Had there been a live audience at the Academy of Country Music Awards at the Grand Ole Opry House on Wednesday (Sept. 16) night, there would have been a collective gasp when host Keith Urban announced that there was a tie for entertainer of the year.
Instead, the internet lit up with posters questioning how could there be a tie for the biggest award of the night with Thomas Rhett and Carrie Underwood splitting the honor? And the next day, it was the talk of the town among many in the tight-knit Nashville music community.
The double win marked the first tie in that category since the show began handing out the entertainer of the year trophy in 1971, and the only tie in the 55-year history of the show in such marquee categories as entertainer, male artist, female artist and song of the year. (For their parts, both Underwood and Rhett spoke glowingly of the other to the press after the shocker and seemed to have no problem sharing the trophy.)
In a statement provided to Billboard, Academy CEO Damon Whiteside said, “We were as shocked as Keith Urban when we heard the results of the tie; We have an independent third party accounting firm that tabulates our results based on nearly 5,000 voting members of the Academy. Our awards policy is that in the event of tie both artists receive trophies. While the odds are highly unlikely for a tie, it has happened in the past in other ACM [radio] award categories and with other awards shows.”
Whiteside tells Billboard that both winners received the exact same number of votes.
He further added, “Both of this year’s winners are so worthy, and we are thrilled that Thomas Rhett won his first entertainer of the year. Carrie Underwood’s record-breaking third win in that category, is much deserved. This certainly was an exciting cap off to an unprecedented year, and we are proud to have created a spectacular, historical show from three iconic Nashville music venues, for the fans.”
Accounting firm Deloitte handles the voting for the Academy and has known who the winners were since final voting closed March 11 in preparation for the Awards’ original April 5 date before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the show to be postponed.
In April, Whiteside confirmed to Billboard that despite the move to five months after the original ceremony, the eligibility period of Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2019 would remain in place and “Deloitte has the final results, which they are keeping securely within their possession.”
In another anomaly with this year’s awards, for the first time Whiteside knew the winners in advance. “Due to COVID safety protocols, in particular requirements for testing 72 hours in advance of being on stage, we couldn’t require all nominees to be tested and be present on site,” an ACM representative says. “We felt it was crucial for fans to see the acceptances live, so for the first time in Academy history, our CEO — and only our CEO, not even Awards staff – was given a list of artists who had wins. Those artist managers were called to strongly encourage them to have their artists onsite but were not given specific awards win information.”
Winners are often by a slim margin, sources tell Billboard. A top country manager manager confirmed to Billboard how close the voting can be citing an ACM Awards show several years back when their act lost by only two votes.
While rare, other awards shows have experienced ties in key categories. Barbra Streisand and Katherine Hepburn tied for best actress at the 1969 Academy Awards. Streisand split the vote again at the 1978 Grammy Awards when she and Paul Williams’ song “Evergreen” tied for song of the year with Joe Brooks’ “You Light Up My Life.” More recently, Lady Gaga and Glenn Close tied for best actress at the Critics’ Choice Awards in 2019.
The Academy of Country Music clearly lays out the voting procedures on its website for the three rounds of voting. In the first round, for most categories, the full membership chooses or writes in one submission. The Top 20 submissions are reviewed by the Board to make sure they meet the eligibility criteria. To move on to the second round, an act must have received at least 2 percent of the vote within the respective category.
For the second round, voters can vote for two artists in each category and the five acts receiving the most votes move onto the final ballot. Unlike the Grammys, there are no special committees reviewing and possibly determining the finalists.
In the final round, voters can cast only one vote per category and, as the rules state, “in the case of a tie, all winners will receive an award.”
(The ACM Awards are produced by dick clark productions, who share a parent company, MRC, with Billboard).