Country's Super-Sized Stars Downsize to Pursue European Success

Eric Church’s "The Outsiders" is the No. 1 album in the country for the week ending Feb. 16, but when he picks up a beer to celebrate, it may be a locally brewed Guinness. That’s because he’ll be in Dublin, the first of a 12-show European tour starting Feb. 24.

“We are not in the same position in Europe as we are in North America,” Church’s manager John Peets told Billboard in December. “So it was important to go over there closer to the record so we could capitalize on the momentum.” In the United States, Church headlines arenas. In the United Kingdom, he’ll be playing 1,000- to 2,000-capacity rooms.

Why do it? Because the earning potential for a touring artist expands exponentially at the global level. And Church isn’t the only one. Many country acts are unwilling to sacrifice big paydays at home to develop a fan base overseas, but increasingly stars like Carrie Underwood, The Band Perry and Taylor Swift are taking the same global perspective as the rest of the entertainment industry.

Country music faces challenges in Europe, to be sure, including lack of radio support and cultural differences. But that may be changing. Country 2 Country, a two-day festival featuring Brad Paisley, Dixie Chicks and Dierks Bentley, will celebrate its second year in London March 15-16, and its first in Dublin. The London dates at O2 Arena are sold out, and C2C plans to expand to Stockholm next year and Berlin in 2016. Last year’s C2C grossed $1.4 million, according to Billboard Boxscore, with attendance of 17,152. This year C2C London attendance will top 27,000. 

London-based promoter SJM Concerts, which partners with AEG for C2C, has been one of the most active mainstream country promoters in the United Kingdom and Europe, working on tours by Swift, Underwood, Rascal Flatts and Kacey Musgraves. Another key C2C partner is the Country Music Association, which will stage its CMA Songwriter Series on March 14 at the London Indigo O2.

“Once you get the artists there the first time, then they come back a second or third time and have an even bigger following,” says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern.

The festival is the brainchild of Jay Marciano, chairman of AEG Live, who was previously CEO of Europe for AEG Live parent company AEG. “When I got to the U.K., everyone said, ‘Country music won’t work here. Country artists never come over; they’re not willing to dedicate the time. The record labels have given up,’ ” says Marciano. “I disagreed. There aren’t any country stations in the U.K., but fans find the music virally.”

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Sometimes country’s superstars transcend the genre. Swift sold out five nights at London’s O2 in February, and Garth Brooks sold out three at Dublin’s Croke Park in July.

Live Nation, the world’s largest promoter, has worked with Church and Zac Brown Band in the United Kingdom, and Live Nation Europe president John Reid says his company is interested in doing more.

As for C2C, the concept “has a long future,” says SJM director Chris York. “We can grow this event into something very significant across Europe.”