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AK-47s and Drones: How Some Country Festivals Are Dealing With Skyrocketing Security Costs

"It's becoming hard to plan and to have a financially and economically sound festival," says one event founder.

America’s inability to curb mass shootings in public places is making life difficult for the producers of outdoor country music festivals as skyrocketing security costs strain budgets and squeeze profits.

High-profile mass-casualty attacks in Buffalo, N.Y.; Uvalde, Texas; and Highland Park, Ill., have kept safety forefront in the minds of both attendees and producers as summer concerts increased this year in the aftermath of the pandemic shutdown.

Attendees at the CMA Fest in June were aware of armed guards on rooftops and of an explosion a few miles away from downtown Nashville. Promoters are taking greater care to control foot traffic and crowd density. And they’re extremely conscious of making security personnel and bomb-sniffing dogs visible, hoping to create an extra sense of safety.

“You have armed guards standing at the front gate with AK-47s,” says Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam executive producer Rendy Lovelady, whose early-June event in Panama City, Fla., included sets from Brett Young and Brooks & Dunn. “That’s something that I never thought we’d see in America.”

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What fans don’t necessarily see is the price tag for the increased security. Promoters are paying as much as six times what they budgeted for safety precautions less than a decade ago, according to concert professionals and financiers. It has squeezed profits for independent promoters, who may face a crisis in the not-so-distant future if the increases continue.

“The last time I did a Tailgate Fest was 2019,” says Tailgate founder Melissa Carbone, whose Aug. 13-14 event counts Jake Owen, Billy Currington and Chris Janson among the lineup at the Auto Club Freeway in Fontana, Calif. “This year, with … significantly lower ticket sales because of other economic conditions, our security bill is triple what it was.”

Several factors have created the dramatic price hike. One is technological advances. Walk-through magnetometers (which rent for $250 per unit per day through Tennessee’s EOD Gear) are in heavier use, and staff is required to oversee them. Fencing, which can include blow-down walls that allow mass emergency exits, is an outdoor necessity. And many promoters now conduct crowd surveillance with drones, paying another crew member to oversee that function, as well as to ensure that unauthorized drones don’t invade the space.

The cost of manpower is up, too, due to inflation and market conditions. With the uptick in highly publicized shootings, the demand for security — particularly for well-trained police and veterans — has ballooned across numerous industries, creating more competition that results in higher fees. Plus, promoters are staffing shows with larger security teams. They’re exercising greater caution to protect their companies’ reputations, but also meeting heightened expectations among their customers and local authorities, some of whom are placing greater legal staffing demands on public events.

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“There’s absolutely nothing we can do about that,” Carbone says. “You either pay it or you hear that it isn’t allowed to go on. It makes it very hard to budget. You think your expense line is one thing, and then you’re two weeks out from your festival and it’s not even close. It’s becoming hard to plan and to have a financially and economically sound festival.”

Conway Entertainment Group founder/owner Tony Conway, whose company includes an event division and a management arm that represents Alabama, attended the World Games in Birmingham, Ala., in July. He estimates the costs were $500,000 for a multilayered protection scheme that included private security, the FBI and Homeland Security.

“They had to do a perimeter block-off a quarter mile from the stadium where nobody had access to the stadium except through one area,” Conway says. “That cost alone, just to put blockades up and have the police at every intersection for 12 days, is mind-boggling.”

One promoter, Conway says, hires a security guard for every 60 ticket-holders; thus a festival that draws 30,000 would require about 500 risk-management staff — a mix of trained professionals and so-called “T-shirt security.” In most localities, the community would not have enough off-duty police officers and security pros to fill out a team that size; thus, promoters often work with police departments from other cities to fully cover the event, and that means extra outlays for transportation and lodging.

Security is now routinely 25% of the production budget, Conway says. That’s a sizable amount; if it rises, that could pose a long-term challenge for the business. For starters, if mass shootings continue unabated, some potential recruits will likely pursue safer jobs — as the Uvalde crisis demonstrated, semi-automatic weapons can make even trained personnel afraid to enter an active crime scene. Combined with the increased demand for security services, promoters may experience labor shortages that make it difficult to fully staff particular shows. Or, more likely, they may have to field a higher percentage of T-shirt security after tapping out the higher-quality personnel. Meanwhile, competition from other events — particularly for high-grade, off-duty police — could drive pay rates up far enough that it makes concerts unfeasible for part of the fan base.

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“The average ticket price for a concert right now is somewhere between $85 and $100 a person,” Conway says. “That’s very high for a couple to go to a show, so you can’t keep raising the ticket prices.”

“If I have to add 18 bucks to my ticket and that’s made it unreachable to 20% of my population, it’s not a working system,” says Carbone.

That said, concert executives are loathe to cut corners on safety since the 2017 mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas and a crowd-surging tragedy killed 10 people during hip-hop artist Travis Scott’s 2021 show at Astroworld in Houston.

“If something tragic were to happen, I’m going to have to be the one that explains why it happened,” Lovelady notes. “So if you hear me say, ‘Cut costs,’ you may hear me say, ‘Cut stagehands,’ but you’re not going to hear me say, ‘Cut security.'”

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