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ACMs Figured Out How to Do a Pandemic-Era Music Awards Show Right — Were the Grammys Watching? (Column)

The Academy of Country Music Awards' successful Nashville-takeover approach was a breath of fresh air after the VMAs' failed attempt to do the same in NYC. "Music's Biggest Night" could build on that in L.A.

Miranda Lambert and song writers Luke
Jon Morgan/CBS

How the 2021 Grammy Awards will proceed this coming January, in what looks likely to still be a season of at least social distancing, has been a source of considerable speculation. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the telecast will have a new executive producer, Ben Winston, who would have been looking to put a new stamp on the show anyway, even before Covid-19 ensured that every awards show over a period of a year or more would end up bearing its own stamp. Expectations have been lowered enough for how good any awards show can be during an audience-free pandemic that probably anything that rises above a basic bar count as a first-year win for Winston.

But what if it’s possible to pull off a Grammy telecast that not only doesn’t suck, but rises to a level where the lack of an in-house crowd not only isn’t a bust, but feels like a boon?

Winston and his crew have had six months to spitball and brainstorm about doing a different kind of Grammys, so it’s not like some of these ideas wouldn’t have come up already. But it felt like they might have been handed a working road map to how to pull off their show by what just went down in a surprisingly satisfying music awards show. We’re not talking about the MTV Video Music Awards — that one felt like a Waze detour gone almost altogether haywire — but Wednesday’s Academy of Country Music Awards, whose producers had some fairly ingenious solutions to the problems that are going to bedevil any performance-oriented broadcast in a pre-vaccine era.

Here are four things that worked about the ACMs, and/or didn’t with the mostly misfiring VMAs, that the Grammys could stand to take some cues from:

For the love of God, don’t pretend you have an audience if you don’t.

It probably goes without saying that the Grammys wouldn’t do anything this attention-grabbingly phony, but it bears mentioning anyway. If there’s one thing the 2020 VMAs may be remembered for most, it’s the artificial applause track that ran through the entire show. There were never any fake crowd shots, so maybe it was supposed to be understood that the applause was just there as ambient white noise, the way MLB viewers know no one’s really making noise over a 3-2 count at Dodger Stadium. But why draw attention to what’s lacking with a weird, phony recreation when the lack of a crowd has its own unique ambience to take advantage of, for one year out of dozens?

In the words of Depeche Mode “Enjoy the silence” — that is, the very, very brief silence that can follow the conclusion of a powerful performance. Admittedly, this worked more effectively for some of the two dozen performances on the ACMs than others. When Florida Georgia Line wrapped up their rowdy “I Love My Country,” that moment of quietude didn’t leave you pondering anything except the empty calories you’d just consumed. But ACM producers clearly bent more toward reflective material than they would’ve in an average year. When Mickey Guyton sang the shattering feminist ballad “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?,” the standing ovation that has greeted Guyton’s song in other performances would’ve felt appropriate, but it felt 10-20% more like a gut punch without the swelling applause of the crowd as a distraction.

But it’s not just mega-emotional showstoppers that benefit from a bit of starkness. The ACM numbers that emanated from the tiny Bluebird Café, especially Miranda Lambert’s “Bluebird” and Luke Combs’ “Better Together,” felt like the singers were performing for you in their homes — without the attendant awfulness of actually having to study the stars’ living rooms that we’ve gotten all too used to with six months of livestreams.

Instead of feeling forlorn, an empty house can be a beautiful thing.

The ACMs found ways to make the lack of an audience visually striking. In the performances shot at the Grand Ole Opry House, producers put LED lights across the seats on both the main floor and balcony… an effect that bordered on glitzy a few times but, at its subtlest, created the feeling that the artists were performing to a field of ebbing and flowing fireflies. At another location, the Ryman Auditorium, some artists performed with their back to the empty house, utilizing the famous stained glass windows at the back of the ancient venue as a lit-up backdrop. And the third location, the Bluebird Café, is so small, it barely has room for an audience on a normal evening, so no worries about the joint looking emptied out there.

The lesson here really harks back not just to the ACMs but to what was inarguably the most popular performance so far of this year: Andrea Bocelli’s Easter Sunday gig at Duomo di Milan — the ultimate proof that a filmed performance can turn a lot of extra space into a character.

Of course, if the Grammys were to stick with their contracted home base, L.A.’s Staples Center, there’ll be no way to give that empty arena any vibey ambience, with or without a truckload of LED lights, Which brings us to the next point…

Play up the host city as your makeshift “stage”…  and don’t just give that lip service.

The MTV Awards and the ACMS had much the same idea: abandon the idea of a single venue and use multiple locales to show you much you [heart] New York, or Nashville. Unfortunately, the VMAs were all but forced into that idea nearly at the last minute, when it became clear that bringing any kind of audience into Barclays Center was untenable. The subsequent announcement that MTV would be going city-wide was promising, but probably because of the lateness of the hour, little of note was done on location, beyond the viscerally exciting opening of The Weeknd performing from a transparent overlook atop a Hudson Yards skyscraper. Much of the rest of the show took place on soundstages or, for the acceptance speeches, on a green-screened set that suggested the show was really being broadcast from inside a 1980s sci-fi movie.

The ACMs — which had the benefit of about five months of planning — got the whole city thing right, with equal weight spread between Nashville’s three most iconic locations: the Opry House, Ryman and Bluebird. There was a bit of subterfuge here, too, in terms of how much of the show was live, with all of the Ryman segments and most of the Opry House ones having been pre-recorded. Even so, the acceptance speeches and intros were live, along with at least Guyton’s, Lambert’s and Combs’ performances. (You could tell, from the way Mickey sounded a little nervous at first, or how Miranda and Luke had that is-this-thing-on look as they launched into their intros, that added those subliminal dashes of realness.) The sense of place was inherent in all the seamlessly integrated footage. And when they threw to Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, who were in L.A. and only pretending to be at the Bluebird, the show fessed up to that pretense. A city takeover is a great idea for a show that no longer has any need to be in one place, as long as that idea actually extends beyond the press release.

A little gravity and a lot of acoustic guitar can still work, even if we’re all ready for more fully produced live performances again.

The ACMs had an advantage the VMAs didn’t: a great deal of performers who probably spent years blowing people away in solo settings before they ever had to fill an arena, which led to terrific stripped-down performances not just from Lambert and Combs but best new female artist winner Tenille Townes. The dynamics also had the effect of making the loud performances feel really loud: Eric Church’s full-band “Put That in Your Country Song” would have felt surly no matter what it was surrounded by, but its burliness was bolstered by being part of a show where, for once, it didn’t feel like everyone’s settings were on 11.

The VMAs didn’t have a lot of options for going acoustic with its core performers; one doesn’t imagine it would have gone well if Doja Cat or Black Eyed Peas had been asked to work up something with some bongos just for the sake of some pandemic-appropriate intimacy. But in any case, the Grammys, which long emphasized a keeping-it-real vibe under former exec-producer Ken Ehrlich’s 40-year watch, are well positioned to pick and choose from among genres and performers if they, too, choose to go for some cozier styles and settings instead of overcompensating for the lost live audience.

Maybe there will be live audiences, of some limited sort, by the time the Grammys arrive; with four months left to go till the Jan. 31, it’s a little premature to guess whether “music’s biggest night” will be an applause-free night. But it is a certainty that 15,000 people won’t be packing into Staples Center, and that any arrangement that has every fourth, fifth or sixth seat filled in that cavernous hall runs the risk of being ridiculous, at least sustained over three hours.

With contractual use of the LA Live facilities something the Grammys are unlikely to completely abandon, what if the Grammys followed the ACMs’ model and picked out three iconic locations in Los Angeles for its performances — an adapted Staples Center, sure, but also, say, the Wiltern and the Whisky (following Nashville’s papa bear/mama bear/baby bear approach)? The possibilities don’t end with that handful of suggestions; imagine a show that had the hosts throwing from something that made imaginative use of the Hollywood Bowl to the microscopically tiny but gigantically cool stage of McCabe’s in Santa Monica.

The gimmick of spreading the Grammys across L.A., the way the ACMs spread their show across Nashville, might be enough to get by on — but what if it was a novelty with a purpose? Right now so many of the nation’s independent venues, large and small, are in great danger from a shutdown of live music that currently still has no end in sight. Coordinating with the National Independent Venue Association to put the spotlight on these endangered clubs and halls by putting some of the Grammy performances in them could be symbolically and maybe even politically huge, and actually put a few production dollars in the hands of a Troubadour or some other venue that could use it to live through these dark days. It’d be a massive undertaking to spread out that much and do it all live in a way the ACMs and especially VMAs couldn’t. But a chance for the guardians of recorded music to put in the world’s biggest plug for the endangered species that is live music is just the kind of act of massive good will the industry could use.