Thursday 12th March 2020 is the day I sat at The O2 Arena in London with the partners in my new venture Destination Country and couldn’t believe what was transpiring. At that time we were at the beginning of what would turn out to be a global pandemic and the Government was about to announce life-changing restrictions that would see the UK in and out of lockdown over the coming months.
The day before the annual C2C: Country to Country festival was due to take place, I was supposed to be helping run the first two in-person events for Destination Country. Our vision when setting up the company was to bring Country music fans closer to the artists they love by offering them ‘money can’t buy’ in-person experiences. Unfortunately, we didn’t get chance to realise that and as the pandemic took hold, we pivoted to hosting regular online events with Country artists where fans could watch live performances, ask questions and interact via Zoom.
It was over the next two years that it quickly became apparent that we were fighting an uphill battle. We launched a subscription platform that initially had good take-up but soon tailed off. We saw the number of people attending our free events dropping, despite promotion from all of the Destination Country partner sites, the artists taking part and the wider Country music industry.
At this point you may well be wondering if this is a history of a business venture that didn’t achieve its aim, but it was the starting point where I, and my Destination Country partners, wondered if interest in Country music was on the wane in the UK? Or had we grossly over-estimated the appetite for the genre on this side of the pond?
Country music and the UK have a chequered history. The genre has never found its way into the mainstream like it has in the US and other parts of the world, save for the odd breakthrough like Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes in the 90s. That being said, since the arrival of C2C in 2013, the genre had steadily gained ground and that festival paved the way for more and more Country artists to come to the UK, often for the first time, as they realised that maybe there was an untapped market here after all.
Momentum was well-and-truly building by the time the pandemic halted everything. Alongside C2C there was also The Long Road Festival, Millport Country Festival (which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year), Nashville Meets London, Tennessee Fields and Black Deer Festival, and artists were coming to the UK regularly. Some – Brothers Osborne, Dan + Shay, Ashley McBryde, Midland, Carrie Underwood – had made the UK like a second home ensuring that we were on their regular touring schedule.
Fast-forward two and half years to August 2022 and it feels like the Country music bubble has well and truly burst in the UK. Despite a valiant effort Tennessee Fields called it quits earlier this year and the triumphant return of C2C across three days in March was marred in London by reports of violence and anti-social behaviour. As The Long Road prepares to welcome Country music fans this weekend, they’ve unexpectedly found themselves a headliner down after Chris Young pulled out due to COVID cases among his touring crew (and it should be mentioned that the UK tour he’d assembled around it appeared to be struggling to shift tickets with fans being able to pick them up at a heavily discounted rate of £6.50). If an act the calibre of Chris Young is struggling to sell tickets, then it doesn’t bode all that well for those artists who are earlier on in their careers.
It’s also notable that we’ve not had the usual influx of artists coming over since restrictions lifted. This may largely be due to a renewed focus on the US market where most Country artists make their money but it’s slightly worrying for us UK fans, especially as the UK has felt more like an afterthought for many Country releases the past couple of years.
So what could have caused the bubble to burst? There are many factors at play. Firstly, the pandemic ripped live music out of our lives for the best part of two years and that’s undoubtedly impacted on the momentum that was building. Secondly, we’re in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis so people are having to save money where they can. Concerts are seen as a treat or a luxury for most people, and with costs spiralling in recent years it’s no surprise that music fans are being choosy about who they see.
While those factors have no doubt played a big part in getting us to where we are now, it’s also entirely possible that the pool of high-profile artists in the genre who are willing to come to the UK has run dry meaning fans are tiring of repeat acts. The likes of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line and Tim McGraw have been here as part of C2C but none of them seem interested in trying to mount their own tours. Then you’ve got stars such as Blake Shelton, Jake Owen, Jon Pardi and Brooks & Dunn who’ve never set foot in the UK to play a show, and seemingly have no intention of doing so.
Another observation I’ve had from my time both working in Country music and being a fan, is that the UK Country music fanbase likes what it likes and doesn’t seem to have much interest in seeking out new artists. As much as complaints are rife about repeat artists on festival bills, they do sell tickets. Festivals like C2C and The Long Road are fantastic for seeing big names and discovering new talent, and that seems to be mostly where UK Country fans are finding out about emerging stars, but there is still a reluctance to buy tickets for those artists who are still working their way up the ladder.
Hopefully this is just a blip for Country music in the UK and the coming months will tell as C2C announces its 2023 line-up, and we expect other Country events to firm up dates and line-ups. This Country fan certainly hopes so but I just can’t shake the feeling that the genre might have gone as far as it can here for the moment, and what that means in terms of seeing live acts on this side of the pond remains to be seen.