Thought Piece: The Popularity Paradox In Country Music

We’ve been hearing for a while now how popular Country music is here in the UK and what a flourishing scene there is for both home-grown and imported artists and that is definitely true, as evidenced last year by the introduction of new festivals onto the circuit reflecting an interest from the general public in all things Americana. Black Deer and The Long Road festival were welcome additions to long-standing events like C2C, Buckle and Boots, FSA and Millport amongst others. We’ve also seen the rise of UK performers like The Shires, The Wandering Hearts and Catherine McGrath begin to break away from their regional fanbases and become artists who put ‘bums on seats’ in venues around the country. The arrival of the American tours, the burgeoning prevalence of a summer of festivals and the higher profile of UK artists is great, of course, but not without its problems – there have been a number of clashes that have divided crowds and the positioning of some of the events doesn’t seem to have always been thought through meaning that ticket sales are not being maximised in what is still an embryonic and very limited market: and that is the popularity paradox we have right now in the world of Country music here in the UK. The scene isn’t as strong and isn’t as commercially viable as it initially appears despite what numbers on social media sometimes suggest and despite the thousands of people that rock up to the O2 every March for the C2C Festival.

I wrote an article for ‘Your Life in a Song’ last winter speculating that we had reached ‘Peak Country’ here in the UK. In that piece, I proposed that the explosion of interest that started somewhere around 2015 had possibly reached saturation point, highlighting the clash in November 2017 when Brothers Osborne played one venue in Birmingham and Maren Morris another – dividing a very fragile and very niche market. It is great that the UK crowd is viewed as large enough and robust enough to cope with tours from both those artists but it didn’t seem commercially sensible to have them intersecting in the same town on the same night. That problem hasn’t gone away and has led to some interesting consequences, highlighting once more, the over estimation we might have arrived at in thinking that Country music is a commercial force right now in the UK.

The biggest clash this year came in London on Saturday 27th October when Zac Brown Band headlined the Bluesfest festival at the O2 and Kacey Musgraves brought her ‘Golden Hour’ tour to Wembley Arena on the same night. If promoters can’t sell seats for two genre shows in London on the same night then there is little hope for them being able to do it in any other town or city in the UK and in this instance it was the Zac Brown Band who lost out, with some of their tickets being available to buy for as little as £3 a few days in advance of the show if you knew where to look online. Both events also coincided with Country Music Week this year (a little more about that one later) and so might have suffered from ‘gig fatigue’ or ‘wallet decimation’ too. Whatever the jigsaw of reasons, they combined to hit the Bluesfest organisers hard in the pocket and highlighted what a limited crowd Country music still is.

Another clash, since resolved, saw both the Black Deer festivals and Buckle and Boots guys announce their intention to repeat this year’s clash by holding the 2019 versions of themselves on the same day again next year. Wisely, Buckle and Boots decided to ‘break first’ and move their festival back a few weeks to the later Bank Holiday weekend in May to avoid splitting their commercial viability and target demographic, although this is not without its issues either. Kip Moore’s recently announced UK tour sees him on Manchester on the Sunday night of the Buckle and Boots weekend meaning that for fans of Country in the North-West there is now a hard choice to be made between attending one of those two shows. A little due diligence on the part of Moore’s promoter might well have given them a pause for thought as to whether or not that was a good idea given weekend tickets for Buckle and Boots have been on sale for a while now.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Midland and the Brothers Osborne were criss-crossing the UK at the same time, often appearing in the same town within a couple of days of each other and whilst there wasn’t a direct clash, social media told me that some people could only attend one of the two shows due to childcare, work or financial issues.

Promoters of Country and Americana in the UK need to do a little more investigative research going forward when booking tours than they did five years ago. That is a good thing, it’s a sign that there is a crowd and a market here but if you want to maximise your ticket sale opportunities some consideration has to be given to size and fragility of that market. Already May 2019 is beginning to look packed, with tours from LanCo, Chris Young and Kip Moore announced and in the bag. Of course, there will always be pinch points and times when the major American artists won’t be in the UK – namely from the end of May to the beginning or end of September because this is when they get out on the road in the States, playing arenas, rodeos, theatres and state fairs across the south of the USA but January here is quiet, with only Dan and Shay and Charles Esten being around, February is quiet – why not tour then? March is a no-no because C2C dominates the whole month in terms of what’s on offer and how much everything costs so I can see why promoters plump for certain months of the year but I think the time has come to try and spread it out a little.

Another issue for scheduling appears to be the propensity for promoters and event organisers to plan shows in and around school holidays. Country music has always appealed to an older demographic and whilst there are (thankfully) a healthy amount of twenty-somethings out there who don’t have the family responsibilities or childcare issues that older fans have and therefore can go to gigs whenever the hell they like, there are a lot of us that can’t. Buckle and Boots moving their festival to the late May Bank holiday weekend in 2019 is great for those who can stay on the Sunday night now and make their way home at their leisure on the Monday because they are not at work but it rules out those of us who go away with the children during a vital school holiday week. Country Music Week, this year, was also in the school half term holiday, this time in October – which not only meant it was a non-starter for people going away with children, it is also harder to get childcare for those fans that are still around and the cost of travel and accommodation for everyone in London that week was more expensive than it needed to be because hotels and the associated travel industry puts prices up during school holidays.

Lanco’s newly announced tour of the UK in early May 2019 is across the first Bank Holiday weekend. It won’t have a massive impact on ticket sales but if that scheduling means that only ten people can’t go to each gig, in a small, fragile market, that can hit the promoter in the pockets.

Last year I went to see Kristian Bush and Lindsay Ell the week after the C2C festival in Birmingham. A few weeks ago I went to see Chase Rice and Jimmie Allen at the same venue – guess which show had the way bigger crowd? Despite Kristian Bush being much more a ‘name’ in Country music and, to me, a bigger draw, there were way more people at the Chase Rice show because it was a Saturday night, for a start, and it wasn’t following on in the aftermath of a major festival event when people are financially and physically tired.

Who suffers the most from these scheduling clashes? Well, for me, it is the UK artists that receive the knock-on effect. People choose to see the American names over the British ones and if there is a ‘fixture pile-up’ in any given town or any certain month then it is the home-grown acts that will lose ticket sales, as people elect to see the major Nashville players over a regional British act. Of course, Kip Moore’s promoter and LanCo’s booking agent don’t care about the nature of the UK Country scene and it’s not their job to pay it a second regard, but we could help ourselves and help our local and regional artists develop and grow interest in Country music by trying to avoid clashes or ‘same-week shows’. The more British people that get out and see Country music, the more they come to realise it isn’t all just belts, boots, and hats. Which can only be good for the genre as a whole in the long run.

So, that is the popularity paradox in a nutshell. Tour promoters need to work a little harder and dig a little deeper when scheduling a tour is an obvious message. Try to avoid ‘same week shows’ for the sake of people’s jobs, wallets and childcare needs. Stay away from school holidays and public holidays would be another recommendation I have. You are lessening your economic potential by making it more difficult for parents to get to gigs. If I was Post Malone’s tour manager I wouldn’t give this a second thought because parents are not a part of his core appeal or demographic, but Country music 100% is and in a country where the genre is still delicate, still growing and not robust enough to cope with multiple shows in multiple cities, and certainly not two shows on the same night in the same city, it doesn’t take a genius at tour organisation to see that a simple re-structure or re-routing could put even more feet through the doors of the venue and bums on seats. Work smarter and you’ll reap the benefits of increased ticket sales and bigger social media buzz.

James Daykin
Twitter – @rockjames
https://jamesdaykin.journoportfolio.com/