The Academy of Country Music Awards have always been surrounded by accusations of block voting, vote swapping, and other manipulations of the system at the hands of country music’s major labels, as label representatives work to ensure the artists, songs, and albums they want to push get rewarded. There’s been so much talk about it over the years and plenty of indirect evidence that it almost goes as understood that behind-the-scenes political gaming of the system is how the ACM’s wheels are greased.
The ethics and transparency of the ACM system has been under extra scrutiny this year with the revelation that New Artist of the Year nominee Justin Moore is undeniably ineligible by the ACM’s own stated rules, yet the ACM’s are unwilling to do anything to rectify the situation. With The ACM Awards less than two weeks away and nothing being done about the Justin Moore issue, it sets up an interesting scenario if he ends up winning, with fans and representatives of the other two New Artist nominees–Brett Eldredge and Kip Moore—having a legitimate beef with why their artist was overlooked for a nominee who should have been disqualified.
The ACM’s New Artist of the Year, just like their Entertainer of the Year, is presented to the public as a fan voted award, though the final winner is actually chosen by a combination of fan votes and the “professional membership” of the ACM’s. Unfortunately for fans though, just how much their vote counts is not revealed, the results of the fan votes are never published, and the exact ratio of fan votes to professional votes that is used to choose the eventual winner is not public knowledge, if there is a dedicated formula for picking the winner to begin with.
It must have been that “professional membership” quotient that resulted in Luke Bryan’s shocking win for Entertainer of the Year in 2013, because there’s no way the PR machine of Taylor Swift and legions of team Swifty fans armed with cell phones could ever be out dueled by any other artist, especially Luke Bryan at his prominence in early 2013.
The announcement of Luke Bryan as Entertainer of the Year came as a shock to fans, industry, and media alike. Luke Bryan wasn’t even considered a front runner for the award by most pundits entering the show. It certainly shocked Saving Country Music, and I said as much on the ACM live blog at the time. Today also called it “shocking” and a “huge upset.” If anyone was going to upstage Swift, it should have been the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year, and The Voice personality Blake Shelton. Without sly maneuvering behind-the-scenes, it’s hard to see how Luke Bryan would even have a chance in a vote where fan votes were part of the equation.
Exacerbating the heartbreak for Taylor Swift’s fans was the fact that later on, the ACM’s actually announced Taylor Swift as the winner on their website.
The error (or truth when it came to the popular vote) was discovered on May 12th, 2013 and later changed, but not after it sent conspiracy theories swirling that the ACM’s had given Taylor, and the millions of fans that had taken of their time to vote for her on a daily basis leading up to the awards, a raw deal. Of course the thing about a conspiracy theory is you don’t actually have to prove anything, you just have to create doubt. But that’s exactly what the ACM’s did, and have done in their voting system by ostensibly ruling all of the votes cast by fans irrelevant when they chose Luke Bryan as the eventual Entertainer of the Year winner. If the ACM’s wanted to refute this, they could do so by releasing the 2013 vote tallies through a reputable accounting house showing where Luke Bryan ended up in the standings, or an explanation of how the system declared Luke Bryan the winner. But of course they won’t.
So the next question is, why would any fan vote for the ACM New Artist or Entertainer of the Year this year? Their votes didn’t count for the Entertainer award last year, and this year, the front runner for New Artist of the Year isn’t new, and isn’t qualified to receive votes by the ACM’s rules. The whole fan voted element to the ACM Awards seems to be more about creating attention for the awards, and generating traffic for ACM’s web properties. The nominees make videos prodding the fan bases to vote, even though the results may not matter. Some are also asking why Australia was added this year to the countries eligible for voting. As one of the few artists that has focused on the Australian market, this might work out well for Taylor Swift … if those votes actually count.
Then there is the issue if fans should be voting for the ACM Awards in the first place. Kenny Chesney, who won the ACM’s Entertainer of the Year Award four years straight, had some pretty damming words about the ACM’s allowing fans to vote in 2008—the first year the ACM’s allowed fan voting for Entertainer of the Year, and the last year Kenny Chesney won the distinction. In a press conference after the ceremony, Kenny said:
It is an industry complaint that I have. That’s all. I’m so excited to stand up here tonight, and that’s important for everybody to know. I’ve got to choose my words wisely here. I think it’s important to know that I do think the fans should be a part of this awards show. I really do. But I’m probably one of the guys in the audience that didn’t think it should be for Entertainer of the Year. The Entertainer of the Year trophy is supposed to represent heart and passion and an amazing amount of sacrifice, commitment and focus. That’s the way Garth [Brooks] won it four times. That’s the way I won it. That’s the way [George] Strait won it … and Reba [McEntire] and Alabama all those years.
I think it’s a complete disrespect of the artist — what they’ve lowered us to, to get Entertainer of the Year. … Because of that, it really diminishes the integrity of the music that we’re making and how much work goes into it. That’s what really matters. That’s what Entertainer of the Year really is. It’s not about flying somebody to some shows and giving free songs away — and giving this and that — and seeing how hard you can push people’s buttons on the Internet. As much as I love the ACMs and what they’ve done for my life, that’s how I really feel about it.. And I can say that because I won tonight.
I’m honored to be up here for four years in a row to tie Garth’s record, believe me. I may not ever win it again, but I know I’ve achieved this. I just think we all need to be careful how we give this award away in the future. … If somebody stands up here in the future, they should do it because they sacrificed a tremendous amount.
The lack of transparency in the ACM’s system, the fan voting, and the woeful disregard of the rules they do have in place, is eroding the integrity of the awards not just amongst grumbling, disenfranchised traditional country fans and industry gadflies, but amongst fan bases of big, mainstream names like Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood (whose fans feel like she’s continually snubbed), and Entertainer of the Year alum Kenny Chesney.
The question country music fans, the industry, and the ACM’s themselves should be asking is what will happen first: more transparency and stronger adherence to the rules by the ACM brass, or a lowering of the integrity of the awards to a point where their ultimate relevancy comes into question long term?
And as far as voting for New Artist of the Year and Entertainer of the Year through the ACM system, the best thing a concerned country music fan who wants to put the music first could do is not vote at all, and have their voice tallied as one that desires more transparency, more fairness, and a better adherence to their own rules by the Academy of Country Music.