The US/UK Divide – Why Is It So Hard For UK Country Acts To Attract A Crowd?

LifeInASong_UK

This year has seen an explosion of live shows announced from major American Country performers in the UK. The likes of Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Kip Moore, Thomas Rhett, Chase Rice, Frankie Ballard, Canaan Smith, Sam Outlaw and many others have played here in the UK or are scheduled to stop by and peddle their wares at some point in 2017. These are fecund times for American artists who seem to be finally realising that building a fan base in the UK can be a springboard for further success and name recognition at home. However, whilst this is the ‘best of times’ for those artists, many UK performers are still playing to crowds of 20 – 30 people in small, dingy rooms in pubs up and down the length of the country, struggling to get people in through the door, even on weekends. This was brought home to me fairly recently when I attended an excellent song writers night in Birmingham, jointly organised by CEI Promotions and Your Life in a Song. On the bill were three of this country’s best known and most talented performers: Liv Austen, Darren Hodson from Southern Companion and Holloway Road. The evening was a terrific example of the array of talent that we have here in the UK from three diverse acts all operating under the ‘Country’ banner and Dan & Charlotte, the promoters, had worked tirelessly in advertising and promoting the show across differing platforms, yet turnout was not what they would have hoped for on a Friday night in England’s second city, a renowned music city with a diverse spread of cultures and rich history of rock, folk and blues. It got me to thinking about why people are prepared to spend hundreds, even thousands of pounds attending the C2C Festival each year, why people make the effort to go and see random American acts, (how many people bought tickets to see Chase Rice in the Autumn and then went and checked out his music afterwards?) and yet remain generally apathetic to supporting live music from UK writers and performers? The answer, it seems, is a complex jigsaw of reasons, according to the fans, writers and musicians I asked on Facebook.

Chris Logan, guitarist in The Rising, was one of the first to respond on Facebook about the C2C v grass roots issue. “I think it has a lot to do with a lot of people just supporting high profile gigs such as C2C or major US acts who may be touring. For some, C2C is the only country gig they go to. I find most simply aren’t interested in the grass roots scene. It’s the same in all genres. Very few people seem to want to get out and support new independent music. Likewise, there aren’t many avenues to promote grass roots shows. It’s hard to reach the mass C2C audience.” He said, clearly having had experience of what it is like trying to tap into the hearts and minds of those twenty thousand plus people who attend the C2C Festival each year. Other people confirmed this view. Dave Watkins said, “A large percentage of Country fans in the UK are only interested in the big US names, so will come out for those, hence why C2C sells so well, despite costing a fortune to go to. A lot of this crowd won’t consider exploring further and will pretty much dismiss UK artists just because they are from the UK.”

A number of people defended that position, explaining that they liked the slick, American sound of acts like Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line but didn’t like the more earthy, almost folk-driven sound of UK Country music. It is true that for many years, Country music in this country was either knock-about Honky Tonk stuff, veering right across to the Chas ‘n’ Dave end of the spectrum or it was folk-infused with the sound of the provinces running through it. We have a strong regional influence in much of our ‘roots’ based music in this Country, from the Gaelic influences of the north, down through the shipyards of the north-east, across to the Irish influences in Liverpool & Manchester, ending up with the barn dances and sea shanties of Devon and Cornwall. The Shires and Ward Thomas are amongst the first wave of Country acts that have tried to popularize their sound in the same, slick, chart orientated way that many American acts do and look at how successful they have been! It is also true that ‘big name’ artists draw crowds simply out of novelty value or brand recognition. It is much more exciting going to see Lady Antebellum in a clean, safe arena than it is an up and coming artist on the dirty streets of Birmingham in a pub in the back end of nowhere.

Income, time and tour schedules are also clearly a factor. Sarah Jones said, “I can justify driving 4 hours to C2C for a weekend when I will be seeing so many acts. To travel 2-3 hours to the nearest venue on a supposedly UK tour schedule on a week night when I have young children and work is just not feasible.” It is amazing how many tours these days seem to skip Saturday nights, surely the most lucrative night of the week in the music industry, when people can travel and babysitters haven’t got school the next morning. Kip Moore’s October tour of the UK has no Saturday nights, Queen are playing loads of dates across the UK in November but not on a Saturday, no Saturday’s either on the upcoming Little Big Town tour – and these are the big draw acts!!!! It appears mid-week gigs are a no-no for Country fans.

Cost was a recurring theme as well. Ticket prices for UK and smaller acts might well be very reasonable but it is the added extras involved that appear to be prohibitive. Jodie Clapham agreed. “Honestly, I can’t afford to do it all. Most US acts do Manchester. That’s a 2hr and a bit drive round trip plus parking costs on top of ticket price. I can’t afford to drive that every month or more. I have a 4 yr old. Between C2C in March and her birthday in April I am skint. UK or US if you come after C2C and before June I have a party and gifts to sort before I even consider going out myself, then it’s the childcare costs of going out as well.” It seems Country music generally appeals to older fans, tied down by the constraints of families, jobs and mortgages – all prohibitive factors to getting out on a Wednesday night and driving twenty miles down the road to support an independent artist. Gareth Wilson agreed. “One might (mischievously) say that the relative success of Radio 2 friendly UK Country acts isn’t reaching out to the younger audience. Mumford & Sons brought modernised Folk to the Glastonbury audience. We need a younger, more dynamic, dare I say, rockier UK act to break through.”

Katie Birch summed up many people’s feelings when she said, simply, “The market is flooded and we are too broke to see ‘em all.” A ‘flooded market’ are words no-one ever expected to use in conjunction with Country music in the UK five years ago but seems to actually be becoming a reality. How can UK acts hope to compete when people are in the luxurious position of choosing between big name American acts. Kay Louise Lee agreed. “The issue with the U.K country gigs is overkill, the same artists perform regularly around the U.K. They are accessible, whereas American artists are less accessible and create more of a stir when they pay a visit. We are still a small genre and we are spreading ourselves thin.” Indeed, even recent tours by ‘name acts’ like Frankie Ballard, Andrew Combs and Sam Outlaw have been less than enthusiastically attended, so if even the smaller size American acts are failing to pull in the numbers what chance have the independent UK performers got?

Promotion of shows seems to be an issue with many people. Shelley Depledge put forward this idea. “There are a load of terrible managers and promoters out there who don’t know how to promote, when to schedule, how to choreograph a performance, who their target audience is etc. As a band manager, I can say this lol.” This view was echoed by many, including Gill Howells. “Finding out about UK acts is sometimes difficult and there are rarely artists who play around Wales,” she said, tapping into a sentiment expressed by a number of Welsh people who joined in the discussion. Guitarist and promoter, Simon James, agreed. “My issue, as someone who runs a large music marketing business, is that people expect ‘fans’ to turn up based on the fact they’re playing. There’s little gravity around the act as they don’t market themselves, share music, content and videos. So why would people go watch them?” It appears that despite a number of websites and Twitter feeds out there advertising shows, many people need connecting with in more old fashioned ways. Is that a call back to the older demographic of the typical Country fan, not being as social media savvy and not engaging with the genre on a deeper level than Radio 2 and the C2C Attendees Facebook page? It is clear that artists and promoters alike are going to need to work harder if they want to build a fan base for themselves or their acts.

Finally, it appears that the UK Country Music (UKCM) scene itself might be partly to blame. There are a number of people, promoters, bands and artists out there that dominate the UKCM scene and their very presence and demeanor seems to put some people off attending shows.  Lu Dyer had this to say about UKCM. “There is an awful lot of aggression from UKCM supporters. I like UKCM, I go to see the artists I like, but so often I see people who don’t, or haven’t seen UK artists, getting abuse because they haven’t. It’s assumed that because you’re from the UK you should automatically support UKCM, regardless of your musical preference. I find it off-putting.” Musician, Carl Crane, took this idea further, hinting that it was time for a change of guard in the UK Country music scene. “For me we need more events and venues with a focus purely on where country is right now rather than line dancing and boots and buckles. It’s an image that haunts our music and with so many clubs still practicing it the genre will never gain the credibility it deserves.” Many people are still unaware that we do have a British Country Music Association (BCMA) in England, who hold an annual awards ceremony every October, this year in the glamour hotspot of Wolverhampton. Surely the BCMA should be at the forefront of promoting UK Country music, like the CMA is across the pond? I know resources are somewhat different over here but they are still a largely silent organisation to many that doesn’t seem to play much of an active role in promoting live music, or, as Carl Crane would attest to, the ‘right’ sort of live music.

So, what does that leave us with? Not only is it a struggle for UK Country acts to build a live audience, the small to mid-level American acts like Frankie Ballard and Sam Outlaw are also finding it a challenge drawing more than 100 people to their gigs and yet C2C will sell in excess of 20,000 tickets at three figure sums per ticket so there obviously is a market out there. Maybe we have over-estimated the interest in Country music in the UK beyond a pleasant weekend away in London each year and humming along to something on Radio 2? Maybe the fans actually aren’t out there at all really. Phillip Bent agreed on Facebook. “I don’t think the country fan base in the UK is as big as people think. I try to get to every country type gig in Manchester as possible and I can guarantee that I could name the majority of most of those people in the audience (approximately 30) before I even get there!”

Whatever the reason, and it is clear that there isn’t a simple, straightforward answer to this, it is obvious that we are not in some sort of golden, new age nirvana where huge swathes of the UK are all hunched over 2Country Radio listening to music all day or furiously tapping away on their keyboards searching for gigs in Bristol, Birmingham or Bury. Sure, Country music is more popular than it was five years ago. Yes, the C2C Festival is the highlight of most Country fans’ year – but for a great many it starts and stops there, happy to plod round the O2, stumbling across bands that the rest of us have seen already in places like Bush Hall in London or the back rooms of pubs and clubs the length and the breadth of the country. Most Country fans seem happy with that, happy with a trip out to a nice, warm safe local theatre to see The Shires, who they hear on Radio 2 and that is fine. But The Shires, who started off in the same dingy rooms on weekday nights that many acts are still playing now, are proof that the glass ceiling can be broken. They didn’t get a free pass to the mainstream, like a ‘get out of jail’ card handed to them by Bob Harris or anything – they got there because Ben Earle is a terrific songwriter with an ear for the radio audience and because Crissie can sing the hell out of the telephone directory (do they even have that anymore?!). So, whilst it’s a frustrating profession, being a UK Country music artist, there is still that slight glimmer of success waiting at the end of the tunnel – there is a crowd out there, there are fans to be found – The Shires and Ward Thomas are proof of that – you just have to crack the innumerable barriers standing in the way first. The biggest of those being apathy to live shows. I’ll leave you with the words of Shelley Depledge, an ex-band manager, who knows far more about this sort of thing than I do. “Bands take time to build a crowd in each place. Frankie Ballard and Charlie Worsham played to bigger crowds this year than last. You need to gig a place at least 10 times before you get a good crowd. If you give up, you weren’t meant to be doing it in the first place.”

James Daykin
Twitter – @rockjames

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