Why The Stagecoach Festival Lineup is a Good Thing
A couple of days ago, The Stagecoach Festival out in California announced their 2014 lineup, capped by headliners Eric Church, Jason Aldean, and Luke Bryan. Since its inception 7 years ago, Stagecoach has been the California contingent to America’s big corporate country music festivals, but what makes Stagecoach different is that they actually include independent and up-and-coming artists as well—something most festivals in the corporate country field either completely avoid, or only include with a few token names.
For example if you look at the 2013 CMA Fan Fest in September in Nashville, the LP Field lineup consists of a who’s who of mainstream country, with no room for up-and-coming or independent acts. Same goes for the Northeast’s primary corporate country festival called Taste of Country Festival, with virtually all the performers consisting of acts in the mainstream and on major labels.
But at Stagecoach, the majority of the acts on the bill are independent, up-and-coming, or legacy artists, despite its big headliner names. When Stagecoach made its 2014 lineup announcement, my social network channels blew up with folks incensed that an artist like Luke Bryan would be listed in a bigger font than Loretta Lynn. But my reaction was completely opposite.
The big, mainstream names go without saying at a festival like this, and are in no way out of the norm of what we’ve seen from Stagecoach, or any other corporate festival over the last decade. What I was excited to see were names like Jason Isbell, The Whiskey Shivers, Corb Lund, Holly Williams, Sarah Jarosz, Shovels & Rope, and Shakey Graves on a bill with arguably mainstream country’s three biggest current names. The opportunities and exposure a festival bill like this can open up for these artists can’t be understated. If there’s any beef with their lineup, it would be that there’s not a woman represented in the top 2 tiers.
Envision the Stagecoach lineup as a radio playlist. If you went to CMA Fest, the lineup would virtually mirror the playlists of corporate radio. If you went to Taste of Country Festival, it would mirror corporate radio, with maybe a few more smaller and older names mixed in. But if the Stagecoach lineup mirrored a radio playlist, country radio would immediately flip-flop and improve ten fold, even if the names in bigger fonts got more plays.
The Stagecoach lineup is actually a great test case and example of how pragmatism and choice could be used to improve the country music format. What hardline purists and hardline independent fans need to understand is that big pop country acts have always, and will always dominate the country music landscape. Completely eliminating names like Jason Aldean from the picture would be great, but setting out to do this is an idealist, fool’s errand. The more reasonable approach is to simply lobby for choice—for traditional country and independent artists to simply be given a place at the table and an opportunity to reach the ears of the masses just like the big names. This would allow listeners to be able to decide what is best instead of a few select radio programmers. And this is what a lineup like the one for Stagecoach does. Jason Isbell vs. Jason Aldean? I’ll take that match. I’ll make that bet. And even if Isbell loses, he will benefit from the exposure the opportunity gives him.
I agree the marking of importance of artists based on font size, which has now become the norm in American festival culture, is always unfair, and Stagecoach is just as guilty as any. But it’s not arbitrary, and saying that this approach doesn’t make sense is being a little short sighted. Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Eric Church regularly sell out arenas. Loretta Lynn doesn’t. The font size of a given artists’s name is directly tied to the draw of that artist. This says more about the priorities of society than it does how Stagecoach decides to market their lineup. They invert the font sizes to make some happy, and their festival loses. And so do the artists, including the smaller, up-and-coming artists looking to capitalize off the opportunity to play to the same-sized crowds as country’s top headliners.
For Aldean, Church, and Bryan, Stagecoach is just another tour stop. To Jason Isbell and Loretta Lynn, it is potentially the biggest crowd they will play to all year, and the biggest opportunity to reach new fans. And virtually every festival takes this stupid font size approach, including independent ones. The independent-minded Muddy Roots Festival last year made all of its other performers subordinate to the punk band Blag Flag that was only sporting one original member, and had a rival version of the band touring at the same time.
The angry feeling some people have for the Stagecoach lineup underlines many of the inherent problems with America’s emerging festival culture. For years in Europe, summer music festivals have dominated the live music landscape. Over the past decade, the US has also become more dependent on a seasonal festival schedule, making lineup announcements and fonts sizes an annual exercise in publicity stunts and polarization. Festivals are popping up everywhere, hungry for patrons and performers, and being pressured to make big splashes with their lineups. We’ve reached the point where both the artists and patrons are getting squeezed, while the emerging festival season is draining interest in the single music show on any given night that many artists are dependent on to make a living throughout the year. Some artists are playing to empty venues because fans are passing them over in lieu of the festival experience.
Massive corporate festivals like Bonnaroo, ACL Fest, and Lollapalooza that blend all genres further complicate the festival landscape. The music is getting lost in the bustle by promoters, sponsors, and corporations trying to land cool names for their festivals, trying to outdo their competition, trying to rack up “likes” on Facebook, etc., with patrons caught in the middle trying to do what is best to support the music getting stuck with tough decisions, and falling to the mercy of the guilt game.
It all almost makes you want to stay home. But if I had an opportunity to go to Stagecoach, I would, and I may. Because no matter whose name is in the biggest print, there are plenty of names in their lineup worth paying attention to. Is it a shame that Loretta Lynn’s name isn’t as big in a lineup card as Luke Bryan’s? Of course it is. But that’s better than Loretta’s name not being there at all, which it isn’t for the majority of the country’s corporate music festivals. Many facets of the country music business could learn from the Stagecoach model.
October 12, 2013 @ 9:53 am
Great point, Trigger. Reading the progressively finer print that second day just keeps getting better. Nitty Gritty, Ashley Monroe, Trampled by Turtles, Holly Williams, Whiskey Shivers!!!! I’ll just have to watch my back for all the Tyler Farr “Redneck Crazy” guys out there looking to get their “pissed off on”. Because, ya know, a guy like me “don’t amount to much by the look of my little truck”…
October 12, 2013 @ 9:59 am
You scratch out the six biggest names, and this is arguably one of the best festival lineups I’ve seen. My mind is blown that the Whiskey Shivers will be playing the same place as Jason Aldean. This is a reason to be excited. This is a sign of progress. Things are changing. These smaller bands are getting recognized and being given bigger opportunities. We’re finally starting to see signs of the equality we’ve been clamoring for.
October 12, 2013 @ 10:03 am
Keep up the good work, buddy! Your writing has opened my eyes and allowed me to extrapolate on something I’ve been passionate about for a long time but felt like I was alone on.
October 12, 2013 @ 9:54 am
Love that Jonny Fritz!
October 12, 2013 @ 10:00 am
I scanned right past Crystal Gale and Jason Isbell… good shit!
October 12, 2013 @ 10:15 am
Thanks for such a postive perspective on this festival–much appreciated! I shuddered when I first saw it too, but then when some of my favorite artists began posting about how thrilled they were to be included I had to take a step back and take it for what it is–an opportunity for great exposure to a huge potentially new audience.
Also, not sure if this is right place or not, but I recently discovered The Black Lillies and am really enjoying their music–was wanting your opinion on them–thanks!
October 12, 2013 @ 10:48 am
They are one of the many names on the endless list of artists to check out that I’m always trying to schlog through. I hope to get to them soon.
On a related note, it’s festivals like this where many journalists, labels, booking agencies, managers, promoters, etc. can go and see a wide range of acts in a short period and really get the essence of what they are all about. This is much easier and more fulfilling than listening to albums one after another. And when you talk about a festival with big headliner names like this, it will put these independent acts in front of a whole new level of industry professionals and journalists.
October 13, 2013 @ 7:18 pm
The Black Lillies are my new favorite band. I discovered them early this summer and have basically had their three albums on shuffle ever since. When they posted the Stagecoach line up to their facebook page this week I was a little surprised to see them performing with such commercial headliners. But maybe having such big names as a draw will help them get exposure to some new fans.
I’m heading up to Madison to catch the Black Lillies in a couple of weeks and I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to see live music!
October 12, 2013 @ 10:56 am
Thanks…I shall wait patiently then. So much music…so little time.
And while I am at it, thank you for the wonderful work you are doing bringing attention to the many talented independent artists out there. I consider myself one of the choir to whom you are preaching, but I can tell you are reaching more and more people every day and I really feel it’s making a difference. I’m sure it feels thankless at times so I just wanted to say it’s appreciated.
October 12, 2013 @ 10:58 am
Thanks for reading!
October 12, 2013 @ 12:13 pm
Is there a way for it to be a “good” thing without having the “stupid” font sizes? I don’t know a way around it? When we hosted Tenn 3 none of them were original and when we hosted hosted Greg Graffin, we had “of Bad Religion” in a bigger cont than the other bands. If we use these larger names for the better “good” and pay for it… I don’t know if its “Stupid”. Putting “Headliner” and 45 other bands is kinds stupid but listing them seems standard….
October 12, 2013 @ 12:21 pm
Font, not cont & kinda, not kinds.
October 12, 2013 @ 12:41 pm
I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking or telling, but I’ll say this: I always think it is stupid and somewhat degrading to all artists to use font sizes to delineate the size or importance of one artist over another. It seems to cheapen the experience for everyone, and though not the case with Stagecoach who seems to set their fonts on an act’s respective draw, sometimes the sizes can be completely arbitrary, or be pegged on what a festival pays an act, or who the festival’s promoters deem more important when in truth the reality of an artist’s draw or importance is something different.
Having said that, it is unreasonable to expect any festival to bury the names of their big headliners right beside names that 99% of people will not recognize, simply because the fans of those independent or legacy acts want it that way. Stagecoach, and other festivals pay massive amounts of money to have those headliners there because their names are what is going to sell tickets and make the entire enterprise feasible and profitable. They would be fools to not then take those names and use them to market their fest in the best ways they can.
In other words, I see it both ways. People do have a legitimate beef that Loretta Lynn and Jason Isbell’s names aren’t bigger. But you can in no way expect a festival to do anything but that because of the economic realities of the situation.
Something else that is important to note here: If Stagecoach was some independent festival that had never booked pop country acts and then all of a sudden put Aldean, Church, and Bryan at the top of the lineup, there would be many reasons to cry foul. But Stagecoach’s lineup last year was headlined by Toby Keith and Lady Antebellum. The year before it was Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, and Jason Aldean. This is what Stagecoach does. But what DID change this year is they added more acts in total from the previous years, and they were virtually all independent names, meaning the lion’s share of the names now per capita are independent. So instead of selling out, Stagecoach is actually moving toward a model that focuses more on independent music. That is why I believe they need to be praised. If we attack festivals for making a more independent move based on perceived slights because of font sizes, why would we expect other festivals to make this move toward supporting the independent artists we love?
October 12, 2013 @ 4:08 pm
I agree, and I also think there is a better chance that your average Luke Bryan fan will end up liking real country music than your average Black Flag fan.
However, I think the real shame is that we rarely have good underground bands touring with relatively traditional mainstream stars. For example George Strait’s farewell tour will be with Merle Haggard, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Sheryl Crow, Little Big Town and Ronnie Dunn.
Yes Haggard is great, and Ronnie Dunn and Lambert have some good stuff; but it’s not like these people need more exposure.
October 12, 2013 @ 4:17 pm
I agree, though I’m not sure how many people will end up going to the 2nd stage. Based on the print size, there’s a chance that Loretta Lynn or NGDB will make it to the main stage, but I’m not sure. Last year even some of the bigger classic artists like Kenny Rogers were stuck on the 2nd stage. The upside is that you can easily avoid the crappy bands by sticking the the small stage.
That said, this is a big improvement from last year, where the only traditional artists they had were old stars (JD Crowe, Del McCoury, Ralph Stanley etc.) but not new bands that need exposure.
Last year they had a lot of good bands on the 2nd stage, but they were mainly classic artists (Del McCoury, Ralph Stanley, Roy Clark, JD Crowe, Kenny Rogers etc.)
What I really don’t get is why the relatively traditional mainstream stars rarely tour with new traditional bands. For example George Strait’s farewell tour will be with Merle Haggard, Martina McBride, Miranda Lambert, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Sheryl Crow, Little Big Town and Ronnie Dunn.
Yes Haggard is great, and Ronnie Dunn and Lambert have some good stuff; but it’s not like these people need more exposure.
October 12, 2013 @ 6:04 pm
While there’s surely no guarantee of this happening, I also see the possibility of more established artists becoming familiarized with emerging or growing names, and who knows. It may or may not spill over into their own realm of musical influences and template for the better.
It has been regularly stated here that we want the good artists to be big, and the big artists to be good. You spent the bulk of this commentary addressing the potential of the former being achieved by means of the Stagecoach festival model, but the latter can very well ring true to. All these established artists need is to actually hear these good artists, and it can sometimes go a long way to inspire them to be better, regardless of inevitable record label pressures.
For all we know, Valerie June could inspire Eric Church to take his next batch of studio sessions to the next level of ambition and creativity. Loretta Lynn and John Prine can hold a lot of sway as legacy artists over the roster. And Brantley Gilbert can…………………ehhhhh, never mind, there’s no hope for him! 😉
October 12, 2013 @ 7:17 pm
That’s a good point.
Plain and simple, you can never underestimate name recognition. Even if it is only these big stars’ labels and managers looking at these lineups, the undercard names will now be names they recognize. Even if dyed-in-the-wool pop country fans only come to see the the big headliners, their eyes will glance over these smaller guys and it will register in some capacity. I don’t see Jason Aldean and Jason Isbell hanging out backstage trading licks, but you never know what types of relationships and collaborations can come from the opportunities a festival like this can create.
And this may sound weird coming from me, but I don’t see the reason to not focus on the positives about this instead of the negatives. Sure you can obsess about font sizes and work yourself up into a tizzy. Or you can be happy about the opportunities these independent and legacy artists are being afforded. I guarantee you talk to any of the independent artists on the Stagecoach lineup, and they are quite happy and flattered to be there.
October 12, 2013 @ 7:46 pm
Excellent points… a win win for everyone.
Eric Church should be at the top of the list. I’m glad my fave “DT” singer doesn’t have the top spot. 😛
October 13, 2013 @ 4:18 am
And what I see that can happen is that the people who come to see the “big” names, will be exposed (hopefully they will listen) to these other real artists and begin to see that what they normally hear is awful.
I am reminded of a time we went to Ragweed at the MN Zoo. On our way out, we heard people who were there only because they receive all the tickets for the concerts they put on at the zoo. Never had heard of Ragweed. But they came away speaking about how good they were and what they had just heard. In the same way, this is a chance, perhaps, for some to hear decent music for the first time
October 13, 2013 @ 8:28 am
People criticize fans of Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan as mindless simps, when many times they’re just busy people who don’t know they have an alternative. And why would they? They’re rarely or never exposed to independent music in popular culture. Stagecoach is one of those rare instances that could open up an entire new window for them.
October 13, 2013 @ 6:46 am
what a great music festival that is going to be.
I didn’t know Katey Sagal was a musician.
Canadians “The wailing Jennies”, are a very good vocal trio, a folk version of Crosby Stills Nash.
October 13, 2013 @ 10:41 pm
Mark, Katey Sagal actually is quite an accomplished musician. I believe she was a musician before she was an actress, in fact. Some of her music has been featured in SONS OF ANARCHY at different times. Mostly cover stuff (“Bird On A Wire”).
October 13, 2013 @ 6:56 am
AXS tv was there this year all weekend filming live.They did a great job at showing a bit of everything.I couldn’t help but notice all of the young people there singing along to every song to Dwight Yoakam,The Little Willies,Charley Pride etc.It just made Blake Shelton’s comments seem even more dumb.
I also noticed a lot of the mainstream bands performing rock song after rock song on the main stage,like they were confused and thought it was Coachella.
October 13, 2013 @ 8:29 am
Commander Cody made me smile (Hot Rod Lincoln). I had forgotten all about him.
Hopefully all three dates will appear on AXS TV again next year. It was really nice to show up on TV this year.
You know I’ve actually watched the last two episodes of Casside Pope Frame by Frame ( I was curious, I bow my head in shame ). What was interesting was the one radio station GM that she went to dinner with said at first he didn’t like her songs that much (at first) because they weren’t “rock” enough. Then he mentioned Luke Bryan, Eric Church and Jason Aldean, explaining how that’s the big thing in country music right now (rock). That made me think about Dwight Yoakam. 25 years ago he took a lot of heat and never really got all the attention he deserved because his country music had too much rock in it. Now you get called out as a country artist because your music isn’t rock enough. Everyone seems to have “rock” on the brain. I wonder how much bigger Dwight Yoakam’s career would have been if he was born 20 years later and came out now. He sounds too country though, they might not like him now either.
October 13, 2013 @ 9:26 am
Phil,I seen that show one time and it was the same episode you’re talking about.I thought it was hilarious..Here you have all of these good websites/blogs (like this one) that’s been talking about the business side,copycat,phony ass (however you wanna describe it) side of mainstream radio country music,and there’s an actual radio big wig on CMT of all places,pretty much saying if you don’t sound like Luke,Aldean or Church,you’re going to have a hard time..I’m sure it went over the pop-country fans heads,but he basically just backed up what all of these sites have been saying for years!
October 13, 2013 @ 2:35 pm
Yeah it was so interesting. It’s very rare to hear that kind of thing spoken out loud, especially by a radio station GM on a CMT show.
That was Nate Deaton, the General Manager of KRTY (San Jose New Mexico). It looks like they’re independent (owned by KRTW, Ltd), and re-broadcast in two other locations (rebroadcast by two CA transmitters). This may be why they made such a bid deal about the GM (who probably can control what goes on air unlike a Clear Channel or other corporate radio GM0.
He seemed like a nice thoughtful guy that was basically trying to help her by telling her what was selling and what was popular. It really sucks but I get people like him are just trying to make money and thinking about how exactly to go about making money instead of thing about highlighting real country artists and ignoring sellouts like Luke Bryan. We all hate it but it’s hard to really find fault with someone just trying to make the most money they can (unless you’re a socialist or Democrat). Most of the problem lies with how the song/album buying demographic has changed over the last 30 years I’d assume (annoying moron tweens and horney middle aged house wives now have the wheel it would seem).
October 13, 2013 @ 4:13 pm
I went to stagecoach back in 2010, and I got to see merle haggard up close, and I still can’t shut up about how much i dug his set, I met Bill Anderson, which as an aspiring songwriter was a pretty cool thing to do, and they had a lot of great smaller acts on all the stages..now that I think about it, I think that might have been the real tipping point for me, becoming more of a roots/traditional country fan than a mainstream fan, before that show, I liked Jason Aldean, and all those guys, but I don’t really remember enjoying their sets, maybe it was the crowd, maybe it was the heat, I dunno, but they didn’t put on a show like some of the smaller names.
yeah, stagecoach has some performers I don’t care for, but it also has some great ones.
October 13, 2013 @ 4:31 pm
October 13, 2013 @ 10:37 pm
This reminds me of the Big Valley Jamboree Festival held here in Canada in Camrose, Alberta. It’s a mix of newer, popular artists, older, more established artists, artists of yesteryear that still draw a crowd, and then of course, the unknowns, to round out the bill.
It’s a winning formula, and people flock to it every year. I went one year, and was happy to see Charley Pride, amongst other classic artists. I pretty much just went to see the classic artists, but I can see how this formula works to draw money, and even if you don’t give a crap about the other artists on the bill, there’s a good chance you’ll get at least someone you enjoy seeing to play.
Like people have mentioned, I’d love it if it was just a classic lineup playing, but that’s not an economic reality. People are in this to make money, and they can’t do that if it’s all one demographic. It sucks, but that’s how it is, really.
October 14, 2013 @ 12:10 am
Thanks for sharing. I did not know about this festival. I am seriously considering a trip down from the Bay Area.
December 7, 2013 @ 12:48 am
Got my ticket. Really looking forward to it!
Bigfoot is Real (but I have my doubts about you)
October 14, 2013 @ 7:17 am
Digging through the lesser knowns I happened to stumble upon Susanna Hoffs the ex-Bangel Walking Like an Egyptain. So now she’s “country”?
Any way, why I am I suspicious of anybody who would want to be part of this? Why do I think these particular lesser knowns are all just standing in the line for the artistic sellout queue? They certainly seem like safe choices. Hmmmm… I am a hopeless pessimist? A realist?
October 14, 2013 @ 8:42 am
Great article! We had a similar great experience at Thunder on the Mountain festival in Arkansas this year. Luke Bryan and Toby Keith were among the headliners. Toby’s show was so cheesy that we left after a few songs. But the other “no-name” artists (the ones that we were there to see) got great exposure because the unwashed masses came to see the headliners. Where else could you get exposure like that? It’s a fabulous opportunity for the artists. They should look at it this way and not get their panties in a wad because their font is smaller.
October 14, 2013 @ 9:03 am
For the record, I haven’t seen any of the artists playing the fest complaining about the font size, only their fans, and a lot of folks who would probably never attend the festival anyway. The artists I have seen discuss it seem happy for the opportunity.
October 14, 2013 @ 8:52 am
I understand your point about Loretta Lynn having to play before the pop-country artists but the fact that she’s not headlining still doesn’t sit right with me.
October 15, 2013 @ 6:29 pm
I attended single days during the first two Stagecoach Festivals and it was a mixed bag at best. Once they switched to a single high priced ticket for the entire event I checked out for good. At least they reduced the 4 separate stages they had the first year to 3 and have stayed that way (I think?). I couldn’t care less about the big name acts but the fact the Americana tent competes with the Bluegrass/Cowboy tent makes for a lot of consternation. It’s nice to see artists I like, such as Ashley Monroe, get exposure to people who aren’t familiar with them for whatever that’s worth.
I just hope that some of those lesser known artists will do small shows in the Los Angeles area while they are Southern California, although their contract riders may prohibit that…
October 16, 2013 @ 8:27 pm
Stagecoach is a great festival; much better than Nashville’s CMA Fest. I’ve flown out to California the last two years in order to attend Stagecoach and just might do it again in 2014. My favorite part has been the classic artists and Indy artists who play the so-called ‘second stage’. The fans pack it out and show a huge appreciation for the classic performers. Roy Clark and Kenny Rogers performed last year and tons of young folks in their twenties and early thirties were singing along to every word. Dwight Yoakam played there this year. There is still hope in country music.