-music contacts that a press pass that allowed me to watch the CMA Awards from a vantage point where the nominees were sitting in the Ryman Auditorium rows directly in front of me was mine for the asking.
And while I feared my beginner's journalism credentials were insufficient to establish, for purposes of membership qualification, that I was making a living in country music, by April,1976 a $15 annual CMA membership was mine. (I was told "off-the-record" that as long as my "money was green...")
In short, if you wanted to be a part of the country music, the Country Music Association was not only glad to have you, they were grateful for your interest.
It's hard to say at what point bureaucratic bloat, arrogance and secrecy set in. Certainly the organization was already thinking international when it decided to hold its first quarterly Board
meeting of 1967 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Board held its first quarterly meeting of 1968 in the Bahamas at that other bastion of country-music popularity, Nassau's Paradise Island Hotel.
But at some point this 98-pound weakling named CMA that kept getting sand kicked in its face grew into Charles Atlas and decided it would and could, at will, kick sand in everyone else's faces.
The first CMA membership meeting I attended would also be my last. It seemed as though the organization was top-heavy with chiefs, there being so few Indians and seemingly so little opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way, let alone advance to a position of leadership, that I reluctantly let my membership lapse.
For there's always been an aura of secrecy and lack of accountability about CMA.
Take the voting procedure for Hall of Fame members: An anonymous
group of "industry leaders" forms a Hall of Fame nominating committee who nominate a slate of 10 to 20 candidates. From these names another five nominees are chosen by an anonymous panel of roughly 300 electors.
CMA documentation states that qualified electors must have "participated actively" in Country Music for at least 10 years and must "merit respect and recognition for their accomplishments and/or knowledge of one or more aspects of Country Music."
The documentation omits the fact that these anonymous electors
must also be CMA members.
Similarly. the selection of inductees to be immortalized in the Country Music Walkway of Stars is not, as one would assume, merit-based. Stars can be "bought" by enterprising fan clubs, though if the assumption is that these stars are merit-based neither the CMA nor the CMF does anything to discourage that perception.
The Country Music Association established its "Journalist of the Year" award in 1982, awarding it to journalists who "promoted" country music. (CMA's stated mission being "the attainment of positive publicity for Country Music in important newspapers, magazines and media all over the globe.")
One of the earliest "Journalist" award winners "promoted" her candidacy to the extent that she hired a publicist to help her emerge victorious (so central is CMA's seal of approval to any entertainment journalist's continued ability to make a living that, ironically, apparently, ethics be damned).
Whether it was because of the ensuing resentment, or CMA's sudden awareness that it is not a journalist's role to "promote" anything, CMA's "Journalist" award has been renamed the "Media Achievement Award."
The renamed award has changed its focus and broadened its scope as it "recognizes print journalists, authors, editors, syndicated radio personnel, television writers or producers whose work significantly broadens the visibility and awareness of Country Music."
Growing Dissent Towards A "Petty" CMA
Some artists do not need CMA's approval.
Ricky Van Shelton
have had run-ins with the Country Music Association.
has denounced 1998's CMA Awards nominees selection process as being "political," while
says that CMA is an acronym for "Country, My Ass!"
who has repeatedly received CMA awards, was upset by the way she was treated at the
1985 CMA Awards show. According to Ralph Emery, who is represented by
manager in 1985,
and Carter "politely registered their grievances with the CMA, giving the organization plenty of time to work out other arrangements for its next winners' press conference [but) the CMA didn't change its plan. It instead reacted negatively to Reba
and her candor."
Emery himself characterizes the CMA's actions the following year, when CMA refused nominee
a backstage pass and backstage parking, as "petty."
Blacklisted By The CMA
"Petty" seems to sum up my feelings about being blacklisted by CMA ever since the 1993 publication of an article titled "Nashville's Power Women," in Country Fever, a fan publication that folded not long after the article's publication.
The approximately 1,900 word article (available on this site, click here), which focused on almost a dozen
female music executives' views on the concept of the glass ceiling,
contained my observation that "women are grossly underrepresented on the Country
Music Association and Country Music Foundation Boards." Statistically this remains true in 1998: The only woman among CMA's 24 officers is Connie Bradley.
CMA has 38 directors of whom only four are female. Similarly, of the CMF's 25 officers,
3 (including, once again, Connie Bradley) are women and among its other 17 board
members there are also only 3 women.
My other apparently objectionable assertion was a statement of personal experience that occurred years before Ed Benson was ever employed by the Country Music Association.
I wrote of applying for a full-time job at CMA, after having free-lanced for the organization. I added that my request for a "promotion" was met with the observation that I would not be considered "only because we would rather have a man."
Why Ed Benson had any reaction to the article is unclear. Why, having had a negative reaction, he did not seek a retraction from Country Fever, Benson refuses to say to this day.
Instead, Ed Benson's response was to retaliate for the perceived wrong by denying me credentials to CMA events.
As Benson wrote me on August 18, 1994, "I will reiterate... that compromising your credibility with erroneous allegations about CMA in Country Fever caused us to withdraw your privilege a a member of the media for CMA events. I cannot say when, if ever, you can regain that credibility. We have not, nor will [we] attempt to adversely affect your status in the industry. It is my opinion that you require no assistance in this regard."
Benson's remarks might be taken at face value, were it not for an observation by
Entertainment Express' Walt Trott. Trott wrote in the publication's June, 1993
issue that "the CMA's latest tactic of 'circulating a list to label and indie publicists of 70 people whom it has denied credentials for the June 7-12 festival,' as reported in Billboard, may be a blunder of major proportions.
"This, in effect, notifies labels and P.R. agencies that those on the CMA 'blacklist' are not deemed worthy enough to warrant professional standing. As a result, it could mean loss of both advertisement revenue and artist accessibility for future features."
The recurring problem for journalists stems from the fact that CMA controls coverage of its events by controlling access to them in an arbitrary fashion, rather than having circulation or ratings requirements in place. Ed Benson says as much, indicating "I would like to make it clear that members of the media invited and/or credentialed to cover CMA events are selected
at our sole discretion."
Rather than continue to fight with CMA receiving over full Fan Fair credentials, including parking passes given to "key" media, Trott and another veteran country-music journalist, Bill Littleton
have simply stopped applying for Fan Fair credentials.
Another journalist credits her continuing to be credentialed for CMA events and positive standing with the organization with "having as little to do with them as possible."
One writer is upset that "Ed Benson is nice to me because he thinks I'm important," while another is resigned to the futility of expecting CMA to be responsive to his needs. He acknowledges "Yes, it's a travesty, but as we all know the CMA does whatever it feels like, foolish or not. Many times they don't even know they are looking like fools."
This may be because, unlike any other trade organization, CMA has a free ride from media who are under constant threat of having their credentials pulled, should they do anything other than parrot and assist in CMA's promotional goal of "dissemination of facts and figures that evidence country music's considerable popularity."
Media does not question Ed Benson's refusal to allow CMA staffers to be quoted without his permission nor that Benson appears only on forums of his choosing. None of these forums are confrontational in nature and Benson makes regular appearances, strictly in a promotional capacity, in advance of Fan Fair, the CMA Awards and various other CMA events.
Forcing Accountability at the CMA
Because of its tax status, CMA's records are, by law, available for public inspection. Apparently, I am the first reporter who has asked to see them, because CMA's reaction was to stop just short of denying me the opportunity to review its 990s for the tax years 1994, 1995 and 1996.
(I was told these records are available from the IRS.)
When, in June of 1998, I insisted on an appointment with CMA to view the records at its offices (CMA says it filed an application for extension and that its 1997 return would be ready in October), it was necessary for me to bring blank copies of the 990 form since CMA wouldn't allow me to photocopy its records.
I also brought a fellow reporter, in whose presence, CMA's senior director of operations, Tammy Genovese assured me that I would receive responses to questions raised by the returns, including the following:
- According to CMA's 1994, $7,709 was spent as an "investment in joint venture." In 1996 the amount was $58,154. What and with whom was this "joint venture?"
- The 1994 return included a bank overdraft for $149,750. The '96 return included a bank overdraft of $125,887. What were the reasons for these?
- The 1994 return indicated a VISA invoice #050994 (evidently for something placed in service on 4/28/94)? Does CMA have credit cards issued in the organization's name? Please clarify this as well as why CMA owed VISA money.
- The '94 return also identifies a "screen" placed-in-service on 8/30/94, a "stereo" placed in service on 9/30/94 and a deduction for "office improvements" dating back to 6/18/86.
I would like identifying information on the "screen" and a "stereo" (the stereo was placed in service on 10/6/82). These would include the brand name, model and serial numbers for these items. Further, I would like the justification for these purchases, a more specific breakdown of just what "office improvements" were made and if you are able to provide receipts for these items.
- Some items on CMA's returns for tax years '94-'96 are more detailed than others. For example one of your fax machines is identified as a Fujitsu fax machine, while there are computers and "several other computers," as yet another item is listed simply as "refrigerator." Why are some
purchases identified in more detail than others? Please provide the make and model number of the refrigerator.
- CMA's 1995 return lists Hi Fi Buys Invoice #8261223 with no further explanation. Will you please clarify this?
- The '95 return lists a bank overdraft of $221,641. Please explain the reason for this.
- The CMA London staff consists solely of two full-time staff members and one part-timer, yet I note that expenses for the London location include satellite installation on May 31, 1995. Did I miss payment for purchase of a satellite?
- CMA's tax returns include a category of "other income." In the "Analysis of Income-producing Activities" in Part 7, line 103A of the 1996 return, for instance, this unspecified amount totals $12,449.
Could you explain the sources of "other income" for the tax years '94-'96, beyond the "providing of miscellaneous exempt services, such as industry survey results which promote country music nationwide?" (I note that when surveys indicate declines in country music sales and popularity that the CMA does not publicize these results).
- What are the sources of CMA's "royalty income?"
- How many bids were taken and from whom before spending the amounts itemized for plaques?
- My understanding is that CMA Board members pick up their own travel expenses, so why
are other travel expenses deducted as per the statement of functional expenses?
- I would also like more specific information on the camera outfit (placed in service on 12/28/90), the portable radio/cassette (3/24/92), telephone equipment (12/28/95), "voice mail and 13 new
phones" (12/3/90) and items that also raise questions, including a microwave (placed in service 2/25/90) and electric stapler (5/19/90).
- How does the CMA Awards banquet (line 93A) foster "national interest in country music among the public?"
- What is meant by the CMA's "full service programs?" (line 93c).
- I note purchases of unspecified brand names and models of calculators for $53 and $48. I can buy a calculator for less than $10. Please explain.
- The 1993 Lexus placed in service on 7/31/93 raises $86,000 bothersome questions. Any information you care to provide about this extravagance (I'm presuming membership dues are CMA's primary source of income?) would be helpful.
- How far along are plans for making the "retirement home," for which $4,772 was spent in 1996 alone, a reality?
- What was Ed Benson's salary for the tax year 1997? I note that The Board voted Ed a $130,000 salary for the tax year 1995 (More than 13% over that of the previous year-$130,000 vs. $115,000) and that in 1996 Ed's salary climbed to $216,097, yet another $86,000 or more than 66% over 1995. This seems like an error I might have made. Could you give me the correct figures?
When I did not receive answers to these questions I contacted CMA's attorney,
R. Horton Frank, III. In a letter to me (with copies sent to Ed Benson,
Tammy Genovese, CMA Board President Tim Dubois and
Board Chair Donna Hilley), Horton admitted that while my questions "go to a wide range of matters related to the business operations of CMA... CMA has no obligation whatsoever to provide you with the information you have requested and respectfully declines to so."
CMA similarly refuses to answer questions ranging from whether members of its "Country Club" fan organization were reimbursed following the demise of the group to why it refuses to provide written policy for the issuing and receiving of press credentials. (CMA first denied the existence of the Country Club. When confronted with evidence - in the form of the existence of a press kit
produced at the club's inception in 1990 and a December 2, 1992 Nashville Banner article announcing the revival of the club - Tammy Genovese apologized for the "incorrect
information" CMA's public information department supplied, explaining that CMA has both a new receptionist and new communications department staffers and that Tammy would attempt to answer my questions about the CMA Country Club. She has yet to do so.)
CMA prides itself on its oft-stated international focus, yet, typically, CMA's entire, exaggerated international presence consists of the small London office and single representatives
in Germany, The Netherlands and Australia.
Perhaps CMA should establish an office in China. Back on May 27, 1988, CMA issued a press release announcing the winner of a Voice of America essay contest for country-music listeners carrying the headline "Chinaman Wins VOA Letter-Writing Contest."
No international incidents were reported following this ethnic slur. Indeed, nothing short of an international incident would seem to have any impact on CMA, nor the journalists who cover it,
in terms of demanding some accountability for this one-of-a-kind organization, lest they receive a letter similar to the second one - a scathing one and one-half page of vitriol - I received from
R. Horton Frank, III.
In anticipation of this article the CMA's legal counsel wrote me on September 17, "While CMA has elected to provide you with certain background and historical information in response to some of your questions, your request for answers to other questions now and in the future will
be regarded as harassment."
As one prominent country-music journalist told me, on condition of anonymity, "I gave up trying to battle the CMA years ago. Ultimately, even if you win, you lose."