Farewell, FarmBorough: What We Can Learn From Country Music Festival Failures
"We're not making the same pop-up over again."
Brian O'Connell, Live Nation's President of Country Touring, told this to the Voice last year, when his latest venture, the 2015 FarmBorough Festival, was readying for its descent on Randall's Island. As Live Nation was in the midst of rolling out the New York installment of the six country music festivals it would stage nationally that calendar year, he was stressing how FarmBorough — which boasted Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley, and Dierks Bentley as its headliners, while also championing on-the-rise talents like Chris Stapleton and Maddie & Tae — didn’t adhere to the cookie-cutter nature of country festivals, and how it was well on the way to changing the country-fest complex entirely. "It's not a factory… [At] the end of the day, are there commonalities [between the festivals]? Absolutely. But the difference between, for instance, FarmBorough and Route 91 Harvest in Las Vegas, versus Watershed, which is in the middle of Washington State, and Faster Horses — you couldn't find four more different festivals. If you went to each one of the four of them, you wouldn't have ever felt like you were at the same place twice."
Now that FarmBorough has called it quits after one year of operation, it’s safe to say that New York’s first country festival has failed — and it's exactly because it very much did feel close to what Watershed, Route 91 Harvest, and the like were offering. It was hardly New York’s festival to lose; what was revealed of FarmBorough’s 2016 roster — to be lead by Jason Aldean, Toby Keith, and Tim McGraw — was a far cry from the nuanced lineup its organizers wrangled for the first big event. It might not have looked like you were in the same place, had FarmBorough 2016 come to be, sure. But it certainly might have sounded like you were in the same place as any other big country festival in the country this season. Aldean alone was was slated to perform at a whopping four out of five of Live Nation's country festivals — how heartbreaking that this cancellation leaves him headlining only 75 percent of these big-stage productions. Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, and Dierks Bentley each headlined two of the four aforementioned festivals last year, while Florida Georgia Line (apparently taking home the prestigious Aldean Award for Repeat Performances) headlined three of the them. By O'Connell's logic, FarmBorough was falling victim to the phenomenon he was renouncing.
On February 9, FarmBorough posted that it wouldn’t be taking place this July as planned. Their announcement follows the news of competitor AEG Live/Goldenvoice's January cancellation of their Big Barrel Country Music Festival, also in its second year, in Dover, Delaware. While neither Live Nation/Founders nor AEG/Goldenvoice gave specific reasons for their cancellations, the sudden clamor for similar projects that occurred in 2015 cannot be ignored, nor can the fact that these country festival lineups are indistinguishable from one another. If the FarmBorough 2016 lineup was lackluster, it was not for lack of quality performers; there's no shortage of love for Kacey Musgraves in New York, and even in a city full of Yankees, a Brooks & Dunn sing-along would've been heard across the RFK Bridge. But there was nothing to indicate that FarmBorough was any kind of show you couldn't catch at another field or fairground in the U.S.
Live Nation made the news in 2015 when they announced that they intended to launch ten country festivals in ten years. They were already well on their way to their goal, as they had helmed six festivals in the four years leading up to that point, including FarmBorough, Faster Horses, Windy City Lake Shake, Watershed, Route 91 Harvest, and (the now-defunct?) Delaware Junction launching between 2011 and 2015. The aggressive plan put the company in the position of setting the industry standard for multi-day country events, but what made FarmBorough different from these other Live Nation offerings was its partnership with Founders Entertainment. For Founders, the company of born-and-bred New Yorkers that brought Governors Ball to a city where so many other festivals had failed, the sheer size of a company like Live Nation offered crucial booking power in the country space. For Live Nation, they were entering the New York market with a seasoned team of organizers on their side.
But, ironically, the similarities across Live Nation's country festival properties seem to argue for the very existence of outfits like Founders, which remains one of the only independent promoters to operate in the festival space. Live Nation and its similarly sized competitors are snatching up an increasing percentage of the nation's most established festivals in all genres, including holdings in two-weekend California giants Coachella and the cowboy-boot-sportin' Stagecoach (AEG/Goldenvoice), sprawling Tennessee farm fest Bonnaroo (Live Nation), Chicago's rock-heavy Lollapalooza (C3, of which Live Nation has a majority share), Washington's indie-centric Sasquatch! (Live Nation), and Gulf Coast beach party Hangout Fest (Goldenvoice). Each festival season yields fewer established independent festivals than the last, and the booking-realm benefits for these big companies lead directly to lineups that look more and more alike. As Founders's Jordan Wolowitz explained to Billboard last year, a company with a portfolio of festivals can bring several offers to an artist at once, and signing a contract for multiple AEG or Live Nation festivals is more lucrative for bands than a single offer from an independent company like Founders.
As AEG and Goldenvoice edge into Founders's turf with the Panorama Festival — an inaugural contemporary festival held in the same spot as Governors Ball, seven weeks later, that's more or less taking on the role of the East Coast's Coachella — the corporate takeover of festival culture starts to look like a deliberate attempt to oust independent promoters.
"We definitely feel like they're trying to squash us," Wolowitz told the Voice in October, when AEG's first crack at Panorama was slated to take place just two weeks after GovBall in Queens's Flushing Meadows Corona Park. AEG's play for New York certainly stacks up into a scenario where only one big fest seems likely to survive. As consumers, we can look to FarmBorough and its ilk for a microcosm of what's in play as the rest of America's major music festivals fall under the management of a few huge companies.
And at the end of the day, the fact that it isn't country music's homogeneity (which, yes, is a huge problem in and of itself) that's making these lineups all look the same is the root of the problem. There's plenty of room for innovative booking within the genre, even with a mammoth company at the helm. AEG has done it on the West Coast with Stagecoach for what will be ten years this April, starting out with headliners like George Strait and then-relative-unknowns Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, without ever fully skewing toward radio fare. The first Stagecoach lineup also included Willie Nelson, Neko Case, Drive-By Truckers, and Abigail Washburn, all of whom are highly esteemed in their respective circles but, while bearing similarities, would not organically be cast as belonging to the same genre at all. When bookers allow what's topping contemporary country radio — or which artists work across the most platforms, or in the most markets — to lead the way on festival booking, that's when the stale, predictable, and opposite-of-progressive lineups are born. It leaves new festivals chasing trends rather than cultivating their own distinct tastes, and that's a losing battle that can all too easily be applied to contemporary music festivals, too.
Farewell, FarmBorough. We barely knew y'all.
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