How do you fit into the genre but stand out from the crowd?
When the Country Music Association launches the four-day CMA Music Festival on June 6, hundreds of country artists will be grappling with that question as they seek the attention and/or approval of 80,000-100,000 fans per day.
Many, perhaps most, of those fans, sign up for the festival because of the night-time lineups at Nissan Stadium, where the genre's most iconic attractions -- including headliners Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGrawand Luke Bryan -- pack tens of thousands into an NFL venue and shoot most of the footage for an ABC special airing later in 2019.
But the festival's most important work arguably occurs on the less publicized smaller stages, where roughly 300 artists at official CMA events hope to catch the ears and eyes of those throngs, making an impression that builds their fan bases.
"If you just show up and be yourself, and what you're doing is compelling and high quality," says Capitol/Buena Vista artist Adam Hambrick, "there's a good chance that you're going to have an opportunity to make some fans and make it count."
Hambrick and several fellow developing acts provide a microcosm of the challenge. Fans who browse the festival's artist lineup page are likely to spot Hambrick since his first name, Adam, puts him near the top of the alphabetical list. But the same is true for four other developing artists named Adam -- Adam Craig, Adam Doleac, Adam Wakefield and Adam Yarger -- all of whom, like Hambrick, want to establish their name in a competitive field.
Even beyond the Adam family of artists, the festival has a built-in rivalry to it. At any given moment from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., as many as nine different stages will have music simultaneously, firing up artists' desire to win.
"I'm competitive playing Monopoly," says Doleac, who played baseball prior to becoming an artist.
But that doesn't mean he's cutthroat. In fact, Doleac was surprised to discover that the cliché "friendly competition" really does apply in the ranks of Nashville's new artists, who all face an uphill battle.
"They tell you it's going to be hard, but you don't really know exactly how hard," says Doleac.
"Then you realize they weren't lying, so we've kind of walked through all the up-and-coming stages together. They know what I went through, and I know what they've been through and how much hard work has gone into it. So at that point you start rooting for your buddies."
A few of the Adam-named artists were -- ahem -- adamant about making the name work for them, and they twice turned the weekly Whiskey Jam show at Winners Bar in Nashville into the Adam Jam, featuring seven guys named Adam, on Jan. 25, 2018, and again this year on April 22. All five Adams in the current CMA lineup have participated at least once, as have Adam Sanders, Adam Jamesand Adam Searan.
"There's actually a lot of Adams in country music," notes Craig. "We're all just working our butts off for our time to shine."
The "work" of playing CMA Music Festival is significant. Artists are not paid -- they donate their time, and in turn CMA donates profits from the festival to music education -- and they perform in usually oppressive heat to deliver partial sets at the new-and-developing stages with little set-up time and a negligible soundcheck. Rain is expected to dampen this year's festival.
"It's throw and go," says Doleac, who remembers playing in a charity softball game last year and rushing after the last out to take a stage just seven minutes later. "Sometimes it sounds great in your ear, sometimes it doesn't, but you've got to play either way."
Some of the new-and-developing platforms -- particularly the Chevy Breakout Stage, which occupies a park in the center of the festival grounds -- are ideal spots to attract new fans. Doleac had 1,500 of them indicate through the app last year that they would attend his set. By the time he finished, the crowd had swelled to over 2,000, in part by attracting passers-by.
"Ever since my first show, there has always been somebody come up to me after the show and say, 'Hey, man, you have a cool voice,' or 'You have a really unique voice,'" says Doleac. "I figured out early on that that was a tool that I needed to use in a world with 500 male acts, some of which are named Adam, all trying to do the same thing."
Doleac plans to release a new song on June 7, which gives his existing fan base something fresh to hear when they see him the next day at the Breakout Stage, and gives him something to discuss during the set. There are numerous ancillary opportunities to make a connection, too. Hambrick expects to sign autographs during at least one block of time, and Craig is slated to appear at Craig Campbell's annual charity cornhole tournament, where artists interact with each other and the crowd.
Still, the performance slot is the most crucial moment where the Adams -- and the other 300 acts -- can differentiate themselves through their music and onstage persona. Nearly every artist who appears has previously attended the festival, as either a fan or industry observer. And that informs how they present their brand.
"A lot of CMA Fest fans are just casually browsing, and when I'm casually browsing for things, I don't like to be carnival-barkered," says Hambrick. "So I take that approach here and just try to do my thing. People are going to walk by and see it. They're going to latch onto it if they like it, and if not, it's not their bag."
Hambrick, Craig and Doleac have all met fans at concerts in other cities who first heard them at CMA Fest, underscoring the point of the event.
"CMA Fest, now in its 48th year, is all about artist discovery," says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. "All of these artists are performing on stages that feature standout, emerging new talent. With more than 300 artists performing on official stages during CMA Fest, it's certainly no easy feat to stand out from the crowd, but we're excited to see the impact the Adams can make during the festival."
Each Adam, on the eve of the festival, views it as a vital step in building his base.
"We've got to freaking bring it, because everybody else is coming here spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets, buy plane tickets or they drive here and pay for gas and hotels," says Craig. "It's our obligation to bust our butts to give them the party they deserve."