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Big Barrel, FarmBorough, Delaware Junction... With Rampant Cancellations, What's the Forecast for This Year's Country Fests?

general overview of the 2015 FarmBorough Festival
Rahav Segev/WireImage

Fans at the 2015 FarmBorough Festival at Randall's Island on June 26, 2015 in New York City. 

Despite drawing a respectable 40,000 last year, country’s Big Apple invasion has faltered, with the cancellation of the FarmBorough country music festival on New York’s Randall’s Island being the latest in a string of troubling signs in what has been the hottest space in live music.

Live Nation announced Feb. 9 that the plug has been pulled on FarmBorough fest after just one year. FarmBorough had been set for June 17-19 at Randall’s Island Park in New York City, with a lineup that featured Toby Keith, Jason Aldean and Tim McGraw as headliners. Tickets went on sale just two weeks ago, but a post on the FarmBorough website states that the festival “will not return to Randall’s Island in June of 2016, adding that, “conditions dictate that we redirect our energy at this time.”

As to what those “conditions” might be, Live Nation Country Music president Brian O’Connell elaborates that “ticket sales were not where we needed them to be,” adding, “but I can’t point to any specific reason why [FarmBorough] didn’t work this year.” 

FarmBorough, produced in partnership with Governors Ball producers Founders Entertainment, does not seem to have been fully embraced as country’s first festival in the New York metropolitan market. History shows rock and pop fans have no problem schlepping to Randall’s Island for Governor's Ball, and will likely do so again for the debut of AEG’s Panorama festival on the same site. In the end, a three-day commitment from country fans who may or may not be familiar with the site, many of them New Yorkers with a wealth of entertainment options, may have been a bit too much to ask.

Though surely disappointed in how this has played out, O’Connell hasn’t given up on country in the Big Apple. “I still believe in New York City, and I plan to come back in some fashion in the future,” he vows. “But, in 2016, we have four big country festivals and we want to focus our resources on the ones we believe have solid runway, and fail fast on the troubled ones.”

The FarmBorough news comes amid other signs that the burgeoning country festival scene, which had been the hottest in the overall North American festival space, may be showing real signs of softness in the first quarter of 2016. 

News came last week that Goldenvoice would not stage a second year of Big Barrel in Dover, Del., where it had gone head-to-head with Live Nation in launching major country festivals last year. Insiders tell Billboard that at least three more of AEG Live’s newer country festivals may be in danger of being canceled as well. (AEG has not yet clarified the status of these festivals).

Live Nation rolled out its own Delaware country fest last year in Delaware Junction, and the promoter has not yet announced any plans for the festival to return, though LN has already announced lineups for its other festivals, including FarmBorough. Insiders that spoke with Billboard consider Delaware Junction as a no-go, and O’Connell gave no indication that Junction will return in 2016, though he clearly believes the brand isn’t dead.

“Delaware Junction was a great festival in 2015,” O’Connell says, pointing out that the festival “delivered a great experience to the fans and artists” last year. As to its prognosis, he says, “We are taking our time with the future of Delaware Junction.”

Regardless, O’Connell remains bullish on the genre, even as it relates to festivals. But after launching six festivals in four years, and stumbling on two of them, Live Nation and O’Connell may at least slow the pace a bit.

“My views have not changed regarding new festival opportunities,” he says. “We are still very committed to expanding our portfolio and I am always on the hunt for that magic site, and creating that brand that speaks to people. I am just going to take my time and continue to perfect what we have already created, and will start new ones when the time is right.”

The genre’s two largest promoters, Live Nation and AEG Live, have been very aggressive on country over the past few years. In addition to O’Connells six festivals in four years, AEG Live/Goldenvoice added a half-dozen country festivals to a portfolio that, for more than a decade, and has boasted the Stagecoach country fest as a proven and ever-growing draw. 

The FarmBorough misstep must be particularly tough to swallow for O’Connell, who, to his credit, made risky forays into major markets with both FarmBorough and Lake Shake last year. O’Connell told Billboard that FarmBorough, in particular, with headliners Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, and Luke Bryan, “came through with flying colors” in 2015, and predicted at that time that FarmBorough could become "a major destination event.” 

On the positive side of this tipping scale, Windy City Lake Shake in Chicago, the other major market country fest launched last year by Live Nation, is “really taking hold in Chicago, and will be part of that community for a long time, I suspect,” O’Connell says. “In Vegas, we are redesigning the layout for Rt. 91 Harvest because we need more capacity, so all good there.” Add to that the first of his festival concepts, Watershed in George, Wash., has “already shattered all records and is heading towards a two-weekend sellout, which no one has ever done before in country,” O’Connell notes. “Faster Horses (in Brooklyn, Mich.) is in pre-sale right now, and is obliterating the pace from last year, so look for that festival to be giant.” As well, his Megaticket (sort of a country “season pass” for Live Nation amphitheaters) is doing “big numbers.”

Even with FarmBorough’s demise, New York remains a robust market for live country music, at least at the superstar headliner level, with acts such as Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean selling out at Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Country overall remains North America’s hottest live genre, with recent or ongoing tours by such artists as Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Aldean, McGraw, Church, and Zac Brown Band being among the elite turnstile spinners in all of music.