Ten years ago, if you were an independent country music artist or fan, you had few if any options when it came festival season. There were folk and bluegrass festivals that might feature a few independent country artists, but that didn’t exactly fit the bill. Then there were the massive mainstream country festivals, but they wouldn’t book performers who weren’t on the radio or on a major label, and the music was the polar opposite to what appealed to the independent country crowd. Texas also had some festivals for Texas/Red Dirt acts, but they were regional in scope, and you had to be part of that specific scene to be included.
Slowly but surely though, as the fan bases for independent country artists and country-adjacent Americana acts began to swell, so did the amount of festivals to support these artists. Regional festivals with an independent spirit started popping up all across the United States, giving independent country artists and their fans their own places to perform and congregate.
Now, country acts that aren’t played on the radio have become so big, megafestivals have begun springing up all across the United States with sometimes over 20,000 attendees being drawn to events with independent acts like Tyler Childers, Zach Bryan, Cody Jinks, and the Turnpike Troubadours as the primary headliners. This includes the massive Under The Big Sky Fest in Whitefish, Montana in July, the Railbird Festival in Kentucky in early June, and the Two Step Inn Fest in Texas in April. As this has happened, it’s drawn the attention of the biggest concert promoter on the planet, Live Nation.
As strange as it may sound, Oregon has been one of the havens for independent country and Americana festivals for years. Over a decade before other festivals would book independent country acts, Pickathon outside of Portland was booking performers like Dale Watson, Whitey Morgan, and later the Turnpike Troubadours.
Another festival in nearby Canby, Oregon called Wild Hare had the wild idea of starting a Texas/Red Dirt-centered festival nearly 2,200 miles for the heart of Texas. The Jackalope Jamboree in Pendleton, Oregon was another upstart that provided a stage to independent country acts. Sisters Folk Fest in Sisters, OR and their new festival Big Ponderoo also provide support to some of the country acts touring through Oregon. And since they were all independent and locally owned, these festivals fit the mindset of the fans and artists, and supported local talent on bigger stages.
This all seemed to build to the announcement of LiveNation’s FairWell Festival set to happen July 21st-23rd, 2023 in Redmond, Oregon. With the Turnpike Troubadours, Zach Bryan, and Willie Nelson headlining the three days along with a stacked undercard of independent country talent that includes Morgan Wade, 49 Winchester, and Charley Crockett, it rivals any other independent country festival in the United States with the roster it has assembled.
In some respects, you’re happy to see independent country reach this level, and do so in an extremity of the United States in a way that helps open up the music to the region. For fans of independent country music in Oregon and beyond, it’s an opportunity to see many of their favorite bands in one place. But for the regional events that helped open Oregon up to this music, Live Nation moving in has been nothing short of catastrophic.
In 2022, the Wild Hare Festival in Canby, Oregon was the first festival to book Zach Bryan as a headliner. The festival ultimately sold-out entirely. But in 2023, Wild Hare is not happening at all, and directly due to Live Nation’s FairWell Fest.
“At the top level, we’ve tried to be pretty quiet about this, mainly because it’s a complicated situation,” says Wild Hare’s Jason Fellman. “Everybody knows the LiveNation story. They’re a big company and they have the deep pockets. But they’re not doing anything illegal. So it’s hard to be too sour grapes about it. It’s more just a bummer. We sold out last year. All the artists wanted to come back, including the high level artists. Everything was looking great, and we had verbal commitments from many of them. Then suddenly the headliner acts all the way into the support levels were all of a sudden not available.”
Due to radius clauses that blanket the State of Oregon, as soon as FairWell Fest started booking their lineup, it robbed many of the indigenous and established festivals in the region of talent.
“Now we can’t book our lineup, because everyone’s going to wait to see if they get booked for FairWell first,” says Fellman. “It’s a whole bunch of dynamics. The agents are just trying to get top dollar for their artists. It’s a weird story to tell that we sold out last year, but we don’t exist this year. People like to think that they want to go see the boutique festival, and help the little guy and local businesses and all that. But when push comes to shove, they’re gonna buy the megafestival ticket. They just do.”
While the public may be served well by the Live Nation megafestival model, local musicians rarely are. Joan Monen owns the Wild Hare Saloon in Canby that books independent country acts both locally and nationally. Wild Hare Fest was an extension of what Monen has done at her venue.
“I had Olivia Harms play at my restaurant recently, and we were talking about the festival,” says Monen. “She helped open up the Saturday morning stage last year, and I wanted to give her the opportunity to get on a bigger stage this summer. It’s artists like Olivia Harms that it kills me that now they won’t have that opportunity to be seen by thousands of people. She’s from Canby, Oregon.”
Wild Hare Fest is not alone. The Jackalope Jamboree in Pendleton, OR has Ryan Bingham, Shane Smith and the Saints, Corb Lund, Kaitlin Butts, and local/regional artists like Margo Cilker and The Lowdown Drifters playing in 2023. But it’s been hard to get paying customers to pay attention to what the promoters are trying to build after FairWell Fest announced its lineup.
“Fairwell Fest has definitely had a big impact on Jackalope Jamboree this year,” festival promoters Rian Beach and Chad Colwell tell Saving Country Music. “After they announced their lineup, we saw a huge decline in ticket sales. The Pacific Northwest has a lot of great independent and community-focused music festivals. All of us have worked for years to grow our respective events, while also supporting each other. However, we’ll all be financially impacted by this new festival. We simply can’t compete with their offers and radius clauses blocking out our ability to book artists. You can’t blame the artists for taking the bigger paycheck to play a Live Nation event or the fans who want to see all of their favorite artists at one festival. Ultimately, some of us smaller independent festivals aren’t going to survive because of FairWell Fest and Live Nation.”
Both Wild Hare and the Jackalope Jamboree are located hours from Redmond, Oregon where Live Nation’s FairWell Fest is happening. But the Sisters Folk Fest and Big Ponderoo are located only 20 miles away.
“My real concern with Live Nation’s presence in Central Oregon is the overall negative impact on the music ecosystem as a whole,” says Crista Munro of Sisters Folk Fest/Big Ponderoo. “Our fall event, the Sisters Folk Festival, is doing great and is on track to sell out again. It’s a beloved festival with an extremely loyal following that continues to grow each year. It’s known as a discovery festival that offers up a wide range of up-and-coming artists as well as some known favorites. Our new festival, BigPonderoo, has been a bit of a heavy lift but it’s brand new so that’s not a total surprise. A handful of artists we tried to book for the initial lineup were radius-claused out by the FairWell Festival, which we didn’t know was happening until we started hearing about it from agents that we work with closely.”
Radius clauses restrict artists from playing in a certain location for a certain time after they play another event.
“While radius clauses are nothing new—and really are a way for promoters to keep from stepping on each other’s toes—they can also be weaponized to squeeze smaller promoters out of the market,” says Munro. “As you know, Live Nation is monopolistic, owning everything from the venue to the booking agencies to the ticketing company in many markets. It’s virtually impossible to compete with that, and it doesn’t seem like Congress has the political will to do anything about it.”
Meara McLaughlin is the Executive Director of Music Oregon/Music Portland, which advocates for independent music artists and venues. “We have to make it abundantly clear that this is not a good actor,” she says referring to Live Nation. Portland is the only major market in America without a Live Nation venue. The company recently tried to purchase the Roseland Ballroom, a 1,400-capacity venue in Old Town Chinatown before the deal fell through. Live nation has also been trying to develop a piece of property owned by the city on the Central Eastside to erect a mid sized concert venue.
For Live Nation, it’s not just about creating a footprint in Oregon. It’s about cornering the market for the future.
“The reality of all of this is that Live Nation can lose for five years in a row in Oregon and it won’t affect them,” says Joan Monen of Wild Hare Fest. “If we lose, we’re selling our houses.”
Another distinction between festivals like Wild Hare, Jackalope Jamboree, Pickathon and others is the camping dynamic that helps foster community at these events. FairWell Fest and other Live Nation events tend to have limited or no camping. The Two Step Inn Fest in Texas earlier this year didn’t even have onsite parking.
So what will it take for a festival like Wild Hare to come back and compete with Live Nation’s FairWell Fest?
“It would take someone like Zach Bryan or Cody Jinks, or one of these headliners saying, ‘We want to go support the little guy.'” says Jason Fellman of Wild Hare. “Someone would have to approach us and want to be part of something different. We’re not expecting that to happen. But unless a big gun or two wants to come out and support the little guy—Zach Bryan is all about taking on Ticketmaster—but I don’t blame him for headlining the big festival. We were lucky when we got him when we did. We’re just taking a wait and see attitude.”
Fellman continues, “We stated early on that our goal was to help bring this genre to the Northwest. The good news is that it got here. We played our part, and it got here. That’s cool and it’s good for the artists, and it’s good for the genre. But the bad news is that Live Nation is in a position to take advantage of that, and we’re just not big enough at the moment to be competitive with them.”
Though this story is about Oregon specifically, the same dynamic is also affecting other markets in other states, and could affect even more events as Live Nation continues to expand its reach, independent country continues to become more commercially viable, and everyone is competing for the top talent in an increasingly busy festival marketplace.
The Jackalope Jamboree is happening June 22nd-24th, Big Ponderoo happens June 24th and 25th, and Pickathon happens on August 3rd thru 6th.
Saving Country Music reached out to Live Nation for comment, but they did not respond.