Fox News' Concert Series Has Become a Go-To Source of Promotion for Country Acts -- But Some Artists Are Staying Away

ISSUE 20 2019 - DO NOT REUSE
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Big Kenny of Big & Rich at the Fox & Friends All-American Concert Series in July.

On the morning of July 26, Christian hard-rock band Skillet gave an interview to and performed on Fox News channel's Fox & Friends All-American Summer Concert Series in Midtown Manhattan. For the next few hours, the group was the most-searched act on iTunes -- and preorders for its album Victorious, due out the following week, doubled.

Other acts have seen similarly impressive boosts. Scotty McCreery, the American Idol winner turned country star, has played the series a few times, most recently in 2018, and has "always seen sales results from the television broadcast," according to manager Scott Stem. "It definitely moved the needle for him."

Fox News' showcase doesn't get the mega-superstars that appear on the summer concert series of Good Morning America (GMA) or Today, which this season featured the likes of BTS, Taylor Swift, Chance the Rapper, Lizzo and Jennifer Lopez. But for the past 11 years, Fox & Friends has rolled out the welcome mat for well-known and developing contemporary country and Christian artists, as well as veteran pop and rock acts. This summer, 11 of its 15 performers were country -- including The Charlie Daniels Band, Big & Rich and newcomers Runaway June -- and in recent years, it also has drawn such heritage rockers as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alice Cooper and 3 Doors Down, as well as pop artists like Hanson and Phillip Phillips.

"We embrace all kinds of music," says AJ Hall, coordinating producer for Fox & Friends, who has booked the concert series since 2011. "I'm giving them the opportunity to promote whatever they want. For a lot of people, that's tied to charities. They know they're on the No. 1 morning show on cable."

Fox & Friends has been the top cable news program in its time slot for a staggering 213 months straight, according to Nielsen Media Research, and draws an average of 1.4 million viewers, while its network competitors, ABC's GMA and NBC's Today, each draw nearly 4 million viewers daily.

Contrary to industry norms, Hall doesn't mind if artists play other morning shows, so some acts use Fox & Friends -- which can accommodate an audience of 500 and serves barbecue to fans for breakfast -- to complement other TV appearances. After Runaway June performed on Today in late 2018, early in the life cycle of single "Buy My Own Drinks," manager Fletcher Foster was looking for another appearance as the song climbed the charts. "It was really an opportunity for us to have another television hit on this song as it was going top 10 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. Not only did we perform the song, but there were several bumpers with songs from the album that had just come out two weeks earlier to expose the record."

Managers also say Fox & Friends' production costs run lower than the broadcast shows', making it a more prudent economic choice, especially because shows often pass those expenses on to acts or their labels, which are already paying for travel.

Fox News is divided into news and opinion operations, and Fox & Friends falls under the latter, alongside shows hosted by Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, each of which have faced calls for advertiser boycotts over comments made in the past few years.

Fox & Friends' often right-leaning perspective makes it a no-go zone for some artists, says one publicist who represents some top pop and country acts. "Even my country artists won't go on their show because of the political affiliation," she says. An artist manager observes, "I think there are artists that just don't even want to go in that space."

Fox & Friends' hosts and guests have questioned the motives of musicians with progressive views. On Aug. 7, co-host Ainsley Earhardt asked, "What is happening to country music?" after Kacey Musgraves cursed while lamenting the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, during Lollapalooza. In May, when Swift said that her new album would have "political overtones," reporter Carley Shimkus suggested that such moves represent a "business strategy for some celebrities. They know they're going to get ... glowing praise if they support liberal causes, so some celebrities might feel pressured into it."

The musical performances represent "a break from the news of the day," says Hall. "When we reach out to artists, this isn't about politics -- this is about their music." He adds that he has never had a publicist tell him an act is passing for political reasons. "Friday during the summer is tough," he says, citing scheduling as a leading reason acts decline. "This isn't one or two songs. Some artists come on the show and perform a one-hour set. That's a lot to ask."

For some artists, though, getting in front of fans is what matters most. TV appearances are "tough to get, so we take them as we get them for the exposure, without a lot of consideration for political affiliation," says Peter Hartung, manager of country act Justin Moore, who played Fox & Friends on Aug. 2, the day his new album came out. It debuted at No. 2 on the Top Country Albums chart.

Another manager adds that Fox's audience is important for many country artists. "I don't have an issue with doing Fox & Friends even though it's a little bit more politically charged than the other shows," the manager says. "As long as we're not part of the political part of it, it's a viable way of getting to our fan base."

Fox News' ties to country artists extend beyond the All-American Summer Concert Series. John Rich, whose duo Big & Rich played the series for the first time this year, co-wrote the song "Shut Up About Politics" with Greg Gutfeld, a co-host of Fox News' The Five. Proceeds from sales of the track, which reached No. 1 on the Country Digital Song Sales chart in June and features all of The Five's co-hosts, go to Folds of Honor, which provides scholarships to children and spouses of disabled and fallen service members. In August, Rich announced that he and The Five have given the charity over $50,000.

While Skillet's John Cooper acknowledges that some fans may consider the act of playing the concert series a political statement -- "You would have to be naive as an artist to not know that's a possibility," he says -- he stresses that it was a no-politics zone for the band's appearance. "Nobody asked me anything about immigration, who did you vote for," he says. For Skillet, it was simply an opportunity to get exposure. "I would go play on MSNBC or CNN. It's America. We're all capitalists here. We all want to sell records."

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.


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