Brian J. O'Connell, Live Nation's president of country touring, stood in the frantic backstage at the CMT Music Awards in June, smiling. "You realize," he said, "there are four country stadium shows going on this weekend."
O'Connell wasn't hyping. In addition to the Country Music Assn.'s annual CMA Music Festival, which packs Nashville's LP Field for four consecutive nights, Kenny Chesney was performing at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.; Brad Paisley was taking over Progressive Field in Cleveland; and Taylor Swift was standing room only at Ford Field in Detroit.
Though many in the music business have been ruing anemic ticket sales and imploded attempts at stadium tours by rock's biggest acts over the last few years, country music, the genre nobody cool admits liking, is doing what no other can: building stadium-sized headliners and expanding its heartland franchises in very large ways.
"Value, value, value," O'Connell, who's promoted Paisley and Rascal Flatts stadium shows, says in explaining why. "The first three rules are simple: ticket price, strong multiple acts and longer days."
Louis Messina, chief executive of the Messina Group, executive vice president of AEG Live, and the promoter for Chesney and Swift's tours, is even more specific. "The highest price for Kenny is $110, and tickets go all the way down to $25. Taylor doesn't have a ticket over $89.50.
"Country artists are fan-friendly, and that transcends what's onstage to the price, the vibe, what goes on all day. They put out the welcome sign: Come into the party. Let's have fun."
And that's the goal. From the moment you hit the parking lot, there is a sense of camaraderie, cold beer, new friends, people grilling. Get a little closer, and there are carnival-like midways with games that reflect the headliner — be it Paisley's Water World with the flume and fishing tanks or Rascal Flatts' Why Wait Wedding Chapel and a fun zone, second stages with emerging artists, face painters and vendors. Inside the stadium, it's an undeclared nation of country music fans united to sing the songs that are their life.
"You can follow the line," says Ray Waddell, Billboard's senior editor for touring. "George Strait, who was the king, went into stadiums, and he had Tim McGraw — not to mention Alan Jackson, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks — and they did business.
"McGraw took Kenny Chesney out with him after that. Chesney took Rascal Flatts, who've taken Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift — all of whom have become stadium-sized on some level. Nobody's better at 'artist development' and packaging than country."
There's also demand. Clarence Spaulding, one of country's top managers, remains cautious.
"You need enough music to sustain that kind of a show," he said. "But you also need to know you can sell the tickets. You can sell a couple nights in an arena, and may not be able to do 50,000 in one night."
Unlike many rock and pop acts that tour every few years, country acts are on the road year in and year out. Chesney's fans plan summer vacation around his shows, and Swift's audience is coming of age with her. Even Paisley, known for his musicianship as much as his wry humor, has created an alternative reality based on fishin', four-wheelin' and small town good times.
"Only a handful of acts can do this. You have to be patient. You have to do the work, lay the foundation," O'Connell says, adding that a stadium performance signals a career pinnacle: "And when it's happening, there is no feeling in the world like being on a stadium stage."
Since 2005, Chesney — a four-time CMA Entertainer of the Year — has made stadiums a cornerstone of his touring profile. Beginning with three, Chesney has built his franchise to a dozen over the course of a summer. This year, Swift is doing eight stadiums, including capacity business at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, Detroit's Ford Field and two nights at the Boston area's Gillette Stadium, playing to 110,000 fans.
"In 2009, she was offered the middle slot on a major tour," Scott Borchetta, president of Big Machine, Valory and Republic Records, says of his biggest act. "She'd done 40 or 50 headlining dates under the radar. We looked at the metrics — and decided to go for it.
"Our mantra was attack all media. She's the first act to break at this level through MySpace and Twitter, but she was also going to radio, doing interviews and staying after shows as an opening act, meeting her fans. Some nights, the line would be 1,000 people — and she didn't care. She wanted that connection."
That hands-on connection is something country music has always done well.
"Country is more high tech and social media savvy than it gets credit for," Waddell says. "But it's not a substitute for the basics: Go to the radio stations, play the show, stay after and sign those autographs. Talk to the fans, because when you have that physical moment, you become part of their life."
It is also a genre that makes people feel welcome, and via radio, especially, fosters a community spirit. The genre is itself an identifier.
"We are inclusionary," O'Connell says. "Rock bands are exclusionary by nature: They're rebels and outliers. We're all about bringing people together, having a good time, feeling safe.
Spaulding recognizes the power — even with extra costs — in mounting a show of this magnitude. "It becomes a water cooler kind of thing. Whether people are going to the show or not, it's a topic of conversation. The sparkle starts a few weeks out, and honestly, lasts weeks after the band leaves town, especially for the ones going."
The costs are extreme: Staging can be a half a million for each show, with the labor bill alone for laying flooring over a field $100,000. According to Messina, "All your money is at 35,000 tickets or above."
Given the money involved, the risks and the work, why would anyone undertake this ordeal?
Joe Galante, former chairman of Sony Music Nashville who presided over the rise of both Chesney and Paisley, says: "Touring is how acts build, and stadiums are like jet fuel: It's hyperspeed, more opportunities, more excitement.
"If you do 10 stadium shows, you've just played to a half-million fans. That's more than some acts play to all year."
"Country music has historically been working man's music. We try to have a price point for everybody. If you want to be there, you can come and party with everyone," says Spaulding.