Fine-tuned shows

September 16, 2016

Organizers aim to orchestrate success with annual concert series

As has become tradition, when NEBRASKAland Days announced the 2017 Summer Concert Series acts, residents took to Facebook to share their opinions.

“Never heard of him!” said one commenter on a North Platte Telegraph post about Chris Stapleton, a platinum-selling, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter with an old-school country sound.

Others praised Alan Jackson, 2017’s other headlining act. And many asked why NEBRASKAland Days halted its rock concert series, echoing similar sentiments from years past.

Decisions like these are carefully planned and not made at the snap of a finger, said David Fudge, executive director of NEBRASKAland Days.

When Florida Georgia Line came to North Platte in 2015, some criticized the band for what Fudge called its “pop-country” sound. But Fudge described the show as a historical top-earner for NEBRASKAland Days concerts.

“This is a business,” Fudge said. “It’s the state’s official festival, but we try and run it as much like a business as we can.”

Fudge will spend months researching, but when he travels to Nashville in early October — just like every fall — he’ll keep an open mind both about the music and concert business. Two years ago, he saw the trend of pop-country growing in popularity. From an organizational standpoint, “that’s something we need to hop on and ride,” he said.

Last year, he considered Nebraska’s 150th birthday celebration in 2017. He also saw the reaction to the pop-country phase: a more rootsy, traditional sound becoming popular.

But other factors came into play — namely, the cost of an act, which he called the main variable in booking. Then there’s where the act will be before and after the festival, from Minnesota to Texas — typically, a day’s drive, Fudge said.

He also considers where the act has played and will play. If the band will be elsewhere in the Midwest within a couple months before the North Platte show, it’s less likely to bring people. If it’s eight or nine months out, people who liked the show will either want to buy tickets and see the act again, or attend because they couldn’t make the first show. Then there’s the entire industry of concerts in general, from incoming music festivals to competing venues. After considering it all, even the best-choice act can not work out.

“It’s not as simple as walking down the aisle of a supermarket and picking out Frosted Flakes as opposed to picking out Shredded Wheat,” Fudge said.

Fudge felt the struggle even more when trying to book rock bands in its six-year series. When Rock 100.7, North Platte’s rock radio station, came to town, Fudge saw an opportunity. He was then an employee of Eagle Radio and a member of NEBRASKAland Days’ concerts committee. He thought NEBRASKAland Days could book rock acts that received airtime on both Rock 100.7 and Mix 97.1, Eagle’s top-40 station.

With acts like Lifehouse, Puddle of Mudd, Theory of a Deadman, Hinder, Chris Daughtry and Grammy-award winning Halestorm booked to perform over the years, Fudge figured the shows would bring a variety of audiences.

Things didn’t work out as planned. If audiences don’t like a country band, Fudge said, they will still go to the show — maybe to socialize, or to just listen to music. When it came to the rock shows, Fudge heard “that’s not rock.” The nay-sayers didn’t go.

After the 2013 shows, Fudge examined profits and losses. The festival barely covered expenses for all but two bands. The rest of the acts lost the festival money — “well north of six figures.”

Fudge took bands’ names off spreadsheets and presented it to the festival’s board. Whatever caused the losses needed to end, the board decided.

The shows “were very personal to me,” Fudge said, but “numbers never lie.”

Fudge knows music can be an emotional subject. He has booked bands he would never listen to, and ended a rock series he was eager to see succeed. One of those dismayed by the news was Jerhome Windecker — an on-air personality at Huskeradio, which now houses Rock 100.7. He expressed his opinion on Facebook, and on air, after the end to rock concerts was announced. Then, he said, Fudge discussed the situation with him.

“A lot of people would complain and expect NEBRASKAland Days to get bigger, better, harder acts,” Windecker said.

To some, Windecker noted, rock means harder-edged acts like Rob Zombie — while others associate rock music with bluesy performers like the Black Keys.

Windecker says the attempt to bridge the gap between different types of music listeners is one reason the rock concerts ultimately came to an end. Though, largely, it goes back to fan support, he said.

“If you want rock shows to come, you have to go to the rock shows that come,” he said. “If it’s not very well-attended, that sends a message.”

Fudge now calls Windecker a friend, saying he values his opinion. If he loses sleep over any aspect of the entire festival, he said it’s in choosing the best concert acts. As for whether rock shows are on North Platte’s horizon, “I’ll never say never.”