Pollstar Live! Coverage:
Country Music Festivals

Alan Jackson may have said it’s 5 o’clock somewhere but, at least for Live Nation’s Brian O’Connell, maybe it’s Saturday somewhere instead. 

Photo: Jason Squires
Buzz Brainard of Sirius XM's "The Highway" program, WME's Rob Beckham, Neste Event Marketing's Gil Cunningham, CAA's Rod Essig, Pavilion Concerts' Ken MacDonald, Live Nation's Brian O'Connell, and Country Thunder's Troy Vollhoffer. 

“Festivals are going to be the new Saturdays. We’ve run out of days of the week,” O’Connell told the panel audience, predicting there will soon be as many new festivals as there are arenas and amphitheatres. “I have to figure out a way for my clients to play more interesting things.”

And these events have grown beyond the open-field barn burners of yesteryear.

“It’s not just chairs up front anymore,” CAA’s Rod Essig said. “Stagecoach now has a pit in front of the stage. This makes a big, big difference to clients. Artists used to hate playing to chairs with the crowd way back.”

And these events aren’t possible at all without the fans, which are craving this type of experience more and more, according to WME’s Rob Beckham. “It’s a way of life, and it’s becoming more so,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to see the same fans at both Stagecoach and Coachella. It’s not necessarily genre-specific.”

These developments have more and more promoters willing to take the “$5 million gamble,” which seemed to be the consensus minimum to put on a major, multi-day camping festival.

While the panel couldn’t quite agree on whether a festival has to lose seven figures in its first years – “I just skipped that part,” O’Connell said – it is important to know the risks.

Country Thunder’s Troy Vollhoffer razzed Neste Event Marketing’s Gil Cunningham for allegedly opening informal conversations with “you’re going to lose a million dollars” in your first year.

But it has merit.

“The million-dollar line is a good one” regardless of whether the festival makes money, Pavilion Concerts’ Ken MacDonald said. “You do have to make sure your investors are prepared. There are a lot of festivals that don’t make money, sometimes still don’t make money for years.”

Essig pointed out that O’Connell, whose company has 360 deals and an artist management division, doesn’t have to buy artists like traditional buyers.

O’Connell contends that doesn’t change the economics of turning a profit. He also has the luxury of not needing festival sponsors when branding his own events, which allows for more grassroots development.

That kind of successful branding, of an event like the new Faster Horses Festival, is extremely important when having to build a lineup and make offers sometimes years in advance.

“When I say I’m booking for 2017, I’m not joking,” O’Connell said, adding that if he’s doing his job of branding the festival properly and running quality events each year, the event will sell itself before the lineup is close to finished.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Just check the comments section on “Hatebook,” the social network where “You can tell everyone what you’re doing and they can tell you how you fucked it up,” O’Connell said.

“Social is great for immediate feedback, but heaven forbid if you actually read it,” he said, adding that he does respond individually to all emails and comments online.

Despite the U.S. being a very mature concert market, there is still a bit of a learning curve in the camping festivals.

One problem is what happens when the headliner is done. Campers are still on site, which presents opportunity for more entertainment – and drink sales.

Vollhoffer said a beer garden was a simple success in Canada, but didn’t catch on at his festivals in the U.S.

He even had a just-breaking Eric Church playing inside the beer garden, “but people just walked right by him.”

Eventually he added a Vegas-style nightclub in a circus tent with DJs, lights and big production to much success.

That anecdote led to an opportunity for the promoters on the panel to sort-of apologize for earlier making fun of Essig, who apparently is known for trying to add Styx to the bill as a crossover artist.  Multi-genre doesn’t work in this realm, they concluded. 

“So we’ll give Rod grief about trying to sell us Styx, but we’re not averse to doing EDM,” O’Connell said.