For the past decade, the Carolina Music Awards have been conferred upon musicians in North and South Carolina in an array of genres that keeps getting wider. This week, nominees in twenty-two categories will gather at the stately Fletcher Opera House, where the ceremony has taken place for the past five years of its history, to vie for a Carolina Music Award and its attendant gold statuette. a
But if #TheFocalPointOfCarolinaMusic is taking place at Fletcher next week, as the Facebook page of organizer Omar McCallop stated last week, it would doubtless come as a surprise to Raleighites and the rest of the Triangle. McCallop himself estimates that seventy percent of those who will fill up the hall on Saturday night will have made a long drive to get there. But the organizer, a longtime Raleigh resident, is not especially concerned.
"There are people who are dialed in, people who are dialed out. We don't try to chase every person down," he says. "We advertise, we sell out the venue that we use, at least for the past five years. Either you know or you don't know."
At press time, the venue has sold roughly two-thirds of its seats for the awards, according to its Ticketmaster page.
The stated aim of the Carolina Music Awards is to bring attention to the music industry in North and South Carolina and celebrate it by creating an inclusive, self-perpetuating scene. McCallop, who conceived the series and got it off the ground by enlisting the Grammy-winning R & B singer Roberta Flack and country great Randy Travis to lend their support, has an interest in cross-pollination, in introducing fans of different genres to the work of a range of local artists.
More specifically, it's also an engine to connect those artists to radio stations to which they would otherwise not have access—the awards are as much about creating relationships between musicians and the people who control the airwaves as they are about awarding musical achievement.
"It's not the radio station's job to pay attention to the local artist," McCallop says. "We help bridge the gap."
McCallop calls his venture a hybrid, a cross between the People's Choice Awards and a more traditional awards show. The process begins when the nomination period is announced to the public. It lasts about two months. The nominations, which number in the thousands, are then culled down by a panel to as many as eleven nominees in a single category. Categories include the expected: Best New Artist, Best Male and Female in HipHop, Americana, R & B, and Country, along with a "Youth Video" slot and even the nonmusical category of "Model."
Typically, the nominating and voting in the major media awards is done by a group of "industry people," such as the Recording Academy (formerly NARAS), the group of music business professionals that awards the Grammys. In 1975, the People's Choice Awards upended that stuffy tradition by leaving the choosing up to the general public. That approach has become a permanent part of the awards show landscape as events like MTV's Video Music Awards have proven the model to be extremely popular.
The CMAs leverage the idea of public voting, and McCallop emphasizes the public's input. They can nominate whomever they want, he says. From there, though, McCallop and his panel of radio people are the ones who decide who actually gets nominated for awards.
McCallop says he does this to ensure quality, but here's where the claims about involving the public ring hollow: The real power lies with the panel, not with the people, and the panel of radio tastemakers is focused on identifying an artist's commerciality. The public element functions as the chassis, suggesting a people-driven enterprise, but the car underneath runs like a typical awards ceremony wherein insiders do the real choosing.
And this particular group of tastemakers wants songs with commercial potential, first and foremost. Not innovative, challenging, forward-looking fare, but tunes that are in sync with current commercial trends in music.
So what does being nominated for a Carolina Music Award get you? In effect, it gets an artist a virtual audition before a panel of radio people, and those who make the cut and become nominees get to have their work featured on participating radio stations as part of promoting the show.
Lightning has struck on rare occasions. Asked to name acts that have gone on to national success after receiving an award, McCallop points to former winners Parmalee, a country-rock band that has built a strong national reputation. The band's song "Carolina" hit No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart in the United States in 2013. But the overwhelming majority of the thousand-plus nominees over the years haven't broken out. Some winners have remained in the music business, says McCallop, others have moved on.
This year's nominees include some familiar names, especially in hip-hop and R & B: ZenSoFly, Well$, and Kooley High. Nominees in the other categories will probably not be familiar to Triangle audiences, but McCallop finds a way to fill up his venue. Radio stations run contests offering free tickets to listeners. This year, tapping Amber Rupinta, a reporter at Raleigh's WTVD, to serve as master of ceremonies has helped get the word out. As in previous years, the seats are filling up, and that is the measure McCallop is most concerned with. He'd love for the CMAs to be higher-profile, but he's proud of the work he's doing.
"There wasn't a mechanism ten years ago for people to be recognized in hip-hop, R & B, and country. It didn't exist," he says.
McCalllop says in future years he might take the show on the road and stage the awards in Charlotte or Wilmington as a way of raising awareness. "Maybe that will help the next 'haven't heard of it' type thing," he says.
But still, given the CMAs' uninspiring track record for helping artists achieve airplay success, it's not clear that a market move will give the institution the boost that McCallop wants. It'll take far more than a change of venue to make the Carolina Music Awards synonymous with artistic excellence.