George Strait will be the first country artist honored as a Legend of Live at the 10th annual Billboard Touring Awards on Nov. 14 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York.
Billboard’s highest accolade in the touring space, Legend of Live honors individuals or bands that have made significant and lasting contributions to live music and the touring business.
Beyond success at the box office, the Legend of Live award recognizes professionalism and steadfast commitment to the art and craft of live performance and the fan experience at concerts.
Previous honorees have been promoter Michael Cohl, promoter Jack Boyle, Elton John, agent Frank Barsalona, the Allman Brothers Band, Ozzy Osbourne, Rush, Journey and Neil Diamond.
Nearly 40 years into his touring career, Strait remains one of the most in-demand headliners, including his sold-out 2013-14 Cowboy Rides Away tour of arenas and stadiums, which will end his touring career but not his live performances.
One loose criteria for Legend of Live requires the honored artist to have been a headliner for three decades-not a problem for Strait, who has been topping bills since the beginning of his career, be it honky-tonks and dancehalls, winning over fans at fairs and rodeos or headlining arenas and stadiums.
Strait has also been an innovator in the touring biz. From bringing his booking in-house, to touring in a 360-degree configuration, to creating the festival touring model for country music, Strait’s touring career is one of many firsts. Danny O’Brien, Strait’s in-house agent at the Erv Woolsey Co., has booked the artist since about 1987.
In 1997, the country star headlined the first George Strait Country Music Festival, debuting the model of a genre-based, multi-act live event before the arrival of OzzFest. Conceptually, “Strait Fest” was in the wheelhouse of promoter Louis Messina, who at that time had built his considerable reputation as a rock’n’roll promoter, later producing OzzFest.
Strait Fest began a long and lucrative partnership between Strait and Messina that continues today, with Messina’s TMG/AEG Live the exclusive promoter for Strait’s touring.
“One of the things that [Messina] did for me was to make the road fun again,” Strait says. “He’s a good friend and has done a great deal to make this [Cowboy Rides Away] tour huge. He wants nothing more than to make his tours the biggest and the best.”
That includes, of course, the Strait Fest tours, which grossed some $90 million from just 45 shows in three years, according to Billboard Boxscore. “I’m going into these huge stadiums and we’re selling them out,” Strait says. “Who’d a thought it? I guess Louie did.”
When Strait returned to playing arenas post-Strait Fest, he kept his schedule limited to 18-25 dates per year. “I would say that burnout kind of made me cut back on my touring dates a few years back, [to] sort of get it back under control where I could have a life off of the road as well,” Strait says. “Once I did that, I really started to look forward to it again, instead of dreading it. Don’t take this the wrong way — when I walk out onstage, I enjoy it just as much as ever. It’s just the grind of traveling that gets to you.”
Strait’s schedule has been selective during the past 20 years, with each market on each tour strategically plotted, keeping them fresh and shows sold out. Part of the strategy of playing a limited schedule of arenas is to maximize every date, which Strait achieved by moving to a 360-degree configuration, setting attendance records in many venues that still stand, with 10%-20% more tickets available than the traditional arena configuration.
Strait’s impact on the Billboard Boxscore charts is significant, with nearly $500 million in grosses reported from a touring schedule that most country artists would consider limited, at least for the past 20 years. Perhaps what is most striking about Strait’s touring career is its consistency. He has sold out virtually every show he has played for more than 20 years.
That consistency continues on the Cowboy Rides Away tour, with its 20 shows this year grossing $40.8 million and moving 454,931 tickets, according to Boxscore.
Next year’s leg will be a combination of stadiums and arenas, and though that will be the end of his touring, everyone on Team Strait, including the artist himself, is quick to point out that he’s retiring from touring, not playing live. “I can’t see me stepping totally away from playing live,” Strait says. “If a special event comes up that I want to do, then I’ll do it, but just no structured tours.”
Strait says he’s excited to be acknowledged by Billboard for his contributions to live music. “There’s nothing more rewarding than performing in front of a sold-out, pumped-up, loud crowd,” he says. “That’s what keeps us coming back. I love it.”