How the Stagecoach Festival prospered in spite of a rotten economy
By R.J. Curtis
When the third annual, two-day Stagecoach Festival took place on April 25-26 of this year, an estimated 100,000 country fans turned out to see headliners Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley, along with dozens more acts on four different stages. It was a record crowd for the event. Stagecoach is a massive outdoor show, held on the spacious polo grounds in Indio, Calif., a desert community two hours east of Los Angeles. After the first two years, the Festival appeared to be building momentum faster than its older sibling, the decade old Coachella Rock Festival had in its early years. Coachella and Stagecoach are both produced by Goldenvoice, the Southern California based regional division of AEG Live.
Looking back, the timing of October's announcement for the dates and lineup of Stagecoach 2009 couldn't have been worse. The grim reality of the U.S economy's morbid state had just begun to dominate the news. Knowing that, Goldenvoice considered unhitching the wagons for this year's Festival. "Totally true," says Paul Tollett, President of Goldenvoice. "When everything was crashing, we thought this might not be the year to do a big country show with that crowd being hit by foreclosures." Stagecoach attracts primarily a Southern California crowd and takes place in an area known as the Inland Empire. With a population of 4.1 million people, it is the third largest metropolitan area in the state of California. The "I.E," as it's referred to, has also been one of the hardest hit regions in the nation for home foreclosures.
Skipping a year seemed like the most sensible option, until organizers put their heads together and came up with a plan. "We had the idea of going with a lower ticket for entry into the event," Tollett says. Prices were adjusted from the original $175 for a two-day general admission to $99. A layaway plan was also introduced, so fans could make regular installments on ticket purchases. Another piece of the puzzle was getting the artists on board, specifically the event headliners. "Kenny and Brad helped us on their fee to make our price work," says Tollett. "You can't do a price like that without your headliners respecting what's going on." As the on-sale date for the event was approaching, no one knew what to expect but according to Tollett, the ticket price and the layaway option never seemed to affect ticket buyers financially. "I think the key wasthat we gave them six months starting in October to make payments for those tickets."
Stagecoach isn't the only concert festival to employ the use of a layaway plan. For example, Country Thunder, USA, a three-day concert event held in Florence, Az. just outside Phoenix, and Twin Lakes, Wisc. announced similar plans last year, affording ticket buyers the opportunity to have their credit card charged in two monthly installments leading up to the event. Tollett says he wasn't aware if a ticket layaway plan was a new and revolutionary idea, saying instead, "I remember as a kid we did it all the time, buy toys on layaway. There wasn't a stigma attached to it, you just didn't have the money at the time." The payment plan was also introduced to the Coachella crowd, because the annual rock festival took place one weekend before Stagecoach, therefore, the same economic conditions existed for that show. Tollett says the Coachella crowd "didn’t really understand the term layaway that much." The younger, rock crowd, "was looking for the angle, or what the scam was." Country fans however, took to the concept immediately. As a result, Stagecoach had a comparatively much bigger percentage of people who bought tickets using the layaway method.
Give Country Credit
Although Stagecoach is now firmly established as one of the biggest, most premier country festivals in the U.S., the country genre is still new territory to Goldenvoice and Tollett. As evidenced by its tremendous success with the Coachella Music Festival and other events, the company has focused in the rock and alternative world. Because of that, it's interesting to hear Tollett's perspective on country music. "I think the country crowd understands their market more than most of the touring business. Rock and the dance market, especially the dance market, have no concept of ticket price for the fan."Because country artists tour much more often than most other musical acts, Tollett believes they understand the idea of keeping prices reasonable. He also has been impressed with country radio when it comes to live events like Stagecoach, describing the format as "active and always up for a new concept. They like to meet and talk about ways that make things great for their listeners. They are some of the most open minded radio people I've ever experienced."Tollett gives huge kudos to country radio for working events harder than other formats. "From San Diego to Riverside, to LA and up Southern California, it's amazing how on top of it they are." All of that is especially refreshing to hear, considering many in this format are often labeled by programmers and 'experts' from other formats who consider country to be the slow learner of the music radio bunch.
New Rules Of Engagement?
After living through a major event where the stakes were high in a lousy economy, I asked Tollett if he thinks the rules of engagement for staging live concert events are now different than 12 months ago. "The future is unwritten in this business, that's for sure," says Tollette. "It would seem logical that if you kept ticket prices down, people would go more. So let's hope that works out." The Taylor Swift's, and Kenny Chesney's seem to continue selling tickets left and right he says, but part of the new order is that, as a general rule, all bands need to come down in terms of ticket prices. There will be occasional artist that no matter what they charge they'll sell out, but Tollett says you can't just put that on the talent, it applies to all categories. "Promoters, talent managers, vendors ... when times are good, the gravy train is there." We asked Tollett what acts will face the steepest challenge in the current climate. "Potentially, it's medium sized bands," he says. "Not your up and coming bands; not our superstars but your bread and butter, working bands. Those are the ones that should be more careful, the ones out there slugging away by themselves on a Wednesday night in a city that's not huge."
If there is any positive news about live concert events, it may be that music and entertainment still provide a great diversion to people, even when times are tough. One thing Goldenvoice has discovered during its short foray into country so far, is that Stagecoach tends to draw a more regional crowd, whereas rock festivals are huge traveling events. It has become part of people's vacation plans, he says. "Instead of going out of state, you go 60 miles, do some camping, see some music and then go home. We may have tapped into not just entertainment dollars but vacation dollars."