Music » Music Essay

What might be missing in the N.C. State Fair's $663,000 band budget

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Monday was a wash for the North Carolina State Fair. After estimating that more than 100,000 people would walk through the gates during each of the convocation's 11 days in Raleigh, only about 52,000 arrived to start the week.

A band of storms had streamed across the state from the late afternoon into the early evening, when folks are cutting the last hour of work to make way toward a fried candy bar or grilled turkey leg. But Monday night, parking was easy, and the sprawling fairgrounds felt like an overly ambitious county fair.

Still, around 10 p.m., as a few brave couples cuddled against the late-arriving chill to watch the nightly fireworks, a throng of screaming voices huddled outside Dorton Arena, mostly oblivious to the pows and pops overhead. "Scotty! Scotty!" they chanted in unison, hoping to coax the 2011 American Idol winner toward a flimsy security barricade for autographs and photo opportunities. Occasionally, the clutch of 100 or so fans—mostly white and female, and either grandparents or grandchildren—would erupt in a singular euphoric cheer, as if the sensation of shaking the 19-year-old country singer's hand had, at once, titillated them all.

Indeed, about an hour earlier, McCreery had finished the first show of a two-night stand in the spaceship-shaped building, making a cool $125,000 for each night's 90-minute set. The state recouped his quarter-million-dollar fee, though, part of a nearly $700,000 budget that seems to have been largely squandered on out-of-touch and irrelevant acts that have little to do with current demographic and artistic dynamics in North Carolina.

The anchor to the fair's 2012 musical programming, both of McCreery's performances sold through their 5,000 or so tickets within hours. Though he's still largely considered an opening act in the major country music circuit, McCreery stretched his set to 20 songs Monday for the hometown crowd. Reverent and referential covers helped McCreery pad his performance—songs by George Strait, Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks and Elvis Presley, as well as a pugnacious take on the traditional "Man of Constant Sorrow."

Still, the string of singles from his platinum debut turbocharged the crowd. The hit "I Love You This Big" sidestepped its subdued radio edit to become an anthem, with McCreery moving from one side of the stage to the other so that the fans perched in the red-seated wings might shout the chorus back at him. Footage of a young woman writing the area code "919" on a young man's hand rolled behind McCreery during "Write My Number on Your Hand." Onlookers delighted.

The capacity crowd even loved his pair of Christmas songs (in October), his sports team shout-outs (no Duke fans in attendance) and his rural lifestyle proselytizing back in Hollywood. ("I told 'em three words: I am country.") Monday night, at least, McCreery seemed largely impervious to the cycle of reality television's fading stars.

That's crucial for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the organization that manages the fair, and which gambled this year by spending $250,000 on McCreery's pair of Dorton Arena appearances. With more than 10,000 tickets sold at $25, those shows paid for themselves. But according to Brian Long, the public affairs director for the department, those bills required that the state increase its annual musical entertainment budget this year from around $450,000 to $663,100. While the series drew only about 20,000 fans during the fair in 2011, that new number effectively makes the N.C. State Fair's 11 days of concerts in Dorton Arena every October one of the most expensive music events in the state.

"Our mission," reads the state fair's statement of purpose, "is to showcase and promote the state's agriculture, agribusiness, arts, crafts and culture through the annual agricultural fair."

Frank Heath owns Cat's Cradle and books shows in venues across the region. "A lot of that $700,000 is probably considered a loss leader in having acts that appeal to the cross section of their audience," he says. "They're trying to cover all their bases and make sure they don't offend anyone."

But all of the bases are far from covered: This year, six of the fair's 11 performances could be considered country music; three of the headlining performers are Contemporary Christian artists. Only one, soul singer Brian McKnight, breaks the mold of predominantly rural and white entertainers. And excepting an a cappella show during the fair's first day that cost the state nothing to present, only McCreery could be considered local. (Singer Jason Michael Carroll is from nearby Youngsville, but his career found its true catapult within Nashville's industry machinations.)

Those talent categories don't fit any picture of North Carolina in 2012: The Caucasian population in North Carolina is the state's slowest-growing group by a considerable margin. More than 20 percent of the state's population is African-American, nearly 50 percent higher than the national average. Last year, former fair entertainment coordinator Mike Pleasant revealed that one concern for the 50-year-old Dorton Arena was sound leaking to fairgoers uninterested in the music inside. He didn't want to subject fair attendees to any controversial art bleeding through the windows and walls. Hip-hop and dance music, it seemed, were out.

And as of the 2010 census, Latinos make up more than 8 percent of the state's population; in the last decade, only one Latino band has played Dorton Arena as part of the state fair, even as several Spanish-language radio stations have proven sustainable in North Carolina.

The population statistics aren't the only changes that the state-funded series has ignored. In 2012, North Carolina now boasts three major music festivals (excluding the fair) that earn international attention and lure artists from around the world. Two years ago, Merge Records, a label that's grown steadily from its headquarters in Chapel Hill and Durham since 1989, won music's biggest prize—the Grammy Award for Album of the Year for The Arcade Fire's album The Suburbs. In the last decade, hip-hop producer 9th Wonder and string-band Carolina Chocolate Drops have both earned Grammys. In Concord, The Avett Brothers have grown to become one of the biggest roots-rock bands in America, with a new album that debuted at No. 4 in the country last month.

In the state's five largest cities, more than a dozen venues—amphitheaters, arenas and lavish indoor halls—attract some of the biggest (and, sometimes, rarest) touring acts to rooms that hold as many as 20,000 people. In May, The New York Times called the area's music scene "flourishing." In March, the quality-of-lifestyle website Livabilty named Chapel Hill the fourth-best music scene in the country on the type of list that someone publishes every year and that almost always includes one Tar Heel region. In 2009, Carolina Chocolate Drops played Dorton Arena; last year, Tift Merritt played the state fair. This year, a reality television star subsumed such acknowledgement of homegrown talent with widespread appeal.

Instead, the roster reads like its own punch line: After appearing on the brink of major country stardom five years ago, Jason Michael Carroll's most recent album barely broke into the Billboard 200. According to Pollstar, Carroll now grosses less than $4,000 per show; this year, at the fair, he will make $18,500. Meanwhile, McKnight's new album barely forced its way into the top 40 of the Billboard 200; he hasn't landed a single on Billboard's pop chart or Hot 100 since 2002. And he only sells about 1,500 tickets per headlining engagement—essentially, a third of the space available in Dorton Arena, or, at $15 per ticket, less than a third of what it would take to cover his $69,600 fee.

In this market, Heath says, such talent budgets are enormous. He's never spent that much money on anything, despite having booked shows at Durham Performing Arts Center, Memorial Auditorium, Memorial Hall, Red Hat Amphitheater and Koka Booth Amphitheatre. "It's probably an exercise in habitual dealings with the same agents, who are pushing specific acts to fairs and account buyers," he reckons. "It's a situation where you kind of go back to the same well over and over again."

Hoping for the state fair to book only acts from this state is neither realistic nor the request at hand. Rather, it's that the lineup should better represent the state of the state and to reflect the diverse interests and parts of its population. It won't be an easy transition; state fairs are anathema to bands and booking agents, who have long viewed them as a place to end careers, not further them. But the state's population has the capacity to support the move and, ostensibly, the budget.

Monday night, after McCreery's backing band had teased a classic rock tune and after the fans had nabbed their copies of his new Christmas album and photos of him standing in front of Garner's incredibly ordinary water tower, I strolled through the aisles of prize-winning produce and livestock housed in the rows of buildings flanking Dorton Arena. There were cows from Mt. Ulla and Monroe, Gold Hill and Harrells.

The Simmons family of Goldsboro, I noticed, had nearly swept the watermelon competition this year, nabbing third, fourth, fifth and sixth place with four monstrosities weighing between 126 and 175.4 pounds each. Outside of the Jim Graham building, a woman yelled "Last call for kettle corn!" beneath a sign that read "A Sweet Southern Thing."

It all felt sweetly provincial, a proud reminder that, no matter where this state has gone or is going, our farms remain a foundation that, at least once a year, demands our notice and blue ribbons. But popular entertainment is in no need of preservation or protection. It includes its own system of risks and rewards, progressions and retrogressions, trials and errors. After more than 150 years of North Carolina State Fairs, one would hope that, by now, we'd learned to embrace that change, not guard institutionally against it.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Public utilities."

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