As Country Leads the Way Back to Live Concerts, Is A Traffic Jam Imminent?

As acts of all sizes flood the market with tours, residencies and festivals, some promoters fret about oversaturation.

Bobby Reynolds liked everything coming across his desk. The senior vp for AEG Presents in Las Vegas knew that as the coronavirus pandemic waned, many major artists would be eager to get back to work — and as he began to book shows for the new Resorts World and Virgin hotels, he found managers and agents especially accommodating.

What he wasn’t expecting was just how many A-list acts he’d juggle at once: in November, two nights of Old Dominion at the Cosmopolitan, as well as Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood residencies at the Resorts World theater; in December, Luke Combs at T-Mobile Arena and Little Big Town at the Virgin Hotel’s theater. “It’s good to be creating a lot of opportunities for people who haven’t worked in a while,” says Reynolds. “But then you look at all the shows you’re booking, and you realize, ‘Wow — it’s going to be a lot of work to sell and stage all these shows.’”

With the pandemic hopefully in the rear-view mirror, country music is playing a key role in driving the concert business’ comeback. Twelve major country music tours — each expected to draw at least 10,000 fans — will visit Los Angeles before Thanksgiving, while Dallas begins a stretch in late July in which a major country show is set for every weekend through October. (In 2019, less than one-third of major concerts during that same time period were by country artists.)

So far, ticket sales have been strong — but the brisk business is also starting to fuel concerns about overheating the market before a recovery can truly get underway. As the post-pandemic demand for shows approaches a record high, promoters now face a quandary: cash in on a bull market — and hope not to be left holding the bag if that market becomes too saturated.

“Based on the numbers I’m seeing, superstar artists are going to have a great year,” says promoter Louis Messina. “But if I wasn’t sure about an act, I might reconsider taking them out on the road or pushing the envelope too much on ticket prices.” For artists that, pre-pandemic, were ready to make the leap to a larger venue tier, that could mean sticking to less ambitious rooms in a year with plenty of promise but little certainty.

Fears of oversaturation in country touring go back decades, predicated on the idea that the amount of money consumers will pay to attend a wide variety of concerts — megastars on arena and stadium tours; other acts playing smaller venues, festivals, state and county fairs, and rodeos — is fairly static and that too many shows at once in one market could cannibalize one another’s ticket sales. Promoters in the genre typically take pains to space out shows “to give each other as much room as possible,” says talent buyer Brock Jones of 191 Touring. “It was a courtesy to your colleagues, but it was also smart business.”

That pipeline of shows that dried up amid COVID-19 is about to be flooded and may prove those old assumptions wrong. Combs, Old Dominion, Maren Morris, Dierks Bentley, Thomas Rhett, Brad Paisley, Chris Stapleton, Ashley McBryde and Scotty McCreery will all hit the road before the Fourth of July. After that, Garth Brooks relaunches his 2020 stadium tour, Reba McEntire revives her arena tour before returning to her Las Vegas residency with Brooks & Dunn, George Strait comes out of “retirement” for the 10th year in a row to play Vegas and headline the Austin City Limits Festival, and Willie Nelson relaunches his touring festival Outlaw Country. Blake Shelton, Kelsea Ballerini, Tanya Tucker, Brothers Osborne, Lady A, Eric Church, Kane Brown, Keith Urban, Kip Moore, Little Big Town and Dan + Shay are also due to tour.

So far, refund requests for rescheduled 2020 shows have been low, and “ticket sales are increasing across the board in nearly every category,” says Bryan Perez of AXS Tickets, the second-largest ticketing company in North America. That’s in large part thanks to Nashville’s most powerful marketing tool, FM radio, which last year continued to promote a new group of acts preparing to launch their touring careers. Meanwhile, promoters plotting outings were increasingly able to utilize data from a growing streaming audience. According to MRC Data, country listenership surged 21.4% during March and April 2020, and the genre’s overall market share of streaming music grew from 6.9% pre-COVID-19 to 7.5% post-lockdown.

In some promoters’ view, that adds up to little reason for oversaturation concerns. “Looking at the year ahead and worrying that people are going to be burned out on too many A-listers hitting the road seems counterproductive,” says Canadian promoter Jim Cressman of Invictus Entertainment.

But beyond navigating ticket sales, promoters may face another challenge: traversing a daunting map of states with wildly variable COVID-19 restrictions. A number of them, including New York and California, will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test at least 72 hours in advance for indoor events of 5,000 people or more, while states like Florida and Texas have virtually no restrictions and are considering outlawing mandatory vaccine requirements. (With Canada only just coming out of lockdown, most tours plan to skip the country until next year.)

There’s also potential for a short-term labor shortage: The pandemic reduced the number of available roadies and techs, many of whom found new work over the past year. Now, with dozens of artists on the road at the same time, promoters worry about a shortage in stage and sound equipment that could drive up costs for tours that are already operating on thin margins. Higher costs also make financial planning more difficult, says Messina, especially if ticket sales slump. Still, as with plenty of others like him, those concerns haven’t dulled the promoter’s eagerness to return to his business.

“I’m optimistic but realistic,” says Messina. “There absolutely is a ceiling — anyone who thinks there isn’t a finite amount of money that can be pulled out of the marketplace is wrong. But we also can’t be afraid to take risks and get back on the road.”

This story originally appeared in the June 26, 2021 issue of Billboard.