Country music is surpassing pop, rock and EDM as the fastest-growing genre in the booming festival space.
With its wealth of headliners and full supply of developing acts, country is, more than ever, a "lifestyle," which puts the genre in a prime position as North America's music fans continue to embrace the festival experience. "We've got a lot of acts, and the music that's being produced is conducive to the outdoor experience," says Brian O'Connell, president of country music for Live Nation, which had a 50% increase in its country business in 2013 for a total of 7 million fans. "Country's a big outdoor party right now."
On a mission to launch 10 country festivals in 10 years, O'Connell came out of the gate with Watershed at the Gorge in George, Wash., in 2012, then Faster Horses in Brooklyn, Mich., last year. Multiple sources say a country fest on New York's Governors Island in 2014 will be next. O'Connell wasn't ready to confirm that one just yet, but he stands by the "10 in 10" goal. "This is year three at Watershed, year two at Faster Horses," he says, "so you've got to figure I have something up my sleeve for this year."
Other big live entertainment firms are also focusing on country. Billboard broke the news last month that William Morris Endeavor has invested in six country music festivals: four under the Country Thunder brand that will operate as Country Thunder East and Country Thunder West, and two existing festivals in Oregon that WME purchased outright.
AEG Live, second only to Live Nation among concert promoters, is heavily invested in the country fest game. Bayou Country Superfest in Baton Rouge, La., co-produced by Festival Productions and TMG/AEG Live, expanded to three days for its fifth edition in May. Stagecoach, in Indio, Calif., produced by Coachella founder Goldenvoice/AEG Live, has, in eight years, developed into arguably the most important country music play west of the Mississippi, grossing nearly $12 million in 2013, according to Billboard Boxscore.
Some of the newer events set themselves apart with eclectic lineups that target the iPod generation, like the second Tortuga Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Even with new players, the genre's premier destination event remains the Country Music Association's 42-year-old CMA Music Festival in Nashville, which sold out 15 weeks in advance this year before announcing any acts. The event attracts some 50,000 attendees per night to LP Field, and since 2004 has boasted a three-hour network TV special.
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More country fests are coming. O'Connell believes that within 10 years there will be as many country festival plays in North America as there are arenas and amphitheaters, but he cautions that not all will be as successful as those in other genres. "You're going to see [the market] cycle through a few. That's the part I'm most concerned about."
Troy Volhoffer is president-CEO of Country Thunder East and West, and also runs Premier Global Productions, a live event production firm that saw a 25% uptick in country business this year. Volhoffer also believes that some won't make it. "You hear, 'I've got a field in Nebraska my uncle owns, and we're going to do a festival,'" he says. "This is a tough business, and if you don't know what you're doing, you can be out of the business real quick."
Still, as in the festival business at large, saturation doesn't yet seem to be a major issue. But markets need to be chosen with care as country acts pound the road.
A best-case scenario would be regional country festivals offering touring artists an opportunity to give certain markets a rest from headlining dates, thereby prolonging the artists' value in that market. O'Connell is promoting 11 country tours this year, so one of his problems is a limited supply of Saturday nights.
"If we can take a year off in St. Louis and play a festival that encapsulates the St. Louis market, we're creating another Saturday," he says. "Specific to my business, if I don't do my job and create more opportunities for the acts than just the idea of booking an arena, amphitheater or stadium show, we're stagnant. And that's not good."