Pollstar Live! Country Countdown

Country music has had a consistent presence at the Pollstar Live! conferences, be it in roundtable or panel format – Rod Essig of CAA. Essig usually wings it alone, covering topics from as overarching as the state of the country music business to details like how to order motorcycles and full-face helmets for artists who like to take anonymous bike rides day-of-show.

Last year the panel included partner-in-crime John Huie. This year he had the special honor of sharing the stage with one of country music’s most successful agents, Rob Beckham of William Morris Endeavor and the creator of the Country Megaticket – “B.O.C.” himself, Brian O’Connell of Live Nation who made his first appearance ever at the conference.

Beckham is associated with established acts like Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Gary Allan and Blake Shelton, and hot tickets like Luke Bryan and The Band Perry. O’Connell is known for, well, taking artists under his wing and promoting them to stardom.

“We just talk here,” Essig explained, adding that the audience included another big-name agent in Kevin Neal, representing Jason Aldean, and none other than the mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean.

Photo: Barry Brecheisen

If there was one thing to walk away with from this panel it’s that country music is hot and happening. But that’s not the whole story: as O’Connell pointed out, it’s always been hot and happening, from The Oak Ridge Boys in the ’70s to Alabama in the ’80s to the Class of ’89 (Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks) to now.  And in 2014 there will be a tour by the “worst kept secret in country music” (cough Garth).

“We’re hiding in plain sight,” O’Connell said. It’s almost an insult to say that country is “hot right now.”

But how does country music get to this success? One way is to take the artists through some tried and true methods and progression. As Beckham pointed out, The Band Perry is not a headliner just yet – not because they can’t sell tickets but because they just need some more recognizable material to extend the show length.  Or, as O’Connell put it, you need to have the tough conversations with bands that want to be headliners and tell them they need to slow down.

And, in the process, the ticket prices need to remain affordable.

“When the act is hot … you want to go out there and get money but you have to think three tours down the road, and that’s how you back into ticket prices.  I try to make it a no brainer. If someone’s hot and $129, you have to think about it. But if someone’s hot and $49, that’s a no-brainer. And if you build them up through that process, you will find the top end.”

The Megaticket falls into this scenario. It’s a concept O’Connell invented more than a decade ago but perplexed his old boss, Jack Boyle, among others. It was simple enough: sell a ticket that would include four shows and 12 acts.  One of the big features is it markets all of the acts, not just the headliners.

Today it’s in 24 markets, and 102,000 packages have been sold to 850,000 customers.  And all tickets are for the lawn, which is traditionally the hardest to sell.  Nothing substantially new there, but O’Connell stressed that if the country music business needed to do anything, it needed to build this model in the secondary and tertiary markets, where the fairs and festivals go.

Essig gave credit to Dean for his contributions to the music scene in Nashville.

“He’s with us and probably shows up to more shows than most of us.  He’s everywhere where we need him and you’re seeing the renaissance of a city right now.”

Gil Cunningham from Neste Event Marketing joined in to comment on the state of music festivals. The biggest change is camping, which has gone from a festival weigh station to its own community, with the younger visitors never leaving it.

Meanwhile, there are some trial dates being booked for a Rascal Flatts / Journey package, but the guarantees are not doubled.

A question was raised: why doesn’t country sell better internationally. O’Connell said because of the language and culture barrier, but Beckham added that he was in Stockholm for a Paisley / Band Perry show where everyone knew all the words to the songs even though they didn’t speak English.

“Nashville’s in an interesting spot right now and a big part is we have had a strong appreciation for the music industry,” Dean said. “When I was running for office I saw a divide between most businesses and the music business. We needed people to know that we wanted music to thrive and we wanted more of it. So we formed the Music Council which is an organization that works with the music business. We’re opening affordable housing downtown for artists this month. And the music industry is paying us back with education programs. We’re trying to have our public schools have the best music programs in the country.

“Conde Nast came out with a story about five cities you have to see in 2013, and those are Amsterdam, Toronto, Seoul, New Orleans and Nashville. I know what you’re thinking – how the hell did Toronto and Amsterdam make that list.”