In a series amid the coronavirus pandemic, Billboard is asking individuals from all sectors of the music business to share stories of how they work now, with much of the world quarantined at home and unable to take in-person meetings, attend conferences or even go into the office. Read the full series here.
This installment is with Damon Whiteside, the new CEO of the Academy of Country Music.
Damon Whiteside: I started the job Jan. 6 and I was still getting to know everybody. I’m based in Nashville and was at [the ACM’s Los Angeles] office two weeks a month for those first couple of months. And then, suddenly, we’re isolated and quarantined after we decide to close the office in L.A. the week of March 16.
That was literally the week that I was planning to go back to L.A., so that’s been tricky. You start feeling like a control freak — you just want to make sure you know what everybody’s doing and that you’re giving them enough information. That’s been a huge learning [curve] for me. But I think through the staff meetings and the happy hours we’ve been doing, I feel like I’ve seen everybody’s face regularly and they’ve seen mine.
[Almost immediately after the shutdown, the Academy decided to postpone the April 5 ACM Awards to Sept. 16 and segued into planning a two-hour program, ACM Presents: Our Country featuring top artists performing from their home that aired on the original awards date.]
Doing all of that remotely was very challenging and with different time zones, with me being in Nashville and everyone else in L.A., including Dick Clark Productions, CBS and our team. We had multiple video conferences a day. From the time it was greenlit to when we actually delivered it, it was about three weeks. The thing I’m most proud of is how the country music industry really came together, because there’s no way that the Academy could have pulled that off if all the artists didn’t support it, as well as the labels, radio and DSPs helping promote it. I’ve never worked on a show that had such tremendous feedback and just really struck an emotional chord.
Though not a fundraiser, the show highlighted the ACM Lifting Lives Covid-19 Response Fund, which raised $1.4 million, which we have dispersed to country music individuals in need. We are in a fundraising round now. Until then, applicants may give us their contact info for notification to apply once more funds are available.
You can get overwhelmed by [the news of the pandemic]. I try to just really look at the positive side. I’ve definitely been so absorbed in the work, with this being a new job, plus all the challenges this year and all the good things we’re doing, like Lifting Lives. It’s been a major distraction so I don’t have much time or mental bandwidth to really think about all the negatives out there.
My fiancé [artist manager Craig Dunn] is also working at home. We try to, at least, in the middle of the day do a 20- to 30-minute walk up the street, just get a little bit of air and take our dog Jake out. Then at least we can see each other for a few minutes.
Our theme at the Academy this year is pivot and innovation. We pivoted to ACM Presents: Our Country, and now we’re working on the Sept. 16 ACM Awards, which we moved from Las Vegas to Nashville for safety reasons and to help the industry not have to travel with big groups of people to Las Vegas. There were virtually no venues available anywhere. We were able to work with the Opry team and move things abound, so when we got the venues booked for the show — the Grand Ole Opry House, Ryman Auditorium and the Bluebird Cafe — that was a major check on the box.
We have four different scenarios right now that we’re planning, budgeting and putting timelines against. We’re looking at everything from having a full house with an audience and going on sale with tickets soon, to having social distancing with no fan audience but just industry. We’re looking at even having a scenario with no audience at all, but just having artists quarantined in their buses backstage and coming on as they either win an award or perform.
Then what does [the pandemic] mean for our award show next year? We’re planning for next April in Vegas at this point. But do we actually need to have a backup plan right now for all of that? We’re already working on it. So it does make your head spin.