Live Nation’s country music division barnstormed the major markets of Chicago and New York on consecutive weekends, launching Lake Shake in the former and FarmBorough in the latter, each drawing about 40,000 in attendance.
The statement-making events are good news for a genre that is now the hottest segment of the most competitive space in the music industry.
Live Nation Country president Brian O’Connell praised his staff and offered thanks to the country music community for their support in bringing mainstream country to these urban markets. "I appreciate the support of the artist community and fans, where we can say, ‘trust us, we’ll deliver something fabulous,’ and I think we came through with flying colors,’ says O’Connell, adding that his team members, "look at me like I’m an alien sometimes when I say, ‘let’s launch a festival in the third largest market in the country, and then let’s go to New York and take on the Big Apple, in two consecutive weeks.’ Nobody else can say they did that -- I don’t know that anybody else would ever want to. But we pulled it off."
Held on Randall’s Island June 25-27 with headliners Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley and Luke Bryan, FarmBorough was New York’s first country music festival. "It was really cool to see New York City as the backdrop of a country music festival," says O’Connell. "As I said all along, New York City is our opening act, and it’s not just about getting people in Manhattan to cross the river to see the show. We spent the better part of the year trying to explain, ‘come to New York City and see this incredible event in Manhattan, and watch it grow. And the first two people through the doors were from Alberta, Canada. This will become a major destination event."
Asked if the attendance of 40,000 met expectations, O’Connell says he is "really happy" with the turnout. "Anything more than zero was good, because any time you start one of these things you just don’t know," he says. "My goal was for everybody to be smiling, and everybody was smiling."
O’Connell adds that social media feedback in the wake of FarmBorough has been, "glowing, much better than other festivals I started, where they get on ‘hatebook’ and bitch," he says. Showers on Saturday did not hamper enthusiasm, he says. "It was like somebody turned the shower on ice cold and left the house. It just poured, and in between the sets they’d go to the Next From Nashville tent, both for the programming and for the shelter."
The audience demo was comparable to other country events, according to O’Connell, who produces country fests in markets like Brooklyn, Mich. (Faster Horses), George, Wash., (Watershed), and Las Vegas (Rte 91). "Everybody, myself included, was waiting for a different look, and if you didn’t turn around and look over your shoulder and see the Empire State Building or the Freedom Tower or something like that, we could have been at Faster Horses," he says. "These are country fans, they live everywhere. They put the uniform on, they showed up, and they had a great time. We live in a hashtag world now, and I was using the hashtag '#hardcorecountry.' They braved the elements, and they braved the unfamiliar, which is really the story."
Though New York is now well-established as a robust market for live country music, with acts such as Eric Church, Bryan, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean selling out at Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center in Brooklyn, O’Connell still expected challenges in launching Farmborough. "When you come up with a different type of name for an event -- not everybody knows what Farmborough is -- you book it, you promote it, you tell them you have them for three days, you put a lot of obstacles between yourself and the finish line," he says. "And then you tell them they can’t drive and park in the parking lot and walk in. You’ve got to take a boat, public transportation, or walk, and they said, ‘yeah, we’re in.’"
Beyond the headliners, O’Connell says fans flocked to the Next From Nashville stage to see artists such as Chris Stapleton, Maddie & Tae, Sturgill Simpson, Jon Pardi, Wade Bowen, Ruthie Collins and Seth Alley. "There weren’t any clunkers," he says, and he believes this developing talent "got the benefit of us branding that Next From Nashville stage and us telling people what it is. It’s not just a second stage, it’s actually got a curation element to it. These are bands you may or may not have heard of, but as country fans, they’re checking them out."
That has not always been the case at the other Live Nation country fests, O’Connell says, "but when we got the branding rights on ‘Next From Nashville,’ and communicated that, these were the first two festivals I’ve seen people actually walking to go to a different location and checking out these bands, and then turning around and coming back [to the main stage], which is what its supposed to be."
Live Nation partnered on FarmBorough with Founders Entertainment, producers of Governors Ball, also held on Randall’s Island two weekends previous. "When you go into a situation where you have a partner that already has a wildly successful event like GovBall, I cannot tell you how great it is when I walk on the site and they kind of just handed my team the keys," says O’Connell. "There was a very minimal amount of ‘GovBall this’ and ‘GovBall that,’ it was respect, and I have nothing but respect for the Founders guys. They trust us, and I trust them, and together we’re going to do a lot of really cool things together with FarmBorough."
Jordan Wolowitz, co-founder and partner at Founders Entertainment, says New York "embraced" FarmBorough and country music. "I spent a lot of time walking the site while the show was going on, and everything just felt right -- the entire scene out there," he says . "New York City definitely wanted a big country festival, and now they have it."
Both Wolowitz and O'Connell say that FarmBorough will return in 2016. "This thing is a keeper. I'm really excited about it," he says. "[O'Connell] and his team are great partners, and we have an awesome time working together. I can't wait for 2016."
Shakin' In Chi-Town
The weekend before FarmBorough saw the debut of Windy City Lake Shake on the waterfront in downtown Chicago, featuring headliners Bentley, Paisley, and Florida Georgia Line. "This one was personal to me," says O’Connell, a Chicago native. He says the Chicago Blackhawks clinching the NHL championship the week prior to Lake Shake created a "perfect storm" of energy around Lake Shake. "We had Dierks opening on Friday, and the next thing you know the Stanley Cup is on stage. Lake Shake became a very ‘Chicago-centric’ event very quickly," he says. "The Chicago skyline behind the stage is priceless; where Manhattan off in the distance [at FarmBorough], Chicago is on top of us at Lake Shake."
O’Connell and Live Nation have launched six country music fests in four years, well ahead of his self-stated mission to launch 10 in 10 years that began with Watershed in 2012. Next up is Faster Horses July 17-19, which will sell out in advance at more than 100,000 aggregate in just it’s third year. Then comes Watershed at the Gorge amphitheater, July 31-Aug. Headliners are Florida Georgia Line, Carrie Underwood, and Paisley for Faster Horses, and FGL, Underwood, and Bentley for Watershed.
Rte. 91 Harvest in Las Vegas is set for Oct. 2-4 with FGL, Keith Urban, and Tim McGraw headlining. Then comes Delaware Junction in Harrington, Del., Aug. 14-16, which features Toby Keith, FGL, and Jason Aldean. If there has been a misstep in O’Connell’s aggressive country fest strategy, it may have been here, given that rival promoter AEG Live also launched a new festival in Delaware, Big Barrel, which ran last weekend with Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert and Underwood as headliners. Live Nation announced first last December, but Big Barrel was first at the gate both for its onsale and its debut at Dover International Speedway. AEG’s Goldenvoice division (producers of Coachella) partnered in Big Barrel with Red Frog Events, which stages the Firefly festival (now part of the AEG portfolio), at the same site. That event drew about 23,000 per day, according to a source, more than Stagecoach (staged on the Coachella site in Indio, Calif.) drew in its opening year back in 2007. With one of the most diverse lineups of any country festival, Stagecoach is now arguably the most important country play West of the Mississippi.
With Big Barrel now in the books, Live Nation hopes that country fans in the Blue Hen state hunger for more music. "We have all of July and half of August to get there," O'Connell says of Delaware Junction ticket sales, "so we’ll see what happens. It’s doing fine, but we had to weather the storm, so to speak, of the other festival in a state that has three counties."
Regardless of how Big Barrel shakes out, O’Connell and Live Nation Country can now say they’ve successfully brought country music fests to two of the biggest cities in America. "I’m immensely proud of our team," O’Connell says, "and the trust that [Live Nation CEO] Michael Rapino has in my little band of goofballs, that we can say, ‘let’s do Chicago and New York back-to-back,’ and he’ll say, ‘go for it, buddy.’"