Brian O’Connell, President of Country Touring, Live Nation Entertainment
There’s only one Impacter in 2020: COVID-19,” says Live Nation’s King of Country Music. “Everyone and everything else is a distant second.”
The man who put Brooks & Dunn’s honky tonk confab – the Neon Circus – featuring Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry and Keith Urban, trick ropers, fire eaters, sword swallowers and a balloon-blowing goat – on the road in 2000 and took country festivals to a whole new level (as well as created the amphitheaters’ SuperTicket) is deadly serious. Watching his business grind to a stop, beloved venues close and artists hanging on as they try to pay their teams, 2020 was a wake-up call of epic proportions.
“What we don’t know is equally important,” he offers. “And it’s OK to not know. You do the best you can with information that’s presented, knowing it’s going to change, talking people – including yourself – off the ledge, because we’re so conditioned to know. But I think we’re all coming out of this with a shift in perspective.”
O’Connell, the Chicago club man Jack Boyle moved to Fort Lauderdale for the legendary promoter’s Florida operation, is a go-go guy. Always somewhere on a bus, waist-deep in the talent, building careers and festivals, 2020 was a jammed gear. But it gave the hardcore Chicago Cubs fan time to reflect.
“We aren’t going anywhere. We don’t have a plane to catch, a show to cover,” O’Connell says. “We’re going from the family room to the kitchen, and it makes us slow down and focus – on our work, our teams, our true priorities.”
Chuckling a bit, he outlines what was. “There is this thinking, this jam job of: I Am An Artist, Therefore I Tour. I understand they have bands to pay, everyone has families to feed, but Jan. 1 you’re in rehearsals; on the road by the second weekend of February. Then it’s the CMA Awards (November). You’ve done all that for your career, but … have you taken a breath? Gotten inspired? Lived enough to have something to write about?
“Thomas Rhett said in an interview this record is different because his voice wasn’t blown out from rolling off a tour bus after four days out, trying to get a couple vocal takes before taking off again. Think about that.”
Momentum can grease the rails, but it can also become a trap. That trap snapped when COVID got real. “I think we need to be less about looking over the fence at what your neighbor’s got and worrying about how do we make all of this better? Our families, our friends and colleagues.
“When we get back, it’s gonna be fragile – I’m telling my people ‘The rust is real, so know that’ – but getting back out is what we’re living for.
“But that means building really solid careers instead of keeping up with the Joneses. We have to get past, ‘So and so gets this, so I have to get that, too.’ There’s a group of really amazing acts who got trapped in this hamster wheel thinking that, and they’re frozen because of what comes with that. From the biggest acts all the way down… I see this headliner starter kit mentality: the two extra buses full of people they’re paying for, social people, the chef and catering staff. They’re hemorrhaging money with stuff they don’t need because they’ve seen a massive headliner on some tour doing it, but they don’t get the difference (between where they are and everything the headliner needs). What we were doing, we were doing ‘cause we’d whipped up such a frenzy, but artists and managers were often off running races that didn’t need to be run.”
O’Connell, whose last show was the Keith Urban drive-in concert for Vanderbilt healthcare workers, is ready to get back to it. He’s got Jason Aldean “Live From The Bonnaroo Farm” on May 15, shows going on sale, and a hunger to promote. He just wants to make sure when the race is on, they’re moving toward solidity and (mental) health.
“Without coming off melancholy about all this, what we do isn’t easy – and it takes real dedication. That goes for every piece of the business,” he explains. “The thought process has to be, ‘Am I doing the next right thing for this artist?’ because there’s always easy ways to make money that don’t build them. Some of their biggest competition is themselves, and it’s easy to get caught up in externals.
“The cliché on all the tourism stuff here is: ‘It all starts with a song.’ Then that should be a priority in action, not just words.”
O’Connell, who recently ventured to Lower Broadway for the first time, likened it to someone going to Wrigley Field after watching baseball on TV for years. Excitement permeates much of what’s coming, so managing the explosion is going to be imperative.
Laughing, he admits, “It’s gonna be drinking from a firehose! Like there’s an artist every five minutes putting a tour on sale. So, there’s no sipping this tea. It’s chugging whether you want to or not, and trying not to choke on all of it.”
Managing the pace also reflects the reality of how he attacks the work itself. Having actually picked up the phone, talked to peers and connected without a reason, he’s coming back knowing the power of pacing.
“I realize whether I hit refresh or check in every 10 minutes, the result is going to be the same (with onsales). What is that going to change? Rather than set yourself up to be upset or angry, focus on the details going in. If it’s measure twice, cut once, then measure 100 times – adapt.”
Is BOC going soft?
“This is what we do! When we’re back, it’s going to be great, because we’ve all been scared to death for so long. That’s where the euphoria comes in!”