Kip Moore long ago got over the jitters playing in front of a live audience. Then he stepped on the Ryman Auditorium stage this week.
With hundreds of country music radio executives from around the nation watching during Universal Music Nashville's Country Radio Seminar showcase and his first single out March 14, it was arguably the most important performance of his career.
And he had just a little bit over 3 minutes to try and earn spins.
"It had to have been easily the most nerve-racking experience that I've ever had, hands down," Moore said.
Moore nailed it in the Wednesday performance and got an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. If he persuaded a few program directors to play his new song, "Mary Was the Marrying Kind," he might just have taken the first step toward superstardom.
Hundreds of country acts make their way to Nashville each year with the same goal as Moore. It's one of the largest gatherings of country radio executives and almost every major, minor and aspiring country artist roams the halls of the Nashville Convention Center.
No expense is spared wining, dining and wooing coveted airplay, still the golden ring for artists seeking to exploit the reach of the nation's largest radio format. There's swag, manicures, exclusive performances, food and a river of booze.
Acts usually travel the country on nomadic radio tours, hitting stations one by one in weeks _ or even months _ long journeys that Moore described as "emotionally draining." The fish-in-the-barrel quality of CRS gives artists a unique opportunity to sing for a mass of key contacts.
Kasey Buckley and Amanda Watkins of new duo Miss Willie Brown decided to skip the road work for now and focus on CRS. They want radio executives on their team, and CRS gives them three days to introduce themselves to as many potential teammates as possible.
"We can't just like hold a meeting with them" Buckley said. "This is everyone we want to have relationships with, build relationships with in one place. So we know they're going to be here. We dress up, put some makeup on, do some push-ups and come here."
There is plenty of proof out there that the glad-handing and back slapping works. Radio play remains the most direct way for country acts to reach record and ticket buyers. A No. 1 single can mean millions of dollars and push an act from the bar scene to arenas.
Jason Aldean, whose duet with Kelly Clarkson, "Don't You Wanna Stay," is the No. 1 song on Billboard's country chart this week, started attending CRS with producer and mentor Michael Knox long before he had a record deal.
Knox "kind of took me under his wing when I first got to Nashville. I was like his pet or his little brother," Aldean joked. "He used to take me around and just introduce me to everybody, and he said, `Look, if you ever get a recording career, this is what you're going to have to do. Get used to it.' So that's what we did."
The work _ and the quality of his songs _ paid off. "Don't You Wanna Stay" is his sixth No. 1 song and he's the hottest male act in the genre right now.
For every Aldean, though, there are hundreds of artists who fail to connect for one reason or another. Hit-level radio airplay is hard to come by and it's almost impossible to gain admittance to the club.
Making it more maddening is no one can really quantify what makes a hit or why certain acts resonate with program directors. The Randy Rogers Band tours relentlessly, just earned its third Academy of Country Music Awards nomination for top vocal group and recently played on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno". They have some supporters in radio, but have mostly gotten a lukewarm response despite a reputation as one of country's best live acts.
Rogers has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what causes that disconnect.
"There is a magic formula," Rogers said. "I just don't know what it is."
Fellow Texan Hayes Carll has been through it all before with little to show for it. He's built a following on the strength of his live show and the quality of his music. But he marches on with a kind of quixotic optimism in pursuit of a few spins.
"It's kind of like going to a job interview where you know you're not going to get the job," Carll said with a wry smile. "But why not?"
He knows plenty of acts who have given up and doesn't think that's the answer either. So he got on a plane at 7:15 a.m. Wednesday after a late-night gig in Houston, played his new song "Chances Are" for the radio executives at the Ryman and hotfooted it back to the airport for a 2:50 p.m. flight to Texas for a show that night.
"I keep thinking the wheels are going to turn and tastes are going to shift, and at some point there's this whole seedy underworld of country musicians that I like that will get on there some day," Carll said. "I figured I'd come up, do the deal, at least introduce myself if they don't know me yet and go home, go back to my life. Who knows? Maybe one day we'll get the call that some radio station somewhere took a chance and played it."