Country music road tours are rockin’

[25 July 2007]

By Howard Cohen

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill

Pianist Glenn Gould famously predicted the death of the concert in a High Fidelity magazine piece ages ago. “Its functions ... entirely taken over by electronic media,” he opined in 1966.

The Canadian classical pianist, who died in 1982, didn’t live to meet Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Brad Paisley, Martina McBride or Rascal Flatts, or he would have had to note that the concert scene is not only still very much alive, but it’s thriving—arguably, the one traditional bright spot within a music industry struggling through change. According to Pollstar, concert revenues in North America have increased from $1.3 billion annually to $3.1 billion a year over the past 10 years.

Maybe a bigger surprise is where these touring stars are coming from. Aside from the boomer classic rock and pop acts with huge catalogs like the Rolling Stones, U2 and Elton John, the winner on the live scene has been country music.

“No genre has been better at developing arena-level headliners in the past decade as has country music,” says Ray Waddell, who covers touring for the trade publication Billboard.

Sure enough, no one sold more concert tickets last year than country star Kenny Chesney. The Stones, Madonna and Barbra Streisand made more money on the road—but their average ticket prices of $136, $183 and $298 topped Chesney’s average asking price of $58. Chesney put 1,130,529 people into seats at his shows; for Madonna’s shows, by comparison, only 467,314 parted with their money.

Boot scootin’ right past Chesney: the Tim McGraw/Faith Hill Soul2Soul Tour 2006, which sold 1,097,585 tickets last year and, with a higher average ticket price ($80), wound up as the most successful country tour in history, besting even Garth Brooks’ historic runs in the mid-‘90s.

Soul2Soul 2007, the third go-round for this joint husband-and-wife moneymaker, is looking to beat that. Year-to-date numbers are calculated differently, with averages per venue rather than ticket prices and audience counts. Last year’s tour averaged $1 million per venue; so far this year, Soul2Soul is averaging $1.7 million per venue, second this year only to the Police reunion stadium tour ($3.2 million). Chesney, again, hits the Top 3, grossing more than $1 million a show, making two of the top three tours country. The Rowdy Frynds Tour featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams Jr., and Brad Paisley/Kellie Pickler are also among the Top 20 according to this week’s numbers, with new road shows from Martina McBride/Little Big Town and Toby Keith’s Big Dog Daddy Tour safe bets for the Top 10 at the end of the year.

Noticeably absent: Hip-hop. Though still a fixture on contemporary hit radio playlists, hip-hop/rap has seldom been able to generate crowds. Part of the problem, Waddell says, is that rap is not viable in a large venue. “It’s a live performance of a guy with a mike and some dancers. That’s not as compelling as people whaling away on guitars and singing and who can play. It may be exciting in small club venues but it doesn’t translate in a large arena.”

So why does country manage so well? Opinions are as varied as the music itself:

Repackaging one’s youth and selling it back in the digital era has enormous appeal. It’s not much of a leap to go from Southern rock’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, yesterday, to country’s Van Zant, today.

“In the `70s I listened to rock but in the `80s I didn’t like the way rock went and I started to listen to country,” says Miami fan Tim Morgan, 48. “There’s such a wide variety of styles in country music. You can go from soft ballads to Montgomery Gentry to Southern rock like it was in the `70s.”

Country radio has also absorbed new music from acts that once belonged to rock: Bon Jovi, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, Sheryl Crow—and more are on the way.

“Country has become the pop radio as we knew it in the `70s and `80s,” says singer McGraw, who will open his solo portion of the concert with a cover of the Steve Miller Band’s 1973 hit “The Joker.” “There’s more variety in our format and it has taken over being the mainstream radio.”

Country music is getting more exposure on national television today, including on morning programs like Good Morning America and The Today Show, says WKIS-FM afternoon DJ “Downtown” Billy Brown, who also cites the stars’ “accessibility” at meet-‘n’-greet events such as Nashville’s CMA Music Festival every June.

Ironically, the mainstream pop factory “American Idol” has been responsible for creating more viable stars in the country field than it has managed in pop, rock or R&B. Thanks to “Idol,” country scored hits from Carrie Underwood, Josh Gracin, Bucky Covington, Kellie Pickler and Kelly Clarkson, who re-recorded her 2004 pop hit “Because of You” as a duet with Reba McEntire.

Loyalty helps, too. “The format doesn’t churn artists the way it happens in other formats,” adds Carole Bowen, the South Florida country station’s general manager. “People will be a star longer and the labels build stars differently in our genre.”

True enough. Even 1970s country icon Kenny Rogers was able to score a couple of hits in the format this millennium; and George Strait never misses hitting No. 1 with singles from his annual albums despite a career dating back more than 20 years.

Conversely, country has been able to create younger arena acts rapidly through sweat equity on the road.

“Tim McGraw went out in the `90s and opened for George Strait. Then Kenny Chesney opened for McGraw. Then Rascal Flatts opened for Chesney. These were key artist development moves, putting them in front of a lot of people each step of the way,” said Wadell. “If you are a performer—which country music artists unquestionably are—that’s how you win fans.”

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