Q’s With: Live Nation President Of Country Touring Brian O’Connell Steps Off The Bus To Talk Seven Peaks

Brian O
– Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell, Live Nation’s president of country touring, recently talked to Pollstar from a parking lot – a familiar location for the executive who spends more time on a bus than behind a desk during the summer – in Rogers, Ark.  This weekend, he’ll be in Buena Vista, Colo., overseeing the Dierks Bentley-curated Seven Peaks festival, in a mountain idyll. He might even get in a little time to jet ski. 

“When you sit on a bus in Arkansas, like I am today, and taking nothing away from any parking lot I’m ever sitting in, but when you get [to the Seven Peaks site] it really kind of changes your whole perspective and you really have to think that way 365 days a year when you’re designing one of these things,” the gregarious O’Connell says. 

Seven Peaks, Bentley’s country music camping festival, is in its second year and takes place over Labor Day weekend Aug. 30-Sept.1 just outside the bucolic community of Buena Vista, some 50 miles west of Colorado Springs. The lineup includes headliners Travis Tritt, Luke Bryan and, of course, Bentley, as well as a host of others including Tracy Lawrence, Maren Morris, Jon Pardi, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Diamond Rio, Deana Carter, Tennille Townes, Ryan Hurd and many more.

But another feature of Seven Peaks is the site itself, O’Connell says. There’s a creek flowing through it, a man-made lake, and a setting that aesthetically rivals any other in America, including Telluride, making it ideal for outdoorsy diversions. 

Festivalgoers may want to keep an eye on the stage, though, because the lineup is built to encourage artist collaborations and includes left-of-center performances by groups like Hot Country Knights. But let’s allow O’Connell, a member of Pollstar’s inaugural Impact 50 and recipient of the CMA’s Touring Lifetime Achievement Award winner, talk about that.
POLLSTAR: You always look like you’re having way too much fun for somebody that’s supposed to be working.
Brian O’Connell: Like I always tell people, if you can’t have fun doing this job, then go dig ditches or pound fence poles or something. It’s supposed to be fun! It’s a lot of work, but it’s supposed to be fun. I like to be outside.
You’re in your second year of Seven Peaks. Conventional wisdom says that festivals make or break it in the first three years or so. 
I’ve read that. I don’t know anybody else’s business models and yeah, you want to get to a place of profitability, obviously, as quickly as you can. But when you’re doing something cold for the first time, in a non-traditional spot like we have out there, it takes a minute to develop a culture and a pattern to get fans to buy in. I don’t know about the three-year thing. If it’s five years, two years, whatever. There’re the ones that took forever to click and now they’re the biggest festivals in the world. 
Fortunately, Dierks and everybody who’s involved in Seven Peaks is great. It was a really, really cool festival because it wasn’t trying to be anything other than Seven Peaks. That’s where you really put your hooks into those first-year fans and really use them as ambassadors. When you’ve got the artist, an artist specifically like Dierks who is really not just showing up but actively involved in pretty much every piece of the festival, it’s really easy to communicate the vibe.
Sometimes adjustments get made after the first year. What’s different in year two?
It’s going to be bigger! We’re way ahead of last year in terms of sales, and that naturally affects the footprint, the traffic plan, the flow in and out of campgrounds. Nothing sexy. Did we move some things around the site? Yes. We relocated the Whiskey Row stage, things like that. 
We’ve got a pretty remarkable footprint when you’re on the site, getting to it with machinery and things to build stuff, it’s quite challenging because it’s in the mountains. We have to think it through from a topography point of view. We can say, “Yeah, we’re going to put this giant stage / tent structure over here” and we have to basically engineer it and decide how it’s going to get there, what day it’s going to get there, how is it not going to impede on all the other things we have going on. We have a lot of logistical things that, again, are not sexy but if you do it wrong, you can’t change it on Friday morning and go, “Oh darn!” 
We’re not sexy. We wonk out on this stuff. Looks like the site is pretty out there.
It’s out there and it’s up there at about 8,000 feet in elevation. The site is stunning. It’s literally stunning. You have to go, “Forget about where you are today.” If I’m in the office in Nashville or on a bus somewhere, I have to close my eyes and put myself in that location.

It looks not unlike Telluride, where the scenery is part of the experience.
Exactly. When we first got an idea to do this and looked basically everywhere in Colorado – there wasn’t a spot that we didn’t look at, either in person or through the beauty of Face Time – the specific site looks like God reached down and put a giant handprint in between all of these mountains. It’s a perfectly flat space for the main festival site. There are some elevation traverses to get to a couple of camping areas, there’s beautiful trees, there’s a creek that runs through it, there’s a man-made lake at what we call Base Camp at South Beach, so there’s a lot of really interesting features to the land that unless you go and see it, it does almost no good to try to describe them to you. 
Let’s talk about Dierks’ involvement – when he starts working on it, how he curates and keeps it diverse. What’s his game plan?
I have to give all credit there is to Dierks and [Red Light Management’s] Mary Hilliard – they were the drivers. Without them, Seven Peaks does not exist. Mary is extremely passionate about this event, Dierks is very passionate about this event. Their involvement, the entire Dierks team involvement, is 365. There isn’t a question that gets asked that doesn’t get run by them. 
When it comes to the booking, clearly when you book a festival and you ask who are the headliners, well, I’ve got 33% of it done right now. I’ve got Dierks. So that makes it a little easier. Then we decided to do the Friday night a little bit different than most of the other festivals. Dierks is obviously a huge fan of ‘90s country, as we all are, so we said, “Let’s do the Friday night as straight ‘90s country,” our influences, if you will. Things that we want to see that maybe you don’t get to see all the time. And then we close it out with Hot Country Knights.
Tell us about Hot Country Knights? I’ve seen it described as “Spinal Tap meets Curb Your Enthusiasm,” complete with wigs, mullets and sunglasses.
It’s Dierks’ band as an alter-ego unit, including himself [as frontman “Douglas Douglason”], and it’s an absolute riot. When they started this Hot Country Knights thing it was kind of a gag. At the core of it, besides all the bits that they do, is note-for-note perfect musicianship [covering ‘90s country hits]. As a unit, there’s nothing out of place. 
Last year we told Clint Black, who closed the show, “This is what we’re doing, you might want to stick around; this is kind of fun.” And you kind of get the look, but sure as shit, I’m looking at the side of the stage and there’s Clint Black watching this Hot Country Knights stuff going on with this giant smile on his face.  He got a kick out of it. 
We told Travis Tritt this year, “Hey this is what’s going on; don’t bug out of here right after your show. You may want to watch this; it may be fun.” Hopefully you’ll see some collaborations, and that kind of stuff. 

With Maren Morris and Ryan Hurd both booked on Saturday, that seems a natural. What other collaborations can we expect?
It’s hard to keep Dierks off the stage. He wants to play with everybody. It doesn’t matter who it is. Last year it was, “Where’s Dierks?” “Oh, he’s over there, with a local group called Rapidgrass. Sitting in with them.” Or, “Oh, he’s at Somewhere on a Beach [an all-day lakeside party] with DJ Aydamn doing whatever he’s doing out there.” So, we’re chasing him all over the place.
But when we are putting together a lineup you really want to get into your heart, I always try to put people together who are familiar with each other on an individual day. If you look at a lineup in its totality, and it gets to be like 50 bands, it gets to be a blur, right? On my festivals, other than Tortuga and Faster Horses, it’s in the 30s so you have two stages. There’s five or six acts on the Whiskey Row stage [a side stage of emerging Nashville talent] and five or so on the main stage, and I try to find some commonality between them. 
It’s going to be hard to keep Dierks away from Steep Canyon Rangers. Obviously, Ryan and Maren have an opportunity there. Luke and Dierks, if you don’t think that’s gonna happen, you’re crazy. 
Who are you excited about? 
Mitchell Tenpenny, who is hotter than blazes right now, is a show stealer. Maren’s a superstar. You look at the other end between Chris Shiflett, Hardy, and Seaforth. I don’t want to not say Caylee Hammack, who is just a barnburner on stage, she’s so good. That’s one that’s going to happen quickly. Tenille Townes, Clare Dunn. I like that we have The War And Treaty in there, and it’s not strictly genre. They are just so good they defy genre. 
There are all the ingredients; I just got to get them all to jump in the pot together. And the one that makes that happen is Dierks.