Along with midway rides, agricultural exhibits, and deep fried foods, fairgoers expect headline entertainment to be featured at their state fair. The energy and excitement of an open air concert by a famous singer or band is crucial to a positive and memorable fair experience.
Indeed, entertainment is a major reason why many pay the price to go through the turnstiles. These patrons come for the show and stay for the corn dogs, Birthing Center and Ferris Wheel.
But booking headline entertainment has been what many describe as a seller's market, where music acts with significant drawing power, are costly and waiting to decide.
Fairs hoping that the entertainment booking climate might be more fair-favorable this year are likely hoping in vain. The forecast seems to be that big-name acts will occupy fewer nights of larger fairs, with the rest of the evenings being occupied by new genres of entertainment.
"It will continue to be a seller's market," said Clay Campbell, President of Triangle Talent. "It has been for 10 or 12 years."
Triangle Talent is one of the largest talent buyer in the fair industry, whose clients according to Clay, include four of the largest fairs in the U.S. Founded in 1960, the company books entertainment for dozens of fairs, festivals and other outdoor events, including: the Florida State Fair, Florida Strawberry Festival, Illinois State Fair, Iowa State Fair,Kentucky Derby Festival, Kentucky State Fair, Maryland State Fair, Mid-South Fair, Missouri State Fair, New York State Fair,Ohio State Fair, Oklahoma State Fair, South Florida Fair, Utah State Fair, Wisconsin State Fair, and The Washington State Fair.
Why such a persistent seller's market?
Increased competition is a leading cause. Fairs are no longer the only game in town. New casinos and festivals have multiplied across the nation in the last decade, and those mainstream, mid-level artists, whose state fair shows were once a mainstay of their summer touring schedule, now are being actively pursued by other stages within the market reach of a fair. "There is a lot of competition for fairs, casinos and festivals have been popping up," said Campbell.
Fairs now find themselves in what is tantamount to bidding wars for artists, and fairs are at a disadvantage compared to their better funded rivals.
"You cannot blame an artist for choosing a venue that is more financially rewarding," said Campbell. "Many fairs are state or government agencies, and in the last few years, those budgets have been cut. Casinos have a lot of money, and they can lose money on entertainment if it gets people through their doors to gamble. It is a more of a struggle for fairs."
The radius clauses are also getting more stringent. Standard in nearly every live entertainment contract, these clauses prohibits artists, for up to a year, from performing at another venue within the same market.
In 2015, fairs throughout Ohio, Kentucky and other markets will suffer some collateral damage in booking that state fair staple, country music, due to the first Buckeye Country Superfest, a two-day country music festival in Columbus, Ohio that has attracted such stars as Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts and Kenney Chesney. "When you have 25 country music acts playing a two day festivals and then they can't play anywhere else for a 300 mile radius, that can be pretty significant for the fairs in that market," said Campbell.
Music Business Changes
The rise of digital music has drastically changed the music landscape. "Record labels have become less influential," said Campbell. "There's less financial wherewithal by the labels, and there isn't the kind of artist development that there had been."
The dilemma is that today's new and rising artists - affordable acts that were once the bread and butter of fair stages - are reaching audiences through smaller labels, social media and online services, such as downloading and streaming. Not only is it harder for these entertainers to make a living, but it is harder for fairs to measure just how popular the artists are.
The reliable gauges of record sales and radio play are no longer as applicable and nothing as effective has replaced these tools. Fair managers find it increasingly difficult to determine which rising artist can effectively a draw for a fair audience. The only reliable alternative are the dwindling pool of better known artists, the same contingent targeted by every other mid-sized music venue in a region
"This leaves those established artists who have a following in a stronger positions," said Campbell. "But everyone is having this challenges. Fairs are having difficulties, but also amphitheaters, a lot of arenas. It's not just fairs, it's universal."
The solution? Fairs should look at other genres of music.
With the dearth of available and affordable acts to fill all the nights on a fair's main stage, Triangle Talent is recommending to broaden the entertainment offerings that appeal to often untapped segments of a fair's demographical market place. "We are encouraging our fairs to look at other musical genres, such as Contemporary Christian, Latin Music, and Comedy," said Campbell.
These genres - particularly "Christian Music Night" - have become staples at many fairs, but understanding these genres and their fan base within specific markets requires research. "Fairs have had a lot of success presenting new genres, but the challenge is knowing your market. For instance, the Latin music genre is so fragmented, there are so many different styles and types of Latin Music, and what will appeal to an audience in the New York State Fair will not work at another fair."
Adding Hispanic music may diversify a fair's entertainment line up, but the Hispanic market itself is diverse,i.e., what appeals to Mexican-Americans is not as beloved by Puerto Rican-Americans. "You have to really know what Latin music will appeal to your market, and how to market a Latin show to your Hispanic community," said Campbell.
Tribute acts can also be profitably fill-in slots for a fair, but again finding the right act for a market requires a combination of market research and good timing. With 2014 being the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first appearance on Ed Sullivan, Beatles tribute acts had successful runs at fairs, but having a Faux Fab Four repeat that success is unlikely.
"The tribute acts do well, especially if there's a hook," said Campbell. "With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles in the U.S. was a good fit, but will those Beatle Tribute bands do as well as they did last year, I don't think so."
No Name, No Gain
With the entertainment costs rising, some fairs are even bypassing talent buying, opting for other forms of crowd pleasing activities such as Demolition Derbies, or going with the far cheaper local musical acts, who can bring a loyal but noticeably smaller following to a fair.
"We have seen this trend," said Campbell. "How successful this is will depend on how long the fair has being doing popular entertainment, and what their relationship is with their community."
In order to save a few bucks in the short run by going from Big Name to No Name may cause catastrophic ramifications in subsequent years. "Fairs are annual things, and people go to fairs expecting to see national acts at their fair, for an affordable ticket price," said Campbell. "They are planning to go to the fair, and they are not going to pleasantly surprised if there is no national act performing when they get there."
He added, "fairs have to look at the long term. They might save money for one summer, but they have to evaluate how it impacts them long term. If you are offering less entertainment,how does that affect your attendance figures in two or three years? And as importantly, how will that affect the perceived quality of your fair by your sponsors."
Another perennial lament by fairs is that the shrinking of the booking window. Typical of a seller's market - where the seller has more leeway on confirming a date - artists are waiting for the best price before finalizing a booking. Many fairs feel this delay undermines promotion, marketing and pre-show ticket sales.
Unfortunately, in some ways this situation is getting worse. Booking is actually happening earlier, but the confirmation continues to drag behind.
"We are starting to look at look at booking acts in 2016 in April," said Campbell. " Some of the country acts in particular are getting so many offers,they want to know what their year is looking like, but they are taking more time to confirm dates."
This confirmation delay now means the talent buying process "has gotten a lot longer," said Campbell.
According to Campbell, this process used to begin at the International Association of Fairs & Exposition (IAFE) Annual Convention & Trade Show in December - and while the international trade show remains critical for fair organizers in their creation of their entertainment line up - the trend has been that even though confirmation continues to edge closer to the fair date, the booking begins earlier and earlier in the year.
"The IAFE was kind of the unofficial start, and fairs were going to start their buying by the end of November and go to the IAFE trying to get confirmation," said Campbell. "Now, agents were calling me in April and May of 2013 for the 2015 season. Artists already had their summer schedule started. Fairs are making offers, but not getting the confirmation."
The result is that by the new year, fairs were able to confirm 80-90 percent of their entertainment for the upcoming season. As of January, Campbell estimates that average is a 50 percent confirmation for 2015. "It's been getting tougher and tougher, because of the number of options, to get that confirmation early," he admitted.
The entertainment booking outlook for fairs is challenging,but Campbell insists it is far from gloomy. "The economy is getting better and gas prices are going down ," he said. "People will have more money to spend, and they got out to the fair to have a good time and see entertainment, and that is a positive. There is entertainment that is out there that is good for your fair, but it comes down to buying smarter, and working smarter."
Last year, one of the highlights of the fair entertainment a summer tour by Joan Jett & The Black Hearts, who had return to the spotlight with Unvarnished, a critically acclaimed album released in 2013 and a high-profile performance of Smells Like Teen Spirit with the surviving members of Nirvana at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's induction of that band in April of 2014.
Joan Jett was a featured performer at many fairs throughout the summer and early autumn, a tour facilitated by Triangle Talent. "Joan made a concerted effort to really play a lot of fairs. She wanted to raise her visibility, and she was relatively affordable last year."
Through the fair circuit, Joan Jett was able to reach fans old and new, and her brand of hard-rock with Punk overtones proved to be a comfortable fit for the state fair market. "Fairs have a built-in audience, which is why many acts love playing fairs," he added.
A Joan Jett type act has yet to emerge in 2015, but there are notable stars already booked and bound to create those memorable outdoor shows that fairgoers cherish.
Campbell expects Hailstorm, Dustin Moore, Carrie Underwood, Alabama and Lady Antebellum to be popular on the 2015 fair circuit, "and there's a chance that Dolly Parton will be on the road again and has expressed interest in doing fair dates."
In addition, contemporary urban music acts that could round out a line-up include Boyz II Men and Charlie Wilson.
In spite of the increased competition and other challenges, fairs provide unique and dependable audiences, a fact many entertainers, as well as their managers and agents, appreciate. "Fairs have adapted to social media better, they have a better relationship with their customers than other venues," said Campbell. "Fairs continue to be a viable market for entertainment, and not just country music acts."
And for 2015, Campbell advises that fairs "should be looking for new entertainment opportunities. Fairs want acts that attract a wide range of people, while also trying to attract new patrons."