Billboard Live Music Summit

Country Insiders Talk Touring Too Much & Finding the Next Luke Bryan

Michael Seto

SVP Of Music Events And Talent at CMT John Hamlin, President of Country Music Touring, Live Nation Brian O’Connell, and President of Spalding Entertainment Clarence Spalding on stage at the "Are You Ready for the Country" panel at the 2014 Touring Conference and Awards at The Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on Nov. 20, 2014.

'There are too many shows, and eventually it will cannibalize buildings and cities,' one exec says during Billboard Touring Conference country panel.

Agents and managers working in the country field are predicting a record-breaking year for 2015, with more than 18 performers headlining venues with upward of 10,000 seats. But while superstars and baby bands from Nashville work their way across America, a few insiders have a caution flag at the ready.

"There are too many shows, and eventually it will cannibalize buildings and cities," Louis Messina, president/CEO of TMG-AEG Live, said Thursday (Nov. 20) at the Billboard Touring Conference & Awards at New York's Roosevelt Hotel. "There's too much traffic."

"We have to be a lot more strategic," noted Clarence Spalding, president of Spalding Entertainment, who recently joined Guy Oseary's Maverick group. "A lot of that is personal finances. They take care of mom, their sister, two brothers are on the payroll and instead of 30-35 dates, they're doing 65 and going back into markets and beating a dead horse."

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Cooperation among agents and managers -- one example is the inter-agency sharing of routing and on-sales -- is at an all-time high, says Jay Williams, a Nashville agent for William Morris Endeavor. "We all have a common goal -- we want everyone to succeed, which makes the business succeed," added Brian O'Connell, Live Nation's president of country music touring. "We're only as a strong as each other, so we're not going out of our way to block someone. We're inclusive -- that's what Nashville does better [than other genres]."

Messina and Spalding represent Kenny Chesney and Rascal Flatts, respectively, among other superstar acts, and much of the hourlong conversation moderated by John Hamlin, CMT's senior VP of music events and talent, focused on the success of the hottest acts -- Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line -- and what it takes for younger acts to break through.

Dierks Bentley, A Thousand Horses, Little Big Town, recent Big Machine signing Seth Alley and Jake Owen were cited as acts at different points in theirs careers with a common bond: Nashville has embraced them and rooted for them to succeed. In Bentley's case, there's plenty to cheer about, but the others, beloved as they may be in Music City, need to be a hit elsewhere.

"Get out of the 615 area code and find out what's happening in Ames, Iowa, Milwaukee," CAA agent Rod Essig said. "Luke Bryan was genius about this."

O'Connell backed him up: "You have to convince artists they have to stop listening to the same people in the same room."

In many cases -- and Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane" was cited as a strong example -- it takes just one single to put an act over the top. "We're taking a page from the early days of rock 'n' roll and a lot of artists are building their fanbases by staying on the road," Messina said. "In the pop music business and the one-hit wonder in country, you're only as good as that song, and once it's over, you're over. When you have that special record that takes you to the next level, that's when the roller coaster starts."

As for the coming year in country music:

-Look for the agencies' expansion into sports to result in more connections between college football and country acts.

-Expect a break with tradition: Half of Chesney's 58 shows next year will be indoors. "Everything has to line up," said Messina, who is not using Live Nation exclusively on the tour. "We're playing a few sheds that are not Live Nation, a few soccer stadiums that are not Live Nation."

-Merchandise sales can determine whether an opening act is ready to move up to headlining. By the end of the Aldean-Bryan tour two years ago, Spalding said, "Luke was selling equally to Jason and these were massive merch numbers. You know a fan is a fan when they buy the shirt."

-Declining record sales are less worrisome for an act with more than 10 albums released. "Bruce Springsteen has declining record sales and he'll sustain," said Clint Higham, president of Morris Highman Management. "Jason hasn't had a dozen albums, so he sells 289,000 [in his first week]." Any move, said Essig, has to be about "growing the brand."

-Nashville is not just a town full of songwriters, and agencies are signing potential recording acts years before they sign any deals. "Kids are coming to town to be artists," Williams said. For many, the first step is side stages at festivals and daytime gigs at country and state fairs.