Thank goodness for the glorious agrarian age. Without it, not only would our very existence be in doubt, but there’d be no county and state fairs, no oversized vegetables and freshly shorn livestock locked in fierce 4H battles; no curly fries and funnel cakes competing to impel one’s cardiovascular system and, perhaps worst of all, no soft and hard ticketed concerts for up-and-coming acts, headliners and everything in between to perform in markets they might not otherwise reach.
A call to the International Association of Fairs and Expos (IAFE) revealed the association has 1,000 members worldwide. And there’s at least double that number who aren’t members. While not all are booking concerts, it’s still an active market in which any level of act can perform. Newbies work their way up the soft-to-hard ticket ladder and grow their fanbase, while bigger acts can play before tens of thousands and get a healthy paycheck. In recent years, what was once heavily-represented by country, rock and legacy acts has broadened out to include hip-hop, Latin and even EDM (gasp!).
As fair season winds down this and next month, and booking ensues for next year’s confabs, Pollstar reached out to Shannon Casey, Wasserman Music’s SVP of Fairs and Festivals, to get her take on this year’s fair market. The New Orleans-native grew up partially in the Caribbean and East Tennessee (her first job was scooping ice cream at Dollywood) before heading to Nashville and Belmont University. Most importantly, Casey’s first concert, for those keeping score, was a rocking double bill of Night Ranger and Lover Boy (“Sister Christian! “Working For the Weekend!”) and her very first fair was the Wilson County-Tennessee State Fair.
She’d land a gig at CAA in ’92 working for trailblazing agents Ron Baird, John Huie and Rod Essig, whose Country Hall roster included Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Dolly Parton, Clint Black and Wynonna among others. She went on to assist Essig, working closely with him for many years. “He’s a very big agent in the fair business and had a lot of artists that worked through that system in addition to everything else he did,” Casey says. “So that’s where I learned about fairs and festivals.” Casey worked as an agent at CAA until 2020’s pandemic shake-up hit, she landed at Wasserman Music where she is now part of a nine-person Fairs and Festivals department. Here, Casey, who had just returned from Louisville’s Bourbon & Beyond Festival, shares her experience and knowledge on the state of the state (and county) fairs.
Pollstar: Where is fair season at now?
Shannon Casey: We’re almost at the end. The Washington State Fair is still going, it’s a Seattle market fair, and they will run through the 24th of September. The Big E, which is in Springfield, Mass., they run until October 1st. I’ll be up there next week. So there’s a couple. We’re now in the buying season for fairs.
Fairs are traditionally agriculture based – in general how are they doing these days?
It’s a whole other conversation. Our food system and agriculture became industrialized, so for a while it became, not forgotten, but maybe less important, as we became more industrialized. Now, with farm to table restaurants, you really see it’s come back, so that’s that part of it. Also, they’re multi-faceted events now, they’re not just country, they’re not just Western, they’re booking everything from faith-based music to rock to classic rock to pop to hip-hop and Latin. The distinction is, if you go to major fairs, state fairs or very large capacity events, they have the budgets to have all genres to dig into and get into the popular space. State fairs can be as competitive as amphitheaters and some of your arenas and festivals.
We’re just finishing fair season, how would you say this season went, especially with an inflationary economy, a glut of tours and perhaps some shaken consumer confidence?
It’s probably been a little bit softer than last year. We’re all just trying to get our footing back after the pandemic.
Were offers in line with what they’ve been in previous years and pre-pandemic? Or are state and county budgets tighter and maybe can’t afford to offer as much as they once did?
There were some that seemed to be on par with the past, and then there were a few that their overall budget seemed to have tightened and they had to allocate how they were going to spend the budget on what night. So, they’re going to have a larger budget for something that is going to sell more tickets and have more draw. And then it might be more cost-prohibitive on something else, maybe mid-week. So there were a few of those that just seem to have a lighter budget and couldn’t exceed certain numbers and some were on par with where they’ve been in the past.
What about hard tickets shows?
Those are pretty competitive events because they’ve got more budget and they have more seats to sell, so they have the ability to stretch a little higher and get bigger names. And then you have some fairs that have more modest budgets. They still want to get something that’s popular, they still want to get something that’s on the radio. They may have a golden circle, and then maybe the rest of the seats are free. And then you have fairs like the New York State Fair that’s actually a concert series, it’s pretty unique. They have a cap on their budget and don’t exceed a certain amount, but they’re able to pull in very popular artists that run the gamut. They have some LGBTQ+ acts, faith-based music, rock, pop, classic. They have two stages, and it almost runs more like a festival. But those shows are free with admission. I had Yung Gravy there about a week ago and they estimated there were 30,000 people at that show, which was one of their top shows.
And he’s a rapper and maybe a decade or two ago that doesn’t happen?
I’ll tell you the history there. Nelly really is probably the singular artist who really started the trend of getting outside of the country genre. There was always classic rock, legacy acts and country, but Nelly kind of changed it and started this trend of being able to look outside the norm for talent to bring into fairs. I believe he had a single with Tim McGraw and did some collaborations. That was early or maybe in the mid-2000s. I worked with Tim when I was at CAA. He’s been very smart about collaborating with artists outside of his genre. He’s probably played every state fair in America.
“Country Grammar,” indeed.
He broke the mold on that. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had Ice Cube, I’ve had E-40, 14 or 15 dates this year with Yung Gravy. He just played the Salt Lake State Fair. He played the OC fair. He played the Ohio State Fair. We’ve had him in tandem with bbno$. I have one or two left. I’m going to be at the Big E, which is Springfield, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. I’ll be there on the 29th. I have Zedd playing that fair.
Wow, Zedd, the EDM artist? He’s playing the state fair?
Yes, and that will be at 7,500 cap grandstand.
What about production? Do artists bring it or is it plug and play?
Generally, it’s always provided, some artists will want to augment. The bigger the artist, the more you might augment. That’s why you’re going to see more top tier names, more A-list talent in those major state fairs because they can accommodate. They’ve got class-A production and then they can accommodate someone augmenting their production.
It seems like there’s this pipeline of country artists that keep coming, and I’m sure most of them have touched the fairs. We just did Jelly Roll on our cover, there’s Bailey Zimmerman, Riley Green, Kelsea Ballerini. We had a big Old Dominion issue, who’ve been around a minute, and there’s a new class of superstars like Morgan Wallen, Zach Bryan and Luke Combs – are they all mostly coming up playing fairs?
You can absolutely put all of them back to their early days playing fairs. And those early singles and records that were coming out they were definitely working through the system. From the Wasserman roster we work with Blake Shelton and certainly over the years he plays fairs. Also artists like Shenandoah, Jo Dee Messina, Wynonna Judd, Old Dominion, Tanya Tucker. She’s had a resurgence.
It really seems like a farm system. Fairs can be a career-long launching pad and play all over the county and build your career starting with soft ticket shows, play again in the region, come back a couple of times to the market and the fairs, work up to hard ticket shows, play the big league ones when you’re a star.
Like you have a farm system in baseball, it’s like that. It’s an ecosystem. It’s literally like a community. And it’s not just country, it is all these genres and in all these tertiary markets, where in the past, when you didn’t have a casino in nearly every town, you had to drive a couple hours to get to a major market where you could actually go see a concert. And that’s what fairs were providing in the earlier part of their history.
How do you quantify success? For an artist playing a fair, either soft or hard ticket, how do you know it’s been a success?
Attendance. It really comes down to who’s coming to see that show. The smaller fairs are going to have more free shows with fair admission. And the larger fairs are going to have hard ticket numbers. So we can see where the success is.
Say if it’s a rainy day, that could adversely impact attendance with less walk ups, which may not have anything to do with the artist, but I assume buyers are aware of that?
Yes. But listen, it’s anything outdoors, just like in the festival space, we’re beholden to the weather gods. Crews and teams have really drilled down and figured out how to make things work. There is a level of flexibility that has to happen in an outdoor concert space and there are quite a few fairs, by the way, that are rain or shine. Now, if the weather becomes inclement in terms of say lightning, wind or anything threatening safety, that’s different.