Dog Days Ain't Over, Yet: Country Business Cycles Through Hot Tour Season

Lorne Thomson/Redferns
Kip Moore performs at KOKO on April 27, 2016 in London.

After Kip Moore headlined an outdoor concert on Aug. 10 and spent a late night in the studio the following evening, he struggled to get out of bed on Aug. 12.

"I'm a whipped dude right now," he confessed during a late-morning phone call.

Moore is on his way to a fifth consecutive year in which he will spend more time on the road than at home. Travel is often physically and mentally -exhausting, so fatigue is typical this time of year for country artists, who tour heavily during the toasty summer months when fairs, festivals and -amphitheaters keep them playing sweat-filled shows.

Other parts of the business experience their own cycles during the dog days of summer, and they're usually related to the artists' schedules. Booking agents and radio stations, for example, are working at peak activity levels, while songwriters slow down.

For the journalists who cover the business, late July and August can become a difficult period. Plenty of executives take time off or go out of town to see their artists, and the remaining staff is naturally slower to respond. Thus, the dog days of summer have an impact even on the people who make their living covering those acts.

"From a news perspective, the road is usually noneventful," says CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert. "Not to say that everybody working in the country music industry checks out by July, but after the CMA Music Festival [in June], a lot of people use the opportunity to recharge by taking vacations. It's a time for them to sort of catch their breath."

Not so for most artists. For them, it's time to go into overdrive. The advent of county fairs and music festivals creates a demand that necessarily means busy bus schedules and more frequent-flier mileage. Travel is physically taxing, the heat takes an understandable toll, and the temporary nature of the business -- where every venue and city has its own peculiarities -- creates a lot of challenging uncertainties.

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Artists, of course, know what they signed up for. But they're still tested by the unexpected hurdles that go with the job.

The Cadillac Three's Jaren Johnston, who spent 13 years traveling in a van before the band graduated to a bus in 2013, found that the cliché phrase "emotional rollercoaster" was practically -invented for touring.

"There's days when you're in the van, and the air goes out, and you're in Texas [heat], and you're going, 'What the hell am I doing this for?'" he says. "Then you play a show, and you're like, 'Ah, son, I get it.' "

Artists' summer touring schedules create some wonky dynamics as they overlap with their associates. Record labels, for example, have some employees away on vacations, while those who remain on the job take on
additional duties. By the end of the summer, many are occupied with extra meetings and phone conferences planning for the always-intense fourth quarter.

Songwriters, who are increasingly motivated by economics to write with artists, book fewer sessions during the summer -- or head out to write on the bus with the acts. Songwriter Josh Osborne ("Take Your Time," "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16") sees writing sessions get canceled more often as the temperature rises and pretty much expects a slowdown in the four weeks prior to Labor Day.

"I don't know if it's the heat or what," he says. "But I notice it in my own life. I feel like I'm in a malaise, and I think it's summer in general. Once kids are back in school and all that kind of stuff, I think everybody kind of snaps back in line a little bit. But I think everybody gets kind of lazy over the summer."

Not quite everybody. Radio stations, still considered country's best medium for exposure, enter high gear. Promotions for their advertisers tend to peak during the sunniest season, and stations use outdoor events -- including the same fairs and festivals that book country artists -- to burnish their image in the local market. Among their most difficult tasks is deciding when to put a cap on the activities.

"I can recall one war story in that area when we would have to staff the Utah State Fair booth from open to close for the entire 10-day run," says Spotify global head of country music programming John Marks, who was a PD in six different markets, including KKAT Salt Lake City, before he moved to national platforms. "That was a point of burnout and certainly a point of 'Hey, why are we doing this for this entire time and devoting all this energy and effort?' As I recall, we started tailoring that down."

Also at peak levels are the booking agencies, who often have to put out last-minute fires at their artists' current shows at the same time they're trying to book a year in advance with promoters who are itching to announce 2017 headliners at the close of their 2016 festivals.

"You're thinking in two years at the same time almost," says William Morris Endeavor line agent Becky Gardenhire.

The promoters have the same issues -- working out last-minute snafus at the same time they're trying to get commitments a year in advance -- and the push and pull between the acts and promoters in high-pressure circumstances creates a certain amount of tension at the end of summer.

"There are a lot of short tempers out there in the industry," she says with a laugh. "You try to work through that as much as you can. That's not anyone's fault. It's part of the stress of this industry."

The artists -- who live out the dog days on the front lines -- are generally able to adapt. Moore, despite being whipped, was a veritable cheerleader at the Aug. 10 outdoors concert.

Frankie Ballard, whose current schedule is loaded with open-air performances, shrugs off the heat -- and the fatigue that goes with it -- as part of the gig.

"We would probably always prefer to play inside," he says. "But people love going outside and seeing shows and being part of a bigger thing. As long as that's true, we're going to be doing shows in the summertime one after -another. It's just the way it is."

Meanwhile, The Cadillac Three -- whose heavy tour schedule has taken them to eight foreign countries in 2016 even as they finished their just -- released album, Bury Me in My Boots -- is already using the Christmas break as motivation to keep performing at the highest level possible.

"Saturday night after the show," recounts Johnston, "we came off stage and we were all wringing wet. It was 110 degrees, playing outside, and we all sat down and poured a shot and a cold beer. And I go, 'Boys, it's August. There's light at the end of the tunnel.'"

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.