A Bigger Concern for Country Than Some Festivals Going Belly Up
In 2013 and 2014, country music was where to put your chips. Bet it all on Florida Georgia Line baby! Bro-Country was king, and everyone in entertainment and media was looking to ride the country music gravy train to big corporate profits. The Dickey Brothers of Cumulus Media hatched an ambitious plan to create an entire “NASH” lifestyle brand with restaurants and food products, furniture and paint, and a clothing line to go along with their country music radio empire. Rolling Stone and People launched satellite properties completely devoted to covering country music. And anyone and everyone was launching country music festivals all across the country to cull as many dollars out of party hearty corporate country consumers who work hard and spend harder.
And then reality set in.
As Bro-Country was on the rise, think pieces all across media questioned the sustainability of such shallow music. And it turns out they were right. Florida Georgia Line and others brought throngs of new fans into the country fold, but they weren’t there to stay. Listeners moved on to the next craze, and even when country’s footprint was growing, it wasn’t growing at such a clip that it could sustain all the festivals, media, and lifestyle brands being set up to take advantage of its resurgence in popularity. Then the resurgence quickly turned into recession, and now all across the United States there’s promoters and companies left holding the bag.
We first though the the bursting of the country music festival bubble had to do with massive live music promoters like LiveNation and AEG monopolizing the space and squeezing the little guy out. Last summer, Saving Country Music posted an article called, “The Country Music Festival Bubble Is Bursting,” highlight how fests like Thunder on the Mountain, Country FanJam, Cross Country Lines, and the Country Music Life Festival had all been canceled or had resulted in financial ruin for their promoters. A month later, Merle Haggard canceled his headlining set at the inaugural Ink-N-Iron Fest in Nashville last minute after concerns about money, and since then the parent company has called it quits.
Here six months later, the war of attrition in country music fests is showing no signs of slowing down, and it’s beginning to hit the big boys, and in a big way. Tuesday (2-23) it was announced that the inaugural Dega Jam scheduled to go down at the Talladega Superspeedway July 1-3 with headliners like Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, and Eric Church has been permanently canceled. The event was being promoted in part by AEG Live, which is #2 to LiveNation in the mega tour and festival space. Another AEG event, the Big Barrel Fest in Dover, Delaware was also put on ice before its second year. And not to be outdone, two LiveNation-sponsored events—Farmborough Fest in New York, and Delaware Junction in Harrington, Delaware—are also not moving forward as planned.
You combine these four cancellations with the cancellations last summer, and things begin to look quite bleak. But don’t start screaming that the sky is falling if you’re working in the country music industry, or start jumping up and down if you’re one who hopes for the industry’s implosion. There are some factors here to take into consideration.
1) Too Much, Too Fast
It’s not that country music is in a free fall. The resurgence of interest in country was real, and it probably necessitated a few new festivals. The problem was that with so many promoters doubling down on country music, supply began to outpace demand. Maybe half a dozen new “destination” festivals were called for, when a dozen or two is what we got. The Country 500 Festival was announced in Daytona, so did we really need a similar festival in Talladega? Weren’t they competing for many of the same consumers? Meanwhile other older, more-established festivals were adding extra days, and booking bigger headliners that previous years as they followed the lead of LiveNation, AEG, and others to bet big on country. At some point promoters just ran out of space on the map, and time on the calendar, and started butting up against each other to reach a finite numbers of fans.
2) Location Location Location
It’s no coincidence that two of the recently cancelled fests are in Delaware, and another in New York. Don’t underestimate how many country fans there are north of the Mason Dixon Line, but when festival organizers tried to double up in areas where there isn’t a traditional concentration of country music fans to begin with, it spelled disaster. Many of country music’s interloping fans enticed into the genre during the Bro-Country era were not from country’s traditional epicenters of the South, West, and Midwest. So the erosion of interest in country in parts north was likely disproportionately greater than compared to the South for example. Also, you’ll notice that one of the Delaware fests was sponsored by AEG, and one was sponsored by LiveNation. It’s not unusual to have competing companies set up rival events or locations just to make sure the other doesn’t gain a foothold. Think of Lowes setting up locations right beside every Home Dept. In the case of Delaware, AEG and LiveNation appeared to cancel each other out and both lost the bid.
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But the recession in country music is not imaginary, and it doesn’t only have to do with a glut in festival inventory. As Billboard recently pointed out in an article entitled “Inside Country Music’s Very Real Sales Dip in 2015“:
“The dip in sales volume was significant for country. The genre moved 24.9 million albums during the 52 weeks ending Dec. 31, 2015, which represented a 12 percent decline from 2014’s 33.3 million sales. Country also claimed 113.9 million song downloads, a 16 percent drop from 135.6 million sales in 2014. Although the industry as a whole moved 241.4 million album copies, it slipped 6.1 percent in sales. Digital song volume was also down by 12.5 percent to 964.8 million downloads.”
Of course every genre is seeing sales of physical and downloadable music fall, but not to the degree of country music. Streaming offers a little hope, but less revenue for artists, labels and songwriters. That is why the live space in music is more important than ever. Artists must make their money out on the road, and that’s what makes so many failing festivals, whether big or small, and failing venues all across the country so troubling.
Bro-Country was supposed to save the country music industry, and it did to some extent. But it also set up the genre for a precipitous fall. Metro-Bro from performers like Sam Hunt is what the industry hopes replaces Bro-Country and brings country music back up to its 2013-2014 sales levels. But look at the career arc of Jerrod Niemann, who arguably started off the whole Metro-Bro craze with his #1 hit “I Can Drink To That All Night.” Niemann has since been dropped from his label, and is considered a has-been by the industry. If you live by trend and hype, then you die by it.
Country music would be better off finding artists who can launch sustainable careers, and by looking to build more diversity into what it offers to consumers with more traditional-sounding music, and music of more substance to help insulate the genre from trends and mood swings. We’re staring to see that with some female artists like Cam and Maren Morris, and Tim McGraw has been proving lately that there’s still room on the radio dial for good songs.
Lessons abound as we watch festivals get canceled left and right, sales slump, and artists’ careers take nose dives after trying to follow hyper trends. But the question remains, will country ever learn those lessons?
February 24, 2016 @ 9:58 am
Very reminiscent of the stand-up comedy club boom of the mid to late 80’s and that bubble bursted back in the early 90’s.
February 26, 2016 @ 11:45 am
The only reason comedy clubs stay in business is because they force you to buy food or drinks. They can’t make anything selling tickets. I get text messages from the Funny Bone nearly every week offering me 4 free tickets.
February 24, 2016 @ 10:03 am
I think part of the problem is the divide between Classic and Contemporary Country fans. The new festivals cannot feasibly appeal to both crowds, some of the larger ones are able to pull off having Kip Moore and Willie Nelson on the same date, but many smaller festivals have to pick and choose due to space, time, or financing, and the end result is a one-sided festival that alienates (usually the Classic) sound and fans.
Also, many festivals have brand and image to sustain. I’ve performed at Wheatland in Michigan, and they have performers like the Duchs, Dean MeGraw, Bela Fleck, etc. And if they were to bring in someone like Jerrod Niemann (who I really like, for what it’s worth) the independent music fans would be outraged, and it would hurt the festival’s image in the minds of the hipstery crowd. (on that note, his last song I heard (and loved) was a song about festivals called “Blue Bandana.)
Also, the number of people who actually go to festivals is usually a very small portion of the populace to whom records and singles can be sold, and most festival goers are a fierce and dedicated crowd who go the same festivals year after year. That loyalty cannot be translated into making them perennial attendees at a new festival overnight, in fact, in many cases, the primary festival crowd already has their favorite festivals, and not enough room in their life for another festival or two, and besides, most festival goers are either hipsters (or similar persons) or people above a certain age. Luke Bryan’s frat boys are not the usual type of people to go to festivals, so a Bro-Country festival really doesn’t understand it’s target market in the first place and is doomed to fail.
February 24, 2016 @ 3:01 pm
On the bro country people not attending them festivals you would be incorrect. At least the ones I go to anyways. Last year I went to a one day, three day, and 4 day (although it’s 9 days with the camping we do but different point). It’s mostly all that is there since most people just camp whether it be in a tent, or a camper. Don’t have to worry about driving. It’s partying all day. The four day can even bring your own beer into the festival.
February 24, 2016 @ 10:15 am
‘Country music would be better off finding artists who can launch sustainable careers’
True, but the payoff to the label for breaking a big hit is huge, compared to paying higher royalties to that sustaining artist on the back end.
February 24, 2016 @ 10:56 am
Also, Shaky Boots Festival here in Atlanta has been put on hiatus for 2016. It’s the mainstream country brethren to the Shaky Knees Festival in Atlanta. Shaky Knees is the Americana/Roots festival, seperate weekends, but promoted by the same group.
I was a little surprised it was cancelled for this year given all of the hype it received last year. Just another data point adding to the trend your article mentions Trig.
February 24, 2016 @ 11:10 am
“When I’m elected president we’re going to get rid of Bro Country (applause)…yeah, really we are. We’re gonna make country music great again!”
February 24, 2016 @ 12:00 pm
“We’re gonna build a wall to keep them out. And you know who’s gonna pay it? That’s right. Music Row. Scott Borchetta? Mike Curb? They’re all loozuhs.”
February 24, 2016 @ 12:03 pm
“You look at Josh Turner, his new album’s been delayed. I like people whose albums weren’t delayed.”
February 24, 2016 @ 12:35 pm
“Country music is gonna win so manny Grammys, you’re gonna get sick of winning.”
February 24, 2016 @ 1:36 pm
“I like Chris Stapleton, because he’s a winner. You look at the awards shows and he comes out on top. Why can’t we be more like that? Because our Country Music is run by inept losers. The Bro-Country problem will not be solved until Scott Borchetta gets the hell out of Nashville.”
February 24, 2016 @ 1:29 pm
“Hey look, I’m sure Sam Hunt is a very nice man. But country? You’re gonna tell me that guy….. THAT GUY …. is COUNTRY? Come on. Gimme a break. I mean, are we even sure he’s American? Has he produced a birth certificate? I know I haven’t seen one. I dunno. To me, he looks a little swarthy. That’s all I’m saying. “
February 24, 2016 @ 1:57 pm
Don’t get me started on that guy. He didn’t even listen to records growing up, let alone have a favorite country singer. Or singer, period. Corporate creation at its finest.
February 24, 2016 @ 1:52 pm
Hey Mr. Trump, can you require them to listen to “Cruise” over and over again while they build that wall? “Play me a song…”
February 24, 2016 @ 2:15 pm
We’re gonna make country radio so great and big and strong again, nobody is going to mess with it.
We’re gonna take down the corruption in Nashville. Big Machine…bye bye! Scott Borchetta? I’ve never seen a guy sweat so much? He’s a lightweight. These are inept, stupid people who shouldn’t be in charge. We’re gonna fix this people, we are.
February 24, 2016 @ 11:47 am
It seems to me that the number of artists dropping out of labels recently in the genre is cause for alarm to be honest. Is this sign of an impending implosion, Trig?
February 24, 2016 @ 1:54 pm
Or being dropped like Sara Evans. Wtf? Nashville is evil.
February 24, 2016 @ 12:21 pm
Well country music kicked out the veterans and the good artists of the 90’s. Also From 1997-2004 there were 30 females on country radio who were getting top 10 hits.
It’s a shame they pushed away 95% of those artists who began in the 90’s.
February 24, 2016 @ 12:26 pm
What also needs to be mentioned is that festivals are really, really expensive. And unlike other genres, you can go to a typical arena show and see multiple acts. Last year, I saw Eric Church, Dwight Yoakam and Brothers Osborne on one night for $50. Why would I pay $90 to see those three plus and couple of small-time local acts outside, miles from the stage because I refused to pay $250 for a seat near the stage. Plus parking and food, you’re there all day if you want bang for your buck. I live in Minnesota and longtime festivals like WeFest have tradition and it’s a right of passage for college students to go at least once, but new festivals with no tradition and sky-high prices stand little chance.
February 24, 2016 @ 8:23 pm
Several of the newer fests aren’t selling single day passes. For Chicago you have to buy a 3-day pass for $225 ($300 reserved and $600 VIP). Add parking and food plus hotel for some and it’s not doable for a lot people.
February 25, 2016 @ 11:52 pm
I went to WeFest multiple times in college and the tickets and camping alone are outrageous. Food, drinks, drugs if that’s your thing, and everything else added make for an expensive ~3 days.
What I don’t understand is that their lineup is never particularly strong. This year I’m going to a rock festival in Wisconsin with at least twice as many big-name artists, but the ticket/camping pass costs are significantly lower. Funny how that works.
And in response to Fuzzy’s comment way above, maybe the upper Midwest is different (we’re usually a little behind), but these festivals are filled bro-country college kids. I’ve never seen a strong hipster presence at a mainstream country music event, yet the tickets sell.
Six String Richie
February 24, 2016 @ 1:22 pm
Wisconsin had like 7 country festivals every summer even dating back to like the early 2000s. Some of these festivals had been running since the ’80s I believe.
Most of these festivals were pretty inexpensive to attend and featured plenty of has-beens and one-hit-wonders. Even the headliner might’ve just been Trace Adkins or Little Big Town or something. But I think people went to these festivals because it was a tradition and it was fairly cheap.
I think all of these new festivals were somewhat expensive and many people didn’t want to take a chance on attending a festival they had never heard of before.
Six String Richie
February 24, 2016 @ 1:26 pm
I think next we will see the EDM festival bubble burst. As soon as the college kids that currently attend those are too old for it the fests will die out. Plus they tend to be crazy expensive.
February 24, 2016 @ 1:31 pm
I haven’t heard anything official, but I don’t think it’s looking too good for the Shaky Boots Fest in Atlanta either. Damn shame too. It had a pretty diverse line up last year.
February 24, 2016 @ 2:46 pm
It’s on “hiatus” for 2016 per the website. Alot of hype around this event last year, so it seems odd that it’s already been cancelled for the upcoming year. And there is some brand confusion with Shaky, similar names for the festivals but with totally different types of acts. The casual music fan can’t discern the difference.
February 24, 2016 @ 1:43 pm
I go to a lot of shows.
I hate festivals for various reasons.
Cost of tix.
I never am into the full line-up, hence hate the cost. Why should I deal with the price and people to see acts I don’t care about?
I also don’t like the festival crowds. Usually too many people.
I feel like I get ripped off on these all day-night shows, where you go in and can’t get out.
You can’t bring anything in and they screw you on everything from water to food.. Nevermind a drink if I want one.
The bands I want to see usually don’t play a full set as when seeing them solo.
etc etc etc
Negatives with me, outweigh the positives.
February 24, 2016 @ 1:44 pm
I’m surprised Dega Jam went tits up. It looked pretty similar in scope to the Rock the South bro-fest that Sara Evans’ husband puts on in north Alabama. Say what we will about the bros, but Talladega seems like somewhere that they’d have done well.
February 24, 2016 @ 1:52 pm
Meanwhile, just west of Wheeling “in the Ohio countryside,” (see Mayf Nutter), Jamboree in the Hills has been ongoing since 1977. As long as I can remember, they’ve always had something for every type country music fan. Not so much these last few years, IMO. Live Nation took over a few years back. They don’t publish any attendance numbers and I haven’t been back in a few years so I can’t gauge the recent crowds.
February 24, 2016 @ 2:05 pm
Long story short, these people attending these festivals, especially the start-up ones aren’t going to dish out their money six months ahead of time when seats are basically first come, first serve and they live on a pretty tight budget. They are going to buy two weeks or even the week of. Unfortunately, these artists and their managers want their money up front for the most part. I don’t dispute your premise, but I believe this is the key problem with these festivals. Better have some solid ass sponsors ready to write the check up front.
February 24, 2016 @ 2:26 pm
Bought advance tickets for the Shore Leave Showdown in Miami on February 6 put on by Jay Jones and his company LOCO Promotions and it was a bust! Not sure if we were scammed from the beginning or if it was just complete incompetence. Billed as two stages of great music with artists such as The Mavericks, Kentucky Headhunters, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Band of Heathens, Artimus Pyle Band, Robbie Fulks, The Derailers; Well needless to say, none of those artists made it. Delbert McClinton, The Supersuckers, Matt Poss were able to play, but again for what was initially promoted and actually produced was a let down. Would have gave $35 for the day, but not the $195. Lesson Learned.
At least I was on the Outlaw Country Cruise, and that was a fabulous event!
February 24, 2016 @ 4:42 pm
I’ve seen a lot of these things get cancelled lately and I wondered what was going on. Great article Trigger!
February 24, 2016 @ 5:25 pm
Is it all bad when country music sales dip? I see this as a potentially good thing for country. The less people buy the country music tends, the more chance there is that trends will not be the only game in town. If real, authentic country fans are the majority of those buying the music the that seems like it could be a win for real authentic country music.
Also, how I the hell can a label know when they have a sustainable artist anymore? I would have put Brad Paisley, Zac Brown, Gary Allan, Kenny Chesney and others on that list in the past but look what they are putting out now…
February 24, 2016 @ 5:26 pm
This will be my 14th year at Country Thunder in Wisconsin. Its my summer vacation! I love the feeling of being away from the “city.” I need to destress and Thunder does it for me! I work in a hospital and enjoy the experience. I do agree with the article tho. Country music has been hacked into so many pieces. Those “Powers” that be in Nashville only see $ signs and just turn out whatever comes along.I miss how country use to be altho there are some great songs out there..fun songs..just not the traditional stuff I grew up on..so be it!
February 24, 2016 @ 7:01 pm
What happened is the bros went to the festivals and found out it was nothing like the songs, so they didn’t go again.
February 24, 2016 @ 8:19 pm
I was at the Daytona 500 over the weekend and had to endure a pre-race Fla-Ga Line mini concert.
It was wretched.
I go to a lot of races, but I usually try to miss the pre-race concerts, most. Of which are of dubious quality .
February 25, 2016 @ 6:05 am
Move all the country shows up here in Canada. We support real country music. No wonder clowns like Sam Hunt are thriving in America, his fans are all overweight Americans who don’t know how to work a calculator.
February 27, 2016 @ 7:43 am
Lol, I’m not sure if you’re serious? I know a bunch of guys from Alberta and Saskatchewan and they are THE audience to whom Nashville panders. Down to the fact that they still wear puka-shell necklaces and they wear pearl-snap shirts that looks like they were designed by Tapout/Affliction. It’s almost disgusting to me because some of the guys I know work on large ranches, and yet they buy into that fake country lifestyle.
February 29, 2016 @ 10:59 pm
“Country music would be better off finding artists who can launch sustainable careers, and by looking to build more diversity into what it offers to consumers with more traditional-sounding music, and music of more substance to help insulate the genre from trends and mood swings”
Sounds so simple doesn’t it ? Because IT IS !