Shortly after coming offstage at the Rome River Jam in Rome, Georgia, country artist HARDY looked at his WME booking agent Austin Neal, smiled broadly, and said, “I’ll play as many of those as you want me to.”
HARDY was playing his first show since COVID-19 brought the touring industry to an abrupt and devastating halt in March.
Touring artists of all genres have been debilitatingly affected as their livelihoods have been slashed, but perhaps none more so than country acts. Unlike pop and R&B and hip-hop, where artists generally tend to build tours around album releases, all but the loftiest superstars in country music tour year round.
Plus, though streaming revenue for country artists is climbing as more fans adapt to the medium, country numbers still lag significantly behind R&B/hip and pop streaming, making touring an even more important source of revenue. With the live industry unlikely to reopen in any meaningful way until late 2021 or even 2022, the country music community has been leading the way back onto the road with creative solutions.
Touring is in country artists’ DNA, says Neal. “There are so many artists we book on a daily basis who haven’t had new material in one or two years, but can still go out and play and make a good chunk of money to support themselves.”
Since four nights of drive-in shows with Eli Young Band and other acts in the parking lot at Globe Life Field Stadium in Arlington, Texas, kicked things off in early June, country artists have increasingly found ways to connect with fans in a live setting. From pre-taped concerts featuring Garth Brooks, Blake Shelton (with Gwen Stefani) and Kane Brown that played at more than 300 mainly rural drive-ins across the country to Live Nation’s three-day Live From the Drive-In series featuring Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker and Jon Pardi in Nashville, Indianapolis and St. Louis to the re-opening of Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium and Grand Ole Opry to limited audiences, fans thirsty for live music have shown up.
There have also been some early missteps. Most notably, Chase Rice and Chris Janson were criticized on social media and by their fellow country artists — including Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris — for playing separate concerts on the same weekend in June where Instagram videos showed a lack of social distancing and mask wearing by their audiences. But most shows have gone without incident.
As soon as the pandemic cut off traditional touring, WME — like many booking agencies — went to its country roster and asked artists how they wanted to proceed. “Some of them really wanted to figure out how [to] get back on the road and do it safely,” says WME agent Nate Towne. “We started trying to craft a plan around that.”
One of the first moves was to resurrect the Rome River Jam, which postponed its original May dates. WME went to Peachtree Entertainment promoter Bradley Jordan to explore ways to safely revitalize the festival amid the pandemic. Over Oct. 9-10, in Georgia — where there are no restrictions on concerts — it became the largest concert in the U.S. yet to utilize socially distanced pod platforms. Each platform at the Coosa Valley Fairgrounds held six people (all six tickets were sold in one purchase) and were socially distanced from the other pods.
The two-night festival sold out more than 800 pods for an audience of approximately 5,000 per night — still far below the 10,000-15,000 capacity the fairgrounds normally hold for the festival. Patrons were assigned a specific arrival time to space out crowds, mask wearing outside of the pods was mandatory, foot traffic flowed in one direction, no tailgating was allowed and food and drink were delivered directly to people’s pods instead of allowing them to congregate at concession stands.
Despite some issues — Oct. 9 headliner Morgan Wallen pulled out and Oct. 10’s show was canceled because of tornado threats — Peachtree is proceeding with two more festivals. The next will be Oct. 30-31’s Charleston Country Music Fest in South Carolina, and details for a third festival with a similar pod set up will be announced shortly.
There are several factors contributing to country music’s revived touring through the pandemic, besides the artists’ dependency on the revenue. Many country fans live in rural areas where, initially, the pandemic had not hit so hard as in urban centers. These regions also tend to skew politically conservative and when the safety around the coronavirus has become a politicized issue, it’s reasonable to believe concern about contracting COVID-19 could be less than in more generally liberal areas. But as artists are typically emphasizing fan safety — especially considering the bad press around those shows with Rice and Janson — most of all it might be due to the bond country artists share with their fans, which is commonly nurtured throughout pre-show meet and greets and appearances at events like CMA Music Fest.
For Scotty McCreery re-establishing that connection was key to his decision to play the first show at the Ryman open to live audiences following the shutdown. The Sept. 4 concert, his first in six months, was limited to 5% of the Ryman’s capacity, but the 125 fans — all masked and spread out from the floor to the balcony — buoyed McCreery’s spirits.
“You could feel the love, even though you couldn’t see the smiles,” McCreery tells Billboard. “It was the most fun I’d had on stage in a long time.”
Paramount to McCreery was his fans’ safety. “My first thing is going to be the health of the fans,” says McCreery, who estimates that he, like many country artists, makes around 75% of his income from touring. “There’s a trust between country artists and fans established over the years, whether it’s through CMA Fest or social media, where they see everything that you’re up to. I don’t want to break that trust.”
Triple 8 Management, which manages McCreery as well as Eli Young Band, Pat Green and Joe Nichols, has been able to secure scaled-down dates for its clients primarily in smaller metro areas, says partner George Couri. These venues range from fields to dance halls to private events, where capacity is usually capped between 25% and 35%.
“The money is obviously a fraction of normal money, but we are able to only do things that pay our crews and put money in the artists’ pockets,” Couri says. “And it’s always good to give fans out there something fun to do, come sing along and get out of the house, as long as it’s safe.”
The economics of the smaller shows “are certainly challenging,” adds Towne. Making money is possible, “but it’s going to have to happen in phases,” he says, as artists, agents, venues and promoters figure out how to increase audience size safely and incrementally — especially as more shows move indoors during the winter. The Ryman shows, which increased to 10% capacity after McCreery’s show, have also sold tickets for fans to watch online. Towne expects the hybrid live/pay-per-view model to evolve further during the pandemic and even after.
These shows have shown that fans, despite the economic crises brought on by the pandemic, will support paying top dollar to see their favorites. Tickets for the Brooks’ drive-in show were $100 per carload and $115 for Shelton’s. For Rome River Jam, tickets, which were good for both nights of the festival, ranged from $80 to $420.
Texas, a country hotbed, appears to be leading the way when it comes to indoor shows. Floore’s Country Store, a 78-year old venue outside of San Antonio, re-opened in September and has concerts booked by artists including Riley Green, Pat Green, Randy Rogers Band, Raul Malo and Granger Smith for weeks to come, sometimes offering two shows per night, because of “extremely limited capacity,” according to the venue’s Facebook page. Texas allows for 50% capacity indoors.
A number of the same acts are playing Billy Bob’s in Ft. Worth, which stresses it is operating at well below the 50% capacity approved by the state’s governor. Other measures such as temperature checks at the door and no more than 30 people on the dance floor at a time are enforced.
Texas-based independent country artist Casey Donahew, who sold out Billy Bob’s recently at its scaled-down 1,500 capacity (out of 6,000), says he was headed into the best touring year of his 18-year career with around 120 dates on his schedule before the coronavirus hit. Instead of getting to fulfill the dates, he sat dormant until the end of July, first playing acoustic concerts before expanding with a full band. This month he has 10 shows scheduled, the vast majority in Texas.
For Donahew, the key has been setting his own safety regulations, which are often higher than those set by the states of Texas and Oklahoma, where he also played in October, even when it means dipping into his own pocket. “One of the first acoustic shows we played, the county wasn’t doing mask mandates. We said you have to have your face covered, so we just took the bandanas that we usually sell at the front door and gave them away,” says Melinda Donahew, Casey’s manager. “It’s our responsibility to our fans, regardless of what the promoters are doing.”
Melinda Donahew says Casey normally averages 2,000 people per show, but this year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, will average around 350, and only play a handful of states as opposed to his usual 35. “Our outlook has always been we’re not going to put anybody at risk for the sake of money,” she says. She adds that fans have understood that the capacity restrictions led Donahew to raise ticket prices — up from his standard $20 to $35 at some shows — to help cover his expenses and create some profit.
“You realize how fortunate you are to have a fanbase who genuinely cares about you and supports you,” she says. “There’s going to be light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the only thing way I keep my sanity.”