Moultrie Observer

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February 19, 2012

Lady Antebellum celebrates the state fair circuit

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Playing under the stars, often just yards from carnival rides, food vendors and even livestock, is a warm-weather tradition that’s embedded deeply in country music. No matter how successful a country act may become — and reigning CMA Vocal Group of the Year Lady Antebellum, who notched huge debut-week sales of more than 347,000 for the chart-topping “Own the Night,” is a perfect example of this — they often keep the summer fair-and-festival circuit on their itinerary.

In 2011, high-profile acts including Jason Aldean, Brad Paisley and Reba all entertained fairgoers in grandstands; even Sugarland soldiered on after the tragedy at the Indiana State Fair. In   summers past, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban have passed through fair     gates. Yes, pop artists     are also well represented, but for country artists fairs are often where     they got their first big break.

“A huge milestone in our career was the Delaware State Fair,” said Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, seated on a couch in the dressing room of bandmates Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley prior to their show that September night at The Great New York State Fair in Syracuse. “We drove a Winnebago up there to open for Carrie Underwood, and because Carrie was headlining, there were so many butts in the seats already. That was a huge, huge moment for us, and we’ve been back since.”

“We come back to fairs year after year because a lot of them took a chance on us in the beginning,” Kelley agreed. “Fairs feel a part of the tradition of country music. To a certain extent, you have a built-in audience. You have people that may come to the fair just because they come every year. They may not be fans of ours, but hopefully we can win them over and then they’ll come see us on our headlining tour. There’s a marketing aspect to it.”

A few days later, Lady Antebellum’s manager Gary Borman concurred with Kelley’s assessment.

“Not necessarily everyone at a fair is a fan of your artist,” said the owner/founder of Borman Entertainment. “But they’re there to enjoy the fair and all that it offers. You’re able to reach people that you otherwise may not reach in an arena or in a theater.”

Indeed, large fair attendances add significantly to what Borman calls “residual exposure,” bringing a wide, diverse spectrum of people, often at very little expense. “You’re not targeting a fan base as much as you are a lifestyle,” he noted. “It used to be that you could call it ‘rural,’ but having been to some   of these fairs, I wouldn’t say they’re all rural anymore. They’re everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, there’s also a hefty payday to be had for the artist. At first glance, having a smaller capacity and fewer seats than an arena or amphitheater would seem to equal less net. However, the stripped-down nature of the fair concerts prohibits, or   even liberates, acts from hauling around big-     budget set pieces and lighting.

“From a business standpoint, it’s great,” said Kelley. “People don’t realize it, but the fairs usually take care of the artists really well. You don’t have to take quite as much production as you would in an arena, so you can keep your costs down.”

It’s all a matter of routing, according to Borman. Plotting a tour of fairs and festivals is more complicated than routing an arena tour, as the dates and locations are often spread out, both on the map and on the calendar. As a result, promoters have to sweeten the        deal to secure a popular act.

“When you’re on a normal tour, you’re routing things in a very sequential, logical and geographical way,” he said. “There’s a great efficiency in doing that. But when you’re booking fairs, that is somewhat of an impossibility.”

As a result, the fairs must typically pay the artist more, both to attract them and get them to commit to performing a one-off date. In short, the more planning and travel required, the bigger the artist’s payday.

“Because it’s a one-off, the fairs will pay you a lot more money than you otherwise would potentially make,” Borman confirmed. “So your grosses go up, your expenses go down and the end result can be very lucrative, from both a financial     and a marketing standpoint.”

Given the financial upside, it’s easy to see why artists might be happy to leave behind their elaborate productions. But the bare-essentials arrangement can also benefit fans eager to get the most musical bang for their buck.

By using the fair’s stage and stock lighting and adding only an occasional flourish, such as a backdrop or additional lights, the bands and crews reduce the time needed to swap out equipment between performers.

“The set changes are quicker,” Scott said. “It’s easier on us and then the fans hear more music. So it’s a win-win.”

Haywood added that fairgoers can reap more than just musical rewards: There are savings to be had, especially for families. “When you’re in the middle of a downtown, at an arena, you have to pay to park. You have to pay to get in. There are all these hard ticket (add-ons),” he explained, noting how the price of entry to some fairs includes admission to the concert. “At some of the fairs we’ve played, it’s free seating in the grandstand.”

There’s also the allure of accessibility for those who don’t live near a major metropolis or would rather not fight city traffic to get to a concert.

“It’s a chance for people that wouldn’t drive to, say, Atlanta to see you,” said Haywood, who made his own annual pilgrimage to the Georgia State Fair as a teen. “You went every year, regardless of who was playing. Fairs are the lifeblood of country music. I don’t think it’s something we’re going to be done with. They’re always going to be a part of our career.”

Kelley seconded that notion.

“Realistically, we won’t be selling out arenas for our entire career,” he reflected. “Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to, but if not, we want to build a piece of solid longevity in terms of a touring career. We can still come out here and expect to do 40 fairs every year.”

The fair model also transcends business and financial concerns. The casual settings fulfill the very real need by artists to connect with their audiences on a human level. While arena shows often emphasize spectacle, there is a spontaneous, down-home nature inherent to the fairgrounds.

For Scott, that means the opportunity to talk onstage about the origin of a song or recount a moment from her own day at the fair.

“This is a much more listening crowd, where you can tell stories behind the songs,” she observed. “In an arena, the show can sometimes come across as impersonal. With this, they get to see our personalities. It’s not just a bunch of fireworks and lasers.”

Later that evening, the band illustrated this in a personal way. Scott’s fiancé Chris Tyrell and his family were in the audience, and Kelley took time to rib his engaged bandmate playfully, who gamely pointed out her soon-to-be in-laws.

“Some of our best moments at fairs and festivals are the spontaneous ones, where I catch the spirit a little bit and jump into the audience,” Kelley said. “Or we point out somebody with a poster that is kind of funny and put them on the spot. That’s when you get in those atmospheres. It feels less polished, which is nice.”

“People want to know you in a setting like this and feel a connection,” Haywood concurred.

But Borman cautioned that despite such an appealing environment, artists would be wise to not schedule fair tours every summer. In addition to risking overexposure, the artist might too often exclude the arena-fan demographic.

“From our strategic position, you don’t do the fairs every year,” he said. “You alternate with arenas. You’re reaching slightly different audiences that way. When a fairgoer sees ‘Lady Antebellum’ on the marquee and they’re at the fair, they may say, ‘Well, shoot, we’re here. Let’s go to the show.’ That may not be the same person who would go out and buy a Lady Antebellum ticket to the arena.”

Still, as Kelley expressed earlier, that fair fan just might want to catch Lady A’s full bells-and-whistles indoor show someday — especially if the group continues its upward trajectory and mimics the successes of past fair headliners frequently mentioned to the band during their fair meet-and-greets.

“Every time, fans tell us stories about when Kenny Chesney came. And these were at fairs and festivals that were as small as they come. They would say, ‘It’s so cool you all are here. Let me tell you a story about when Kenny came. Or let me tell you about when a guy named Garth Brooks was here,’” Kelley recalled. “It’s cool to think that maybe one day they’ll be saying, ‘We had Lady Antebellum here a few years ago.’”

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