“It was a coincidence,” says Live Nation’s President of Country Touring Brian O’Connell. “This Pfizer plant in Portage—we drive by it on the way here.”

When the COVID shutdown happened, the lifelong Notre Dame fan decided to ride it out at his lake house in Southern Michigan, which provided him with a bucolic counter to the unthinkable stoppage—then the cancellation—of all live events. He had no reason to believe that venues would close for over a year, the touring industry would hemorrhage lifetime professionals or the world would be without concerts. As weeks stretched to months while the news kept shifting and artists struggled to pay their teams, he hunkered down. And then...

“My thing was, how can I get my people back to work? Get the touring people back to work?” O’Connell recalls. “I watched the reporting, if you could call it that—the conflicting stories—then the idea that the vaccine was happening seemed real. And the hope for everyone in our world was in that blue building I’d drive by on my way here. When I realized that, I literally got in my truck and drove down there to watch those first doses leave. It was emotional.”

Considering that O’Connell is the king of the Country Megaticket at Live Nation’s amphitheaters, the force behind four dominant country festivals—Brooklyn, Mich.’s Faster Horses, George, Wash.’s Watershed, Ft. Lauderdale’s Tortuga Festival and Dierks Bentley’s Seven Peaks in Colorado—and the promoter of choice for Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert and Brooks & Dunn since their Bubbapalooza Neon Circus in 2000, it was an emotional experience indeed.

In Austin, Louis Messina Jr., the AEG/Messina Touring Group founder known for his deep personal relationships with George Strait, Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Ed Sheeran and more, was feeling the same pain. “We were in the middle of The Lumineers tour, Little Big Town, Blake Shelton—and it just turned off. Nothing. And no one knew anything, either. We kept moving dates, kept talking to the buildings, local governments, kept hoping they’d figure it out. But we had to accept ‘I don’t have the answer.’”

Watching venues close, artists lose touring personnel to other lines of work, the ever-changing information built frustration. But as talk of the vaccine turned to delivery and inoculation centers opened, even knowing things would continue to change, the need to get started was critical.

“By January, it felt like there was hope, a new day—vaccines being distributed,” O’Connell, who has over 300 shows on the books at presstime, remembers. “But April was bad. Look at the headlines, [NBC Nightly News host] Lester Holt leading the news with the spikes—in L.A., in Michigan, in Whereverville. But you also had baseball in Texas and Florida, bucking the trends.

“You have to look at the process. For one artist I work with, there were 37 versions of the routing. When you’d pick a date, there was no scientific way to know. Every day, capacities changed, the protocols revised; the city, the state, the buildings were constantly updating their mandates.”

Nonetheless, Eric Church made up his mind he was going. He wasn’t sure how, but, as Messina told Pollstar on the verge of his on-sale date, “We still don’t have all our deals done with all the buildings, because everything keeps changing—but he’s coming.”

Two months later, Messina marvels, “I’m having conversations with building managers, who are very eager for shows, because they don’t make money if people aren’t going through those doors. Everyone wants people to be safe—the artists especially want their fans to be safe—but everyone wants to get back to what we do too.

“Here’s the reality: A, everybody wants to work; B, everybody needs to work. My meter’s been running for a year. I’ve got 30 people, an office; those expenses don’t stop, whether we’re home or not. I’ve pulled together the greatest team in the world when it comes to promoting shows, and I know this is when they need to be protected. If that’s my reality, what about some of these bigger acts?”

Church, Bentley and Luke Combs all made sure their teams were paid and didn’t have to worry in all the pandemic uncertainty. But that costs money, so getting back to work was critical.

“It seemed like every day there was a setback somehow,” O’Connell remembers. “On April 23, we started putting things on sale. I had tours scheduled for 2020, then 2021 and then moved further into 2021 again.

“The lawn ticket is the lowest entry point. Amphitheaters are outside. In some states, it’s getting people conditioned to seeing shows and experiencing this again. I’ve got Luke Bryan in Syracuse July 8—and until very recently, we were going to need a proof of vaccine for entry. We were looking at a very specific protocol at the time of booking, but now we’re good.”

Despite the yeehaw perception of Red State country fans or the teeming pictures coming off Nashville’s Lower Broadway strip of tourist honky-tonks, there are practical reasons country is back with a vengeance. As O’Connell explains, “Beyond the festivals, which are selling out lineup unseen in many cases, country knew we’d always be the first back, because we’re nimble. The shows are straightforward; there’s not the kind of production that requires a lot of people or months and months of creating the physical staging.”

“You have to get ready,” Messina concurs. “And you have to be ready to change positions and protocols at a moment’s notice. But that’s the blessing of having great teams. I work with great management teams, great road teams—so everyone can respond on a dime. Being the same people in a ‘road family,’ it’s different than trying to hire a crew for a tour like the rock world does.”

For Messina, the bulk of Church’s Gather Together Again tickets are gone. Shelton’s shows have done well, as has Little Big Town in 3k-8k-capacity theaters. For Strait, whose shows are makeup dates, there’s also a co-headlining slot on ACL Fest. Chesney opted to wait until 2022, in part because of the 20+ stadium dates in the mix.

“Everybody’s trying to put two years into one year,” Messina cautions. “And that’s competing with baseball, football, the Indy 500, WWE or UFC, because we’re not just competing with other music acts. I’ve read that most people go—on average—to 3.5 shows a year. Will they go to five shows in a month?

“If people want to go to a show, they’ll go. But people don’t have the bandwidth to do it all, they just don’t, and choices will be made. The established acts and the hot acts are gonna be fine. Luke Combs blew everything out; he’s young, hot and popular. But the ones who aren’t there yet or who’ve been hanging on, they’re the ones who’ll struggle.”

O’Connell recognizes the glutting, even with country’s wildly loyal fanbase. “If I take you to your favorite steakhouse and put your favorite steak in front of you, sure, you’re gonna be happy. If I put a second one down, you may try to eat it—or take some home. But if I put 10 steaks down in front of you, there’s no way.

“But the reality is, not all these tours are created equal, in spite of the glut of press releases. Is it ideal in a compressed schedule? Normally, we’d draw it out from January to October, but I’m asking myself the hard questions now. I had a show scheduled on a route sheet for Oct. 15 at Blossom, and we’re all like, ‘It’s just not worth it; we’ll do that market next year.’ Because the last thing you want is an artist to call or walk on my bus and go, ‘What were you thinking?’ At Mountainview, you can freeze your ass off in July—we know that. We’ve played shows in torrential downpours, horrible heat, cold. But this year, we’re trying to be smart about it.”

O’Connell also knows the generalizations being made about tours and how they’re selling require a granular look. “These are all really local stories. The collective tours—some are 20 dates, some are 35, some are a few weekends here and there—are pretty well spread out by nature. But there’s also a sense that some of these markets don’t really give you a picture of what they’re doing in terms of capacity, masking, vaccination requirements.

“California just opened back up. But if we went on sale there three weeks ago, with all of the changes, in some ways, getting people to believe the shows are gonna happen isn’t as simple as merely putting the tickets on sale.

“For us, it’s what happens from the on-sale date until the band hits the stage. We focus on each market individually, because Orange Beach, Ala.—did it ever close? Florida, maybe for a few months. Texas, it’s wide open. But that’s not Seattle, the Pacific Northwest or some of the more conservative markets when it comes to this virus.”

Messina, who hits his 49th year promoting concerts in November, concurs. “600,000 people actually died because of this pandemic, and how many millions got really sick? Texas was the second state after Florida that went ‘Everyone can get a shot,’ and at the H-E-B. [Grocery Co.], lots of people are still wearing masks. You have to take people’s comfort level into consideration.

“But you also know going to a show is like going to church or a sanctuary. You go and you feel so good walking out because you’ve been in the Holy Land for two, three hours. And that’s an experience you can’t have listening to an album—or watching a livestream. It’s not even close.”

“People want to come see music; they want to come together,” O’Connell echoes. “How they do it is going to vary from city to city, and it’s our job to figure it out. This is a once-in-a-generation event we’re living through; my kids have been living in the past and future tense, because there’s really been no present. So start there.

“Some schedules are soft-ticket dates; some are going to loosen up as the local requirements do. The reality is that, although the touring business has always been this great-race competition, we’ve never had so many people all having the same window to fit through. But the different markets are creating very different purchase patterns on the same tour.

“Do we have—to use your word—a glut of press releases? If X announces ‘a tour,’ which may be six dates, it looks exactly like someone doing 30 arena shows if you’re not looking closely. But here’s the reality: That’s what the industry sees with no explanation. The true reality is that, at the Akron Civic Center, this is the show they wanted because their community needs it. That’s a massive difference.”

O’Connell laughs when he says it. A journalism major, he knows to look beneath the sweeping, kneejerk headline and see what’s really going on. “At this point, it’s a consumer-confidence thing, getting the artists to engage. You build a story, you create a reason—and you remember that in a lot of these markets, the buildings are a community center, a place people come together to have fun, to feel alive and feel safe.”