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Why Garth Brooks Won the CMA Entertainer of the Year (And Probably Will Again Next Year)

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Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Garth Brooks‘ CMA Entertainer of the Year win should be a surprise to no one in the country music industry. The 55-year-old simply out-hustled his younger competition.

Each of the five EOTY nominees was well-qualified, so it’s easy to imagine a scenario where the 7,200 voters were split into five equal parts to begin a weeks-long voting season. That’s 1,440 votes each. From there, how many voter does a nominee need to sway to win this award? 100? 200? 500?

If Brooks wasn’t the favorite, he was at least a favorite on the face of the six million concert tickets he’s sold over the last three years. Make no mistake: Brooks is worthy of the award based solely on his musical contributions, but it’s his marketing and publicity acumen that earned him the honor for a second straight year.

Last week nearly two dozen radio stations and media outlets took part in CMA radio row, a junket that has artists going booth to booth for one-on-one interviews. Brooks and Bryan were the only Entertainer of the Year nominees there.

All in favor of @garthbrooks keeping the beard?! The #GOAT says his queen digs it #CMAawards #CMAs

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Three weeks before that, Brooks played a pop-up show at the legendary Bluebird Cafe, inviting Nashville and national media in the area to see him share stories of hit songs like “The Dance,” “The River” and “The Thunder Rolls” with his favorite writers. Everyone left feeling like they’d just witnessed something truly extraordinary. Final ballots for CMA voting were due soon after.

Brooks brought dozens, if not hundreds of his radio and media friends (including Taste of Country) to Atlanta to watch him open Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The sound at the new football stadium was terrible, but the entertainment was great, and the high-roller spread left everyone feeling pretty good about what they experienced. He did something similar in October 2016, flying radio and media to Dallas for a junket on the 50-yard-line of the Cowboys’ football stadium.

Think back on the last 10 years — how many holiday seasons have gone by without a new Garth Brooks product in stores or at digital retailers? Even in retirement he kept a presence. It’s like he was holding his spot for nights like the 2017 CMA Awards.

Perhaps the most important (and least expensive) tactic is how Brooks handles media. He does press conferences before every show, and the invites are hardly exclusive. After his set, everyone gets one-on-one time with a legend that many of these professionals grew up idolizing. It’s so simple and easy that it’s shocking no one replicates the strategy.

The other four nominees in 2017 offer a variety of media opportunities. Chris Stapleton and Eric Church are more reclusive and do limited interviews, which is their right. Keith Urban is introverted, but allows some time and is gracious and generous. Luke Bryan is present and comes closest to what Brooks does, but he leans into national networks more than local media. Garth will choose WYRK in Buffalo, N.Y. over the ABC affiliate in New York City, or at least make sure he does both. He’ll also remember a Tupelo, Miss., deejay’s name 10 years later, and go on to ask about his or her kids — when running for Entertainer of the Year, a savant-like memory is helpful — and he’s been doing this for 30 years.

Did any of the other Entertainer of the Year nominees even stand a chance? We polled nearly three dozen artists ahead of the 2017 CMAs, and the majority picked Brooks to win the big prize.

There are smart tactics at play here. Since the start of his three-year-long World Tour, Brooks’ publicist sends press releases that start with something like, “For the first time in 19 years …” as a way to reveal the next city on the tour. Those are followed by a release touting the “Ask Me How I Know” singer’s ticket sales in said city, after they go on sale. Like a commercial jingle or a corporate slogan, this has become his branding statement. He’s the guy who sells 40,000 tickets to shows in Billings, Montana in 36 minutes (setting a new record, of course). He’s the guy who announced show after show in Chicago, New York City and beyond. When you can wear a ball cap celebrating six million concert tickets sold in three years and invite fans and media to a show that commemorates seven diamond singles and still be the guy who will talk to a new night deejay in Casper, Wy., like he’s Ryan Seacrest or something, the competition doesn’t stand a chance.

The Entertainer of the Year award is about the music and the tours (and maybe the television appearances). But after that, it’s about the finer details, like how you treat people. People don’t forget. Congratulations, Garth Brooks — we look forward to whatever you have planned next October.

See Pics from the 2017 CMA Awards Red Carpet

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