Is The Country Festival Business Past Its Peak?
After a decade as the hottest genre in the sector, multiple cancellations of country festivals may force a course correction.
As the honorary pace-car driver for NASCAR’s Talladega 500 in Alabama on Oct. 24, 2015, Eric Church brought swagger and star power to the lineup announcement of the inaugural Dega Jam, an ambitious three-day country music festival set for July 2016 at Talladega’s 80,000-capacity Superspeedway complex.
During the past 10 years, country events have been the biggest growth area in the North American festival sector: For example, Stagecoach in Indio, Calif., which will present its 10th edition in April, put up its best numbers in 2015, with headliners Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton helping to bring in a $21.8 million gross from 70,000 tickets sold, according to Billboard Boxscore. Today, approximately 30 large country festivals exist in the United States; on average, a sold-out festival brings in 40,000 to 80,000 customers and $10 million to $20 million in gross.
But just four months after Church’s announcement, Dega Jam — which boasted Church and fellow arena-level country stars Shelton, Toby Keith and Kid Rock as headliners — was canceled. No official reason was given, but there’s little doubt that poor ticket sales were the cause. It was one of nearly a half-dozen major country festival cancellations this year, a situation that has taken aback the live-music industry: The hottest genre in the festival business is showing real signs of softness for the first time in more than a decade.
In recent weeks, AEG Live and its Goldenvoice division (producer of Coachella and Stagecoach) said they will not roll out a second year of their Big Barrel country festival (scheduled to include Church, Brad Paisley and Sam Hunt) in Delaware. Live Nation, AEG’s chief rival in what had been a country fest gold rush, called off the 2016 editions of two country festivals it launched in 2015: FarmBorough in New York (with headliners Keith, McGraw and Jason Aldean) and Delaware Junction. Beyond that, the Shaky Boots festival in Atlanta will go on “hiatus” for 2016, and sources say long-discussed plans for a country festival on the Bonnaroo site in Manchester, Tenn., are on hold.
Big Barrel, FarmBorough, Delaware Junction… With Rampant Cancellations, What’s the Forecast for This Year’s Country Fests?
Dega Jam would have been the newest offering from partners AEG Live and New Orleans Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis, CEO of Festival Productions Inc. (FPI), which also stages Bayou Country Superfest in Louisiana, Buckeye Country Superfest in Ohio and the Country 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, all of which will go on as planned. Asked how producers came to the decision to cancel Dega Jam, Davis tells Billboard, “In a bit of an uncertain environment for establishing large scale new events, we decided to work to build these new models one at a time, with Daytona being the No. 1 choice at this time.”
And so far, the issues have affected only newer country festivals that were launched in 2015 and after. But more significantly, are the cancellations symptomatic of a growing problem with country music?
In some ways, the genre is a victim of its own success, with a growing roster of arena and stadium headliners and a wealth of new festivals. Country now boasts around 15 arena-level headliners, with artists like Church, Keith, Shelton, Lambert, Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Florida Georgia Line, Keith Urban and Luke Bryan touring nearly every year — and playing many of the same festivals — while others like Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks and Garth Brooks step away and return to high demand. Throw in virtually every act that has impacted the Billboard country chart the last 40 years playing clubs, fairs, festivals, and casinos, and, even with country’s conservative ticket pricing, all of these shows on sale appears to be seriously tapping the country consumer.
“The biggest factor is oversaturation,” says Gil Cunningham, president of Neste Event Marketing, which buys talent for 16 country music festivals. “Most of my festivals are either on par or maybe a little ahead of last year, but they’re definitely not blowing up like they did in the last couple of years.”
Dega Jam Country Festival Won’t Happen in 2016
But Live Nation country music president Brian O’Connell, who embarked on a quest to launch 10 festivals in 10 years and has presented six to date — including Watershed in Washington state, Faster Horses in Michigan and Route 91 Harvest in Las Vegas, but also the canceled FarmBorough and Delaware Junction — remains optimistic. Even with the two missteps, O’Connell, by far the biggest buyer of country talent in the world, is planning on staging more events. “My views have not changed regarding new festival opportunities,” he tells Billboard. “We are still very committed to expanding our portfolio and I am always on the hunt for that magic site, and creating a brand that speaks to people.”
It’s an expensive proposition: The popularity of the genre has led to paydays for headliners that would have been inconceivable a generation ago. Today country boasts at least “seven or eight” artists that can command $1 million in performance guarantees, according to Cunningham, and many more are in the $250,000-to-$500,000 range. “[Talent] prices are going through the roof,” he says. “This past year was crazy, the money got really stupid. I think there’s a correction due there, those [prices] have to come down.”
“It’s greed,” says Chesney’s manager Clint Higham, who largely has avoided the festival circuit. “Managers and the agents and the artists have pushed the guarantees, and these festivals are paying for it. We’re all guilty of it. The market can only bear so much.”
Yet the festivals can’t succeed without high-priced headliners. “The heart of the industry revolves around viable superstar headliner talent to push your ticket sales over the top,” Davis says. Thus, festival talent buyers either must pay for top-tier talent and raise ticket prices to compensate, or take a pass on those artists. Clearly, some are choosing the latter course. “Most of my festivals this year are cutting back their budgets,” says Cunningham. “You can’t [afford] anymore an act that costs $1 million, you have to scale back what you’re buying, and I’m hearing other talent buyers saying the same thing. Some of these acts, if they want to work, will have to adjust their expectations.”
As will, apparently, those in the business of launching, or sustaining, country festivals with elite headliners. “That list is going to grow,” says Cunningham. “You’ll see other festivals pull the plug.”
A version of this article was originally published in the March 12 issue of Billboard.