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WORLDWIDE GROOVE
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Music City
THE ROAD WARRIORS:
BRIAN O'CONNELL
7/13/16

President of Country Touring, Live Nation

The only thing Brian O’Connell loves as much as Notre Dame football is putting all manner of country acts on the road, be it at festivals like this year’s debut two-day Lake Shake in Chicago, putting Jason Aldean into Fenway or orchestrating the endless stream of country tours heading into America’s amphitheaters. An acolyte of Cellar Door’s Jack Boyle, the man they call “BO’C” promoted Brooks & Dunn’s Lollapalooza knockoff The Neon Circus. From there, he built Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts and Brad Paisley into certified hard-ticket headliners and never looked back, most recently taking Luke Bryan as well as Aldean into stadiums.

With all the touring options out there—festivals, sheds, sponsored runs like CMT’s Women of Country, radio shows and fighting it out on your own—what’s the best way to develop these artists’ careers for the long haul? It’s not one size fits all, but what are the indicators for the best path?

I feel strongly that you actually have to go out and see the artist in a natural setting—to see if there is a connection with however many fans there are in a particular setting. If there is an “it” factor, it shows pretty clearly when they’re onstage. Then replicate the environment where they thrive. If that environment is in a 100-seat club, then play those until demand exceeds the supply. And hone the craft. The first goal shouldn’t necessarily be to get a “first of three” on a 75-market tour. That can actually be counterproductive. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Who are three acts we should be paying attention to from a live standpoint, and why?

There’s an exciting group of artists that are really starting to find their rhythm from a live point of view. Thomas Rhett has reeled off six straight #1s, and he’s really becoming comfortable on stage and entertaining. He’s using the hits to work his whole show into a cohesive event. I really think he’s going to continue his ascension into a major headlining attraction, and the next record will be a big key in putting all the pieces together. Sam Hunt is working on his next record, and I’m excited to hear where he goes on this one. From a live point of view, he’s really coming into his own, and he’s so comfortable in his own show, you would think he’s been doing this forever. Chris Young continues to stack up a big pile of hits, and his live show continues to get better and better. Hit songs have a way of doing that, and I look for him to really elevate his profile in the next 12 months. I know this is four, but Cole Swindell continues to rack up hits too, and is constantly working. He’s obsessive about his performances, and that makes me want to work just as hard as he does in getting the right looks for him in the very crowded field of male artists.

Once again, country acts are out on the road year after year after year. While rock and pop acts often go years between touring. How do the country acts sustain that level of demand? And as country becomes more pop, will that change?

If I had a crystal ball and could anticipate the demand chain and its ups and downs, I wouldn’t be riding in a bus. Country music has more performance opportunities, not just tours but also fairs, festivals and clubs, which offer programming in the bulk. The smart managers and artists will continue to blend these opportunities with what we call the “Hard Ticket” circuit, and it seems like they tour every year, but in reality, a lot don’t. Country just stands out because of the lack of subgenres, like Hot AC, alt-rock, metal, etc. The big boys, like, say, U2, will go several years between tours, but also have to remember they’re global tours that can last up to three years. They just don’t play Kansas City every year.