On the Beat

NC State Fair drops national for ‘homegrown’ acts

Scotty McCreery in concert at Dorton Arena at the N.C. State Fair in 2012.
Scotty McCreery in concert at Dorton Arena at the N.C. State Fair in 2012. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

The N.C. State Fair is changing course with its concerts. Gone are the national headliners, in favor of a series that has been branded as “Homegrown North Carolina.”

“What it might be is still wide open at this point,” said Brian Long, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. “It could be up-and-coming young artists with ties to North Carolina, or things like a gospel night with old-time gospel acts. That’s the beauty of North Carolina’s music heritage, we have such a wide range of talent.”

Concerts at Dorton Arena, the distinctively chip-shaped, 5,100-capacity facility at the State Fairgrounds, have been an N.C. State Fair fixture for decades – free at first, but with paid tickets in recent years.

Last year’s 11-show lineup included ’90s rapper Vanilla Ice, recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Jett (returning to Raleigh April 21 to open for The Who at PNC Arena) and standup comic James Gregory, plus Clay Walker, Brandy Clark and other country acts. Ticket prices ranged from $5 for Vanilla Ice to $17 for Trace Adkins.

But while the State Fair is highly profitable overall and brings in millions of dollars annually, concert attendance has lagged. Only one 2014 concert sold out, by Christian pop act Newsboys.

State Fair concerts have traditionally been regarded as a “loss leader” rather than a money-maker, but recent losses have been hard to overlook. A December 2014 article in local weekly The Independent put the fair’s concert losses for the last four years at almost $900,000.

“Last year, only about 3 percent of our visitors attended a concert,” said Long. “More than 929,000 people came to the fair, and out of that about 30,000 went to one of 11 concerts in an arena that seats more than 5,000. It’s become apparent to us that it just wasn’t making the most business sense.”

Long cited competition with other area concert venues, from outdoor amphitheaters to Durham Performing Arts Center, as partial reasons for the decline.

North Carolina’s fair is not the only state fair struggling with concerts. In January, the Kentucky State Fair announced it was dropping its paid concert and adding a day to the event’s horse show.

“I do know from reports we’re hearing that there are many challenges with booking concerts right now,” said Marla Calico with the Missouri-based International Association of Fairs & Expositions. “There are so many venue opportunities and situations with sellers booking those kind of dates, it makes for a lot of challenges.”

For this year’s State Fair, happening Oct. 15-25, during the day the State Fair Folk Festival will move from its prior location in a tent behind the Kerr Scott Building into Dorton. As for Dorton’s nighttime shows, some might be free and some paid.

But they will definitely be on a more modest scale. You won’t see big names like Scotty McCreery, the hometown “American Idol” winner who was paid six-figure guarantees for two-night stands at the State Fair in 2012 and 2013. Long said the budget for concerts has yet to be set, but it’s going to be a fraction of the $400,000-plus in guarantees that the fair paid for acts in 2014.

Also still to be determined is who will book the talent.

“We have a request for proposals going out from the fair any day now,” said Long. “We are seeking entities or organizations or individuals who might be interested in booking this talent into the fair.

“The State Fair has always been there to promote North Carolina talents, whether it’s folk art, raising animals, painting, growing vegetables,” he said. “Doing more to highlight the state’s musical talent is a nice expansion of that effort.”