Independent Country Festivals Face Increasing Competition in 2024

As the sands shift in country music in seismic ways, so does the festival scene where much of the music and magic happens for fans, especially during the summer season.

One of the big stories over the last five years or so has been the emergence of the independent country/roots megafestival. As artists and bands like Cody Jinks, Zach Bryan, The Turnpike Troubadours, Billy Strings, and Tyler Childers became massive names in music, it has allowed major, 25,000-30,000-capacity festivals to find support across the United States, with strong undercards of country legends and up-and-comers not heard on mainstream country radio filling out the rosters.

Not only were these festivals able to field major lineups, they were regularly selling out as soon as tickets went on sale, with some fans sitting on waiting lists or paying high premiums on the secondary market to get in. But in 2024, this isn’t exactly the case. Now that there are so many of these megafests along with other major music events, they’re beginning to compete with each other in a way that could cannibalize some events.

The Railbird Festival in Lexington, KY June 1-2 was a guaranteed sellout its first couple of years, but tickets were still available prior to the 2024 festival. The same goes for Two Step Inn just north of Austin on April 20th and 21st, which did eventually sell out 2-day passes in 2024 after offering last minute deals, but in 2023, sold out within an hour of announcing the lineup with headliners Tyler Childers and Zach Bryan.

One of the very first independent country megafests was Under The Big Sky Fest in Whitefish, Montana. Founded in 2019, like the other independent megafests, it would sell out almost immediately each year. But this year, tickets are still available for the July 12th, 13th, and 14th event.

The West Coast’s installment of the independent country megafest was Rebels & Renegades in Monterey, CA in October, which put together big lineups over the last couple of years. But this year, there will be no Rebels & Renegades.

“After careful consideration and an honest look at the festival market we announce that Good Vibez will not host the Rebels & Renegades Festival in 2024,” they said in a statement. “After giving it our all over the past two years, we are having to take a step back and reassess how and where we can grow the Rebel brand … We appreciate all of the bands, fans, vendors, and staff who believe in this dream of ours.”

Does mean that independent country is losing steam? Not necessarily, though that’s something to keep an eye on. Speaking to many promoters behind-the-scenes, it’s more about the saturation of the festival market, as well as the struggle to find stars at the headliner status when you’re competing with the artists’ own arena-level tour dates, as well as other festivals.

In 2023, Zach Bryan and Tyler Childers were still playing these kinds of independent megafestivals on a regular basis. Now they’re being more selective since they can play their own arena dates. Though the Turnpike Troubadours rocketed to headliner status after their hiatus, fans have now had opportunities to see them a few times, and they’re not the hot headliners they once were.

Meanwhile, it’s not just independent megafestivals competing with each other. Now that the mainstream finally sees the value and appeal in many independent performers and how they draw significantly better than many 2nd and 3rd tier major label acts, they’re filling out their rosters with artists such as the Turnpike Troubadours, Cody Jinks, The Red Clay Strays, Charley Crockett, Sierra Ferrell, Flatland Cavalry, Whiskey Myers, and others.

This has made for some very strange curation of festivals in 2024. We saw that earlier this year with the massive Big As Texas Fest May 10-12 that had Thomas Rhett headlining on one day, and Billy Strings on another. The undercard included artists like Dwight Yoakam and 49 Winchester, and paired them up with country rap acts like Breland and Kidd G.

The curation of these festivals isn’t just curious, it’s categorically terrible as promoters do plug-and-play scenarios with Pollstar numbers, and don’t think anything at all about how the entire lineup will gel together, often because they don’t really even know who these performers are. They just know that country music is hot, and they want to promote an event to take advantage of it.

On June 29th and 30th, Coca-Cola is sponsoring the “Sips & Sounds” Festival in Austin. On one day they have Charles Wesley Godwin, Tanner Usrey, and Drayton Farley opening up for co-headliner Maren Morris. Another day they have Myron Elkins, Paul Cauthen, and Marcus King opening for Kelsea Ballerini.

In no universe do these daily lineups make sense, and this isn’t just isolated to a few events. This strange curation is happening all across the country as mainstream promoters attempt to integrate independent artists into their lineups with little on-the-ground knowledge of the actual performers.

Then you have the behemoth of 2024, the insane Bourbon & Beyond Festival in Louisville, September 19th-22nd. The lineup is so insanely juiced—including with Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, and scores of other acts that would headline any other festival—it pushes every other festival a notch down the rung, and makes it impossible for some to compete.

This is not only putting a squeeze on every other megafest, it’s directly competing with important events like the 20-year-old AmericanaFest in Nashville, and the non-profit Healing Appalachia usually headlined by Tyler Childers, both of which are scheduled for the same weekend in the same region.

Meanwhile, mid-sized festivals all across the country continue to get squeezed with so many megafests, and so do a lot of the up-and-coming acts who use these stages as their opportunity to play in front of bigger audiences. Events that five years ago looked like a dream from the level of talent assembled in cool destinations now almost look like afterthoughts on the festival calendar through no fault of their own.

But these smaller, more independent fests like The Jackalope Jamboree in Pendleton, Oregon, Mile 0 Fest in Key West, Florida, Laurel Cover Music Festival in Kentucky, or many of the non-profit folk festivals all around the United States are still solid options for people who want to avoid massive crowds.

Do you really want to be in a crowd of 30,000, or is hanging out in a campsite with the same people you see year after year a better experience? While offering a more up-close opportunity with the artists, smaller fests also often offer more opportunities for discovery of up-and-comers who will be headlining the bigger festivals in future years.

Another issue with many of the major festivals is they cheat off each other’s rosters and it becomes like an echo chamber of the same artists playing the same events, while very worthy performers are perennially overlooked. Often promoters are booking names as opposed to performances, so the same astounding live acts like Silverada and Gabe Lee get passed over for someone with tons of Tik-Tok followers who’s only played six live shows.

By the way, this may be a good time to point out that Saving Country Music does offer festival consultation services.

The economy isn’t helping things either. Music fans just seem to have a little less expendable income in 2024, especially the younger fans that frequently fill out festival crowds. Layaway plans are especially hot in 2024 as some loyal patrons want to attend, but don’t have cash on hand. We’ve even seen this tightening affect big legacy acts such as Jennifer Lopez and The Black Keys who both cancelled poorly selling arena tours recently.

Meanwhile, there are just so many festivals of all sizes, one could be happening right under your nose, and you may not even know about it. Saving Country Music does its best to make the public aware of some of the best festivals, as does the rest of media. But many go uncovered just from the sheer volume of them.

In some respects, these are all good problems to have, and speak to the growing pains of an emerging reality where independent artists have just as much pull and agency live as their mainstream counterparts. But communication between promoters, proper space in both time and geography to make sure events aren’t directly competing with each other, drawing from a more open talent pool of artists, and using radius clauses to protect neighboring events as opposed to destroying them needs to be minded.

Otherwise, this could all turn into a “boom and bust” scenario where we go from no big fests representing an alternative to mainstream country, to too many all cannibalizing each other, and back to none at all.

Let’s all play nice, support festivals that ideally are independently-owned, that support local/regional/up-and-coming artists, and that do a good job curating incredible experiences that create lasting memories.

See you in the field.

© 2024 Saving Country Music