Rooted in the close relationship many country-music performers develop with their fans, the multi-day series of concerts, autograph sessions, and fan club parties now known as the CMA Music Festival, formerly the International Country Music Fan Fair, is unique to the country music genre.
The event was launched in 1972 after annual music-industry gatherings such as the Country Music Disc Jockey Convention and Grand Ole Opry Birthday began drawing large numbers of fans to Nashville in hopes of meeting their favorite stars. WSM Radio executives proposed a fan-friendly event, designed to allow the artists to meet and thank their most loyal supporters and allow fans to have personal contact with their favorite stars. A co-production of the Grand Ole Opry under the leadership of E. W. “Bud” Wendell and the Country Music Association (CMA), guided by Jo Walker-Meador, the first International Country Music Fan Fair was held April 12-15, 1972, at Nashville’s downtown Municipal Auditorium.
Included in the twenty-dollar registration fee for the first “Fan Fair”
were ten two-hour “label” concerts showcasing performers from major and independent record labels, two free lunches, a fiddling championship, a bluegrass concert, a televised concert taping, the Fan Fair Reunion Concert featuring country music’s early stars, fan club meetings, and of course, meet and greet sessions with nearly one hundred country music artists.
The Fan Fair template established the first year still remains largely
the same: several showcase concerts featuring multiple artists
performing one right after another, an exhibit hall filled with booths
where performers appear to meet, sign autographs, and pose for
photographs with fans, and peripheral associated events such as fan
club parties and celebrity sports events.
The first event drew about five thousand attendees–only half the
number the founders had hoped. Feedback prompted organizers to schedule the second annual Fan Fair for the summer, June 6-9. Nearly ten thousand people attended, and it has been held in June ever since. Growth spurred a move to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in 1982, and the twenty-four thousand available tickets were sold out every year until 1999, when the 1997 closing of Opryland Themepark and the failure of many of the most successful artists to make Fan Fair appearances were blamed for the slump.
Two thousand was the final year of the Grand Ole Opry’s co-sponsorship of Fan Fair; the same year the CMA announced that the event would move back to downtown Nashville in 2001. Concerts were scheduled for the new Tennessee Titans football stadium and Riverfront Park, and autograph sessions would move to the Nashville Convention Center.
Renaming the “CMA Music Festival” in 2001, the event focused attention on the concerts and away from the autograph sessions, which continue to attract fewer of the most successful artists and now include appearances by daytime drama actors and booths sponsored by consumer products. Many artists choose to meet fans during private fan club events rather than public meet-and-greets from their booths. The new approach has alienated some fans but, on the whole, appears to be a success.
Two thousand and six saw the addition of a charitable component. “Keep the Music Playing”funds music education for Metropolitan Nashville schools and was the recipient of over $368,000 from the proceeds of the 2006 festival. In 2007, the CMA reported attendance of over 191,000.