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.