King of the Country: Live Nation's Brian O'Connell Talks Country Fests, Tours for 2016

D Dipasupil/FilmMagic
Brian O'Connell attends the Live Nation and Founders Entertainment Press Conference with Dierks Bentley at Rose Bar at Gramercy Park Hotel on Oct. 29, 2014 in New York City. 

In producing 12-14 country tours annually for more than a decade, and launching six country music festivals in the past four years, Brian O’Connell, president of Live Nation Country Music, has played a huge role in the explosion of country music over the past 10 years.

With his Megaticket concept at Live Nation amphitheaters, O’Connell brought the “season pass” ticketing concept to country, allowing fans to purchase the same seat to every country show that comes to their local shed. Live Nation’s 34 amphitheaters sell about 1.5 million Megatickets annually to country shows, and the program has played a significant role in the growth of country music.

Beyond that, O’Connell’s six country fest have altered the summer touring landscape, including major market breakthroughs last year in Windy City Lake Shake in Chicago and FarmBorough in New York. This year, BOC (as he’s referred to in the industry) and Live Nation will field about a dozen country tours headlined by such acts as Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Toby Keith, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts, Zac Brown Band, Blake Shelton, and others, and has already announced the lineup for Watershed (Eric Church, Aldean, Urban as headliners), Faster Horses (Aldean, Church, Lady Antelbellum), Lake Shake (Aldean, Lady A, Tim McGraw), Farmborough (Toby Keith, Aldean, McGraw), and Rt. 91 Harvest (Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley, and Keith).  Billboard interviewed O’Connell over the phone from Omaha, Neb., where O’Connell was out with the Jason Aldean tour while a rare snowstorm punished the 615.

Billboard: In booking the festivals, there’s a finite number of headliners available, so how do you determine who plays where, and make each festival unique?

Brian O’Connell: The pool [of headliners] is a little deeper than you might think. It isn’t like two or three people have to be on every festival or they’re not going to be successful. If it turns out that some of the artists are better suited in a specific market for one of the festivals at this particular point in their career, whether they’re ascending, at the peak, or have been out there for a while, then that’s what we do. My favorite part of it is when they freak out over an act that you’re thinking of as a “bolt-on” artist, a piece of the puzzle, and it could be an artist that’s third or fourth in the day. The festival is one of the artists; the people that are coming to the festival, they want to go to Faster Horses they want to go to Lake Shake, they want to go to Farmborough, and the artists that are playing are kind of icing on the cake.

How do you go about booking your year? Do you sit down and work by artist, by festival, or go market-by-market?

We look at it as “what are opportunities this year for Artist X? We played 75 shows last year, 20 fairs and festivals, 20 arenas, the rest in amphitheaters and stadiums," whatever the mix is. You look at the record cycles, other things, the artist career and itinerary is the most important thing. Then, if we need to go play in an amphitheater or arena in a particular market for whatever reason, that takes precedent. Then we fill in with whatever opportunities we have. So if the right play in the market is Farmborough, then we go play Farmborough and route that weekend accordingly.

This is you with management and the agent?

Absolutely, it’s a collaborative effort, like everything I try to do. I’m not dictating anything, we don’t get to do that. Here’s the cool thing: we’ve been fortunate to build brands, from a touring point of view, to the Megaticket, to the festivals we’ve launched. These are all quality plays, so it’s not a big reach to say, “let’s go play Lake Shake instead of Tinley Park in Chicago, we’ve played Tinley Park five years in a row.” The artists, managers and agents know the festival is a quality play -- it’s not some half-assed deal. They trust it.

Are all the big country acts working this year?

In one form or another, absolutely.

Is anybody moving up to headliner this year?

The name that jumps out in our Megaticket lineup that hasn’t been there in the past is Brantley Gilbert. Brantley is a great story, he stuck to his guns here and over at CAA, Rich [Egan], his manager, they’ve really done it their way, and I have nothing but respect for them. We’re excited to see what we can do. We did a trial run for both of us up at SPAC [Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.), I think we did 15-16,000, and it was, “alright, we have something here, let’s go.”

Did country show any signs of peaking last year?

No. Everybody talks about over-saturation, but what I’m seeing is the next generation right in front of us. The days and years are going by so quickly that you forget a kid like Thomas Rhett, who we’ve been working with for five years or so, now he’s sitting there with a five-week No. 1, an incredible song in “Die a Happy Man,” and now all of a sudden he’s there and ready to take that next step. We’ve seen it happen time and time again, where we have a proliferation of these younger acts, it seems like there’s a million of ‘em, and you see them cut their teeth, get a hit, get another hit, and then there’s some validity to it.

But we’re all buying in really early; the first time I saw Cam last year at Lake Shake, I’d heard a couple things from her, but it wasn’t until I saw her physically, live on the Next From Nashville stage, I went, “Oh my god, this is great.” She is amazing. There’s a difference between the “615 buzz,” everybody’s got the next big thing, they can all sing their ass off, they’ve got record of the year and made a completely different album, blah, blah, blah. But when you see them live out of the 615, not in a controlled environment, you really see what they’ve got. Ryan Kinder, what a great live act. Cam blew me away. The first time I saw Kelsea Ballerini on the Next From Nashville stage, it was very early on her single, and it was like, “whoa!” You just see the talent pouring out, and you saw that happen with Sam Hunt, it happened in, what, a year-and-a-half?

It would seem you have an embarrassment of riches when you’re looking at your support situation, because you require some 50 of them, in one form or another, right?

If you do the simple math, with 14 to 15 tours, there’s 30 [support acts], if it’s a two-act bill. Then take the Next From Nashville stuff at festivals, that’s 15 or 16 a pop.

That’s a lot of up-and-coming talent that has the opportunity to play in front of a lot of people.

That’s the fun part about it, I have a mechanism in place, and I tell everybody when I’m booking the shows, “don’t try to pitch me, if you believe in it, I’m good with it.” Sirius XM came on with us last year at Rt. 91 Harvest and did an incredible job, and now I’m working with these guys, they’re usually first on, they’ve got a much broader playlist and palette to paint from. I’m listening to them, I’m listening to the labels, I’m listening to the agents, I’m listening to the managers and their new projects, I’m giving everybody a shot.

This year, I’m doing a lot of work with Aubrey Sellers, with Tara Thompson, there’s a lot of artists that aren’t necessarily in the mainstream. Maren Morris just had a huge [radio] add the other day and we snapped her up to go out with Keith Urban four or five months ago. There’s a lot of that going on, and the way you discover that is not just through the hype on the phone in the office, it’s through actually booking them and watching them work. It’s cool.

How did Chris Stapleton’s great fall and the CMA Awards in November impact his touring this year, from your perspective?

We’re doing a run of about eight amphitheater dates with him and Hank Williams, Jr.. Anybody who likes music likes Chris Stapleton, anybody who’s appreciative of great artists. We’ve known that in Nashville for some time. Him having that breakthrough in November, I always say, “that record was just as good in May when it came out as it was in November.” I think he’s primed to become a giant superstar, and it’s great that he’s getting these opportunities, they’ve done a great job with him.

In general, as you roll out country for 2016, do you feel good about the overall health of the genre?

For the really tiny corner I work in, to use a sports analogy, it feels like to me we’re going out and adding through the draft with new artists and making our team stronger and stronger. We’ve got our superstars and they’re doing great, and there’s no real sign of it slowing down. When it gets tough is when the second wave isn’t there, the rookies are having a sophomore slump, and right now I feel like the middle of the lineup is as strong as ever, everybody from Thomas and Brett Eldredge to Chris Young and Lee Brice, Randy Houser, there’s just a list of them.

Now these acts are familiar to audiences, not just from the hits, but also from having played in front of them.

Exactly, they’re poised to break out and do their thing. It’s learning that one single does not equal an arena headlining tour, you’ve got to go out there and grind it out, build your fan base. And a lot of these artists have done that, they’ve won awards, they’ve toured with the biggest acts in the world, they’ve played in front of millions of people, done thousands of shows, that’s when they really get good. And we’re in that position right now. I feel like the state of the business is real healthy and the future looks really bright. The superstars are glowing white hot, and we’re putting the packages together. Look at One Thousand Horses, a year-and-a-half ago nobody had ever heard of them, we started last week with Jason, and it’s one of these things when you walk into the arena at 7:30 when they go on stage, it’s the middle of January, freezing cold out, and everybody’s in there.

What about country music acts in stadiums this year?

Jason’s playing two nights at Fenway [in Boston], and we’re looking at another one, and Luke’s playing half a dozen of them. Kenny [Chesney] and Miranda [Lambert] are out there doing their thing. Zac’s playing some baseball stadiums.

So that’s kind of leveled out a bit.

It is what it is. The arms race to play stadiums is over, now it’s more about being strategic.  Once an artist reaches the point to say “I’m playing stadiums,” if you’re a baseball player, you want to play in the major leagues, if you’re an artist, you want to be able to play a stadiums, it’s just the way it is.

Will you be announcing any new country music festivals this year?

I would expect to be announcing a couple of major new Festival events this year. As you know, I have to get them just right before I go.

It seems this has become a year-round business for you.

You know me, buddy, I’m out here 45-44 weeks as year.

When you saw Omaha in mid-January on the schedule, you had to think this one might be dicey.

Nah, don’t forget, I’m the one who routes it. I try to go where it’s cold, where they’ve got cabin fever. I hit that as hard as I can January through February, and I go to places that can handle the snow. How ‘bout that?


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