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It’s Time to Let Fans Impact the CMA and ACM Awards

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Gustavo Cabellero, Getty Images

Complaints and criticisms after the 2017 CMA Awards nominations were announced on Monday (Sept. 4) were distinctively “same ol’ same ol’,” because the nominees are “same ol’ same ol’.” For many it feels like a somewhat faceless panel of voters is dictating what’s good in country music, fan opinions be damned. That’s no longer acceptable.

We’ve reached an age in which every single person has a platform and an expectation to be heard. No longer are fans willing to accept decisions made by experts or the industry. Social media has created a new kind of democracy where the ‘real’ winners of every award will be decided in real time on Twitter. So why not let them weigh in on the decision process?

There are just 7,500 eligible CMA voters, and with each passing year they seem like more and more of an elitist group to those who don’t understand voting rules, requirements and eligibility. This isn’t Congress, where members are elected. There’s no one we can hold accountable. Without a target, fan response often devolves into a nasty feud, and that tears at the show’s integrity. “Any publicity is good publicity” is not a great longterm strategy.

"It’s not reasonable to expect every voter to listen to every eligible album thoroughly. Let data help."

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame faced a similar problem when several years ago the institution chose to give fans a voice. Last year, a fan poll decided one of about 600 votes cast for the new class of rockers. That’s not insignificant given that so many artists are enshrined each year, and that updates on the fan vote are provided as the rest of the panel is making up his or her minds.

The true win was the perception that the hallowed institution was listening to the fans who support the show and Cleveland museum. It has worked out that the fan vote winner has been inducted for several years straight — that’s a cherry on top for all parties involved, including artists who once dismissed the Rock Hall as a bunch of elitists.

The Rock Hall model is one possible way for country institutions to proceed, but fan votes are, by and large, unreliable, and the polls rife with manipulation. Taste of Country fan polls tend to be won by artists with reality television backgrounds. Measures would need to be put in place to ensure honesty and awareness among all fan groups. That could be expensive.

Fortunately, there’s another solution: data. Data is the answer. Album and single sales, concert and streaming numbers are, in effect, fan votes. Are you not voting for Florida Georgia Line when you pay to see them in concert? You have to open an app and search to stream Sam Hunt. Voting may actually be easier.

Part of the reason fans of FGL, Hunt and Jason Aldean feel snubbed by the CMA is because all three are leaders in sales, streaming and concert categories. All three are also polarizing for both clear and unclear personal and professional reasons. The subjective nature of voters — and that very few are consuming music with the voracious appetite one needs to be truly objective — shows the system’s flaws.

These Artists Were Snubbed in 2017!

This isn’t a criticism of the CMA or ACM voting panel. It’s human nature — at the end of the day we fall back on long-held opinions, especially if we didn’t realize the deadline to turn in Round 2 of the three-round voting ballot is at 5 o’clock and your boss has you working until 4. What’s the result? A whole lot of same ol’, same ol’.

Let data help. Create an algorithm that gives data five, 10 or 20 percent of the vote. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame offers one-sixth of one percent and that seems to do the trick. Well-respected institutions like Billboard adopted a similar model several years ago when they divided country charts into one that strictly adds up airplay, and another called the Hot Country Songs chart that is a hybrid. Their end-of-year charts do something similar for artists, although the formula has never been clear.

Applying this system to 2017 Album of the Year nominees would almost surely change the outcome. Only Chris Stapleton‘s From a Room: Volume 1 is among the Top 5 in sales in 2017, as of late July 2017 (per Rolling Stone). No. 2 and 3 are ineligible, but No. 4 (Florida Georgia Line’s Dig Your Roots) and No. 5 (Brantley Gilbert‘s The Devil Don’t Sleep) are eligible, as is No. 6 (Zac Brown Band, Welcome Home). No, it’s not reasonable to expect every voter to listen to every eligible album thoroughly. So let data help.

A perfect system is a unicorn, but improvement begins with a larger conversation. If Miranda Lambert tops Carrie Underwood for Female Vocalist of the Year, Underwood’s fans are going to claim a conspiracy or threaten to quit watching. There’s no conspiracy. No one is buying awards, but with so few voters, it is possible to influence enough to make a difference. Data could be the great equalizer.

The 2017 CMA Awards air on CBS at 8PM on Nov. 8.

*Ultimate Classic Rock‘s Matthew Wilkening assisted with this article.

Remember: The best way to watch the CMAs is on TV, with ToC on your phone!

Next: See All 2017 CMA Nominations

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