Lady Antebellum did it. The Band Perry did it. Now Mockingbird Sun hopes it can repeat the process.
The band, represented by the Paradigm booking agency and HK Management but not yet signed to a label, played what could be a predictive date at the Iowa State Fair, where its three-part harmonies, hooky choruses and upbeat presentation won over a small but enthusiastic crowd.
It wasn't glamorous -- Mockingbird Sun drove 12 hours each way from Nashville for the gig, ate dinner on a travel date in a Walmart parking lot and competed for fair publicity with a lot of other attractions. The fair's fare included campaign stops by both presidential candidates, hard-ticket attractions Rascal Flatts and Hank Williams Jr., the midway and the fair's much-publicized slate of unhealthy food: deep-fried Oreos, chocolate-dipped bacon, corndogs and deep-fried butter.
But the date was worth it to Mockingbird Sun on several levels. The band, which has worked with "The House That Built Me" songwriter Tom Douglas and producer Mac McAnally in two years of steady development, sold more than enough merchandise after the concert at the fairgrounds' Susan Knapp Amphitheater to pay for the gas back to Tennessee. The performance earned more money, according to road manager Matt Price, than a two-week string of club dates in Texas. And the show added a few more bodies to the band's slowly-developing fan base. Of the estimated 1,200 people there at the beginning, about 600 stayed for the entire 90-minute set. And a very vocal contingent of 50-something fans -- including one who had made a point to see the band again after it opened for Huey Lewis in Omaha June 29 -- forced an unplanned encore at the close.
"If you can hold a crowd like that, you're doing well," Iowa State Fair special events director Tonya Cook says, "because there's a lot of other things going on."
The grandstand headliners at fairs invariably draw the most attention: Miranda Lambert at the Iowa State Fair, Jason Aldean at the Ohio State Fair or Blake Shelton at the Minnesota State Fair. But those free stages, often overlooked by everyone but Nashville's booking agents and the fair's talent buyers, are an essential part of building country careers.
As an example, Lady Antebellum played the Iowa State Fair's Knapp Amphitheater in 2008, and the Band Perry played the same venue last year. Both acts soon became hard-ticket draws at the same fair's grandstand. It's a fact that gives Mockingbird Sun hope every time it plays a state or county fair.
"How many different tents did we play in the last year," Mockingbird Sun's Truck Roley notes, "and [people] came up and said, 'You guys are great. Eric Church played here two years ago.' Or whoever. They drop somebody who's now a household name in country and they played this stage two years ago. That's awesome, and it's happening every single time, so the fairs are catching artists before they blow up. That is cool. It's a sort of cutting-edge thing."
It's also by design. The grandstand entertainment might get the big publicity, but the artists on the free stages add long-term value to the $10 fair admission and the additional parking fee. As those young acts continue to develop, some of them build careers that elevate them to hard-ticket status at the grandstand. In the process, fair-goers form an anticipation that they can see quality music by future stars for free.
"It's easier to bring a fair-goer back the next year than it is to get a new one the first time," Iowa State Fair manager/CEO Gary Slater says. "Once we get a new one, 90% of the time that person will come back the next year. And so you want to have something for everyone and you want to have something that's the wow factor -- whether it's entertainment, whether it's the double-bacon corndog or whatever it might be. But that free entertainment and that niche of up-and-coming entertainment, especially on the country side, is very important to us to attract those followers."
The free stages typically offer a decent number of legacy pop and rock acts -- Dave Mason, Kansas, the Commodores and Wilson Phillips are on this year's schedules at state fairs from Minnesota to Texas -- but when it comes to building future talent, the fair circuit "only works in country music," William Morris Endeavor Nashville co-head Rob Beckham observes. He points to a Jerrod Niemann appearance in Washington, Mo., that likely created a shared memory for the families that attended.
"There was 10,000 people in this little city park watching Jerrod Niemann on this night that was absolutely beautiful and perfect," Beckham says. "There were 80- and 90-year-old people, and there were 10-year-old kids. It was a place for everybody to come and be a part of something together in that community. It only happens once a year, but when it does come to town, it's a really big deal."
New country acts are able to use the fairs as building blocks for several reasons:
· The genre's traditional core audience is seated in the small towns of the heartland, where many of the fairs are clustered.
· Country artists are typically willing to map out their dates farther in advance than acts in many other genres, allowing the fairs to balance their programming schedules for multiple demographics and prep their marketing plans five or six months before the fair launches.
· The average lifespan of a hit country act is expected to be longer than that of a pop artist, which encourages the agents to price the talent a little lower than other genres might. By pricing the artist to play a free stage, the act gets exposed to a larger crowd and hopefully increases its fan base.
"They get to play in front of a lot of people on a bigger stage with real production in front of a really devoted audience," Beckham says. "If you're building fans one by one, the fairs and festivals come into play in a big way."
There are additional advantages, too. An act with an album can sell a few copies at the local superstore, while an artist without a label deal might impress a fellow act or make a business contact with one of that artist's agents or a local radio station. Mockingbird Sun did that very thing -- the Iowa State Fair's Cook indicated a local station was won over by the band and is thus likely to be receptive when it releases a future single.
Because the crowd has so many nearby distractions -- including rollercoasters, funnel cake and competing stages -- an artist can also learn fairly quickly what parts of its show work and what parts don't. It's a training ground that pays decent money and gives an artist a chance to really hone its craft in front of potential customers.
"In rock music, you travel around and play the clubs," notes Mockingbird Sun's Charlie Berry. "We do that as well, but there are less and less country clubs around the nation and since the country music demographic tends to frequent state fairs, other than playing with an established artist, it's our best opportunity to get in front of new people."
The fair was perhaps "a little early" on Mockingbird Sun, Cook said, but she was convinced the band's harmonies -- reminiscent of the Eagles, Poco and the Eli Young Band -- are a sign of bigger things to come. A few nights later, Hunter Hayes played the amphitheater and drew 10,000 people, the third-largest crowd ever for that stage. The Band Perry attracted 12,000 last year and ascended to grandstand headliner at this year's fair.
"We'd love," says Mockingbird Sun's Berry, "to follow in their footsteps."