Where The New Country Acts Go

In a couple of months, Jennifer Nettles is heading out on the road with Brandy ClarkLindsay Ell and Tara Thompson on the CMT “Next Women Of Country” tour, which builds exposure for the three support artists in a male-dominated genre.

Photo: Rick Diamond / Getty Images for CMT
CMT promotes its “Next Women of Country” series at City Winery in Nashville Nov. 3. Along with Jennifer Nettles (front, center) and CMT’s Leslie Fram (back, center), those pictured include Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, Aubrie Sellers,and Kelsea Ballerini.

It’s not a Lilith Fair; it’s not a festival at all. But it does bring to mind something that CAA’s John Huie mentioned at the Production Live! conference in Nashville in February.

Huie brought up how inexpensive it is to tour the Christian music package Winterjam, and how kids flock to it – and how a similar model should be considered for country music acts that could use the exposure.

There are a couple of issues with that. One is that Christian tours draw an audience that is primarily there for, literally, a religious experience rather than to see a particular headliner.

Two, country audiences aren’t as known to seek out new music and will tend to gravitate toward the mainstage at Stagecoach whereas Coachella’s crowd will visit the side stages. They’re more prone to go to a show that has an anchor such as Jennifer Nettles.

And, finally, there is the lure of getting on a country music arena tour – why sign on to a traveling festival that does not have a George Strait as a headliner when the big tour might snatch you up? And who’s left to populate that festival?

“Are you going to do a Vans Warped-type country show or are you going to jump on tour with Keith Urban or Jason Aldean?” Huie told Pollstar. “There are 15 country acts out there and they’re all vying for the right support. You’re not going to find 15 or 16 young rock tours to put baby bands on. So once you get most of those acts to pair up with a headliner, there’s not a lot of meat left on the bone.”

Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior VP of music strategy and talent, agreed that country music arena shows have a unique allure.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in the country world where superstar artists support up-and-coming artists,” Fram said. “For all my years in the rock world, I never saw the developing act get paid well, get to use full production. It was always more of a ‘no soundcheck’ and ‘you might get paid 100 bucks.’ The way it works in this world helps develop artists and grows careers.”

However, she added that her dream would be to produce a Lilith Fair, a multiple-stage event that would feature the women of country music, alt-country and Americana and support it with CMT’s platforms.

Meanwhile, the CMT “On Tour” brand has been providing younger acts with exposure for more than a decade – relative unknowns at the time like Luke BryanKip Moore and Jake Owen. But she added that there are other ways to get acts to do the good, old-fashioned club performance.

“It’s happening somewhat with artists that are doing after-show parties. When Dan + Shay were out with Blake Shelton and they were playing , they were very smart to build a hard ticket and play shows after that, and selling it out. I feel there is an opportunity there.” On the current CMT arena tour featuring Brett Eldredge and , Fram designed an after-party performance for Ryan Hurd, a successful singer/songwriter who is beginning his own performance career.

“When I was talking about signing with an agency, I talked about wanting to build my own fan base now and not wait for a label,” Hurd told Pollstar. “I said, ‘Those (arena) opening slots are really great, and they seem to do a lot for you, but I don’t want to be dependent on that. Joey (Lee at WME) came back with this idea that he talked to Leslie about, where I start doing these after parties where I’m connected to a tour but I’m also getting a 60-minute set.”

Hurd’s performances are at clubs within driving distance of the arena shows and promoted by the radio stations. They take place either the night of the CMT show or the day before or after it, and the CMT ticket-holders get free admission.

“It’s a big win for a new artist to get on those arena tours because there aren’t many opportunities for them but there are people willing to try the club dates,” Hurd said. “Maddie and Tae are doing club dates this year and I think it’s 400- to 500-capacity clubs. They’re selling out. And I’m thinking about The Brothers Osborne and Jon Pardi who are going out together. They sold 700 tickets this weekend.

“So I think we’re seeing people really valuing hard-ticket bases. That’s the one thing I’m most excited about – I’m much more excited about going out and finding people who are passionate about my music, even if it’s a smaller room, than I am opening for an act where I don’t get to play as long or I’m not as able to engage with those fans.”