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Manhattan Tries On a Cowboy Hat

Country music's high profile awards show comes to the Big Apple, hoping to corral a few payoffs in a year of slumping sales.

November 13, 2005|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — They lighted the top of the Empire State Building bronze and white, the colors of the Country Music Assn.'s trophy, and they had middle school students from Queens writing country songs, one comparing life to a roller coaster ride, another to a crystal staircase.

And on Friday, Veterans Day, they had Trace Adkins lay a wreath at the World War II aircraft carrier Intrepid, docked in the Hudson River, an easy walk from the neon-bedecked skyscrapers of Times Square. He's the 6-foot-6 cowboy-hatted singer whose most autobiographical song defined a "Metropolis" as an old coal town of 404 where, "Well, they finally put that red light up in the heart of town/Took the stop sign down, it was shot up anyhow."

During "Country Takes NYC" week, they've had Faith Hill at Saks Fifth Avenue, the Charlie Daniels Band on the Food Network, and the Grand Ole Opry poised to take the stage at Carnegie Hall. About all they failed to do was get billionaire Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in cowboy boots, though the city's newly reelected mayor did quip that they'd make him "look a little bit taller probably."

On Tuesday, country music's crowning event, the CMA Awards, will be held not in Nashville, but in New York City -- at Madison Square Garden. It will be the first time the awards, which began in 1967, have been held outside Nashville.

Hence all the promos and street banners and friendly talk about how country and New York make beautiful music and finance together, and about how people here bought more than 2 million country CDs last year. But behind the boosterism of the moment is another reality the country music industry hopes to change: The nation's media center does not have a single country music radio station.

Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff compared inviting the CMA Awards to this bastion of urban liberalism to the hosting last year of the Republican National Convention, saying that both said "something surprising about New York."

New York officials began wooing the CMA Awards in spring 2003, with a cold call to the association's executive director, Ed Benson, who said his response was "never say never to anything; 'Let's talk.' "

But making it a reality required diplomacy on his part, because country music has its company town -- and it ain't New York. So just hours after announcing a year ago that the 2005 event would be staged at Madison Square Garden, the CMA announced that the awards would return to Nashville in 2006.

That did not assuage some in Nashville, however, including a few prominent performers -- who threatened to boycott the New York road trip -- and the Tennessean newspaper, which termed the move, even for a year, a sellout. "That's like telling your wife on your 38th anniversary that you want a one-year D-I-V-O-R-C-E," the paper editorialized. "What did Nashville do to deserve this snub?"

But most critics have been won over since then, according to another CMA board member, Lon Helton. At a time of slumping music sales, they see practical payoffs of going to New York, such as how the news conference announcing the year's nominees drew 30 TV crews, far more than ever showed up in Nashville.

"People looked at each other and said, 'Ah, yeah,' " said Helton, the country music expert for the Radio & Records trade publication and website.

Other benefits pitched by the CMA were the proximity to Madison Avenue advertisers and Fortune 500 executives, which helped New York officials sell $3 million in corporate sponsorships, one of which will have the celebrities pull up to the red carpet at Madison Square Garden not in limos, but Chevy trucks.

But the most tangible goal, Benson said, is "to leave here with enough impact that perhaps we can have country music back on the air."

New York and San Francisco are the nation's only major markets without country radio stations to drive CD and concert ticket sales.

What Benson calls the last "bona fide strong signal country music station," WYNY -- whose shows went out over the Empire State Building's antenna -- changed ownership and formats in 1996. A weaker New York station stopped playing country music in 2002.

The omission may seem hard to understand, given that Chicago and Los Angeles support the two top-rated country stations in the country, WUSN and KZLA, which reported billings of $34.5 million and $29.5 million last year. But the large radio chains still may believe "the economics just don't make sense" in New York, said Helton, who serves on the CMA's radio committee.

The catch is that a station in New York may be worth $200 million or more, he said, and while "you could churn out $30 to $34 million doing country without any problem," they can bring in $60 million to $70 million "if they hit a homerun with a pop format."

Nevertheless, the CMA at least hopes to tempt stations that now are "marginal performers in a second- or third-place position," Benson said.

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