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When country comes callin’ | Behind the scenes of the Carolina Country Music Fest

Big Kenny (left) and John Rich, of Big & Rich, are performing at the Carolina Country Music Fest in downtown Myrtle Beach. The Associated Press photo.
Big Kenny (left) and John Rich, of Big & Rich, are performing at the Carolina Country Music Fest in downtown Myrtle Beach. The Associated Press photo. Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP

When the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, the trademark owner of the now-defunct Myrtle Beach Sun Fun Festival, announced in 2012 it would discontinue the event, at least for the foreseeable future, some nostalgic locals lamented the loss. This had been the “official” kick-off to summer every year for more than a half-century, and many Myrtle Beach merchants, too, wondered how the city could celebrate instead.

The closing of the 58-year-old Pavilion Amusement Park in 2006, along with a recession beginning in 2007, dealt additional blows to area business people wondering what might motivate new early-season visitation to Myrtle Beach, and keep some sizzle in the summer.

The $7 million Myrtle Beach Boardwalk helped, but would it be enough? Oddly, it was at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, held in Charlotte, N.C., where a pivotal meeting took place between entities hoping to revitalize the start to the summer season on the Grand Strand, and capitalize on the built-in crowds. Boy howdy, did they come up with a grand plan.

Country comes to town

In January 2015 the formal announcement was made for what was touted by Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes as the “replacement of the Sun Fun Festival” — something called the Carolina Country Music Festival (CCMF).

The inaugural event, filled with A-list country music superstars, is scheduled from June 5-7, with a specially ticketed $39 Sam Hunt pre-festival show June 4.

While Myrtle Beach Chamber representatives were in Charlotte promoting tourism to the massive 2012 DNC crowds, this fortuitous first meeting took place with Charlotte-based producer, Full House Productions. Three years later, at a well-attended press conference on Ocean Boulevard, official news of the festival was first detailed.

In a vacant, sandy ocean front lot, that was once a part of the old Pavilion Amusement Park, Bob Durkin, owner of Full House Productions, stood before the crowd of cameras and reporters and spoke of the summer and of the years ahead. Knowing he was speaking through the media to thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of country music fans, Durkin encouraged locals and future visitors to “grab a cowboy hat and a pair of flip-flops,” and prepare for a country music extravaganza the likes of which the Southeast has never seen.

Hyperbole? Maybe not.

The roster is filled with undeniable A-list country stars, including: Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, Big & Rich, and Eric Church, and about as many up-and-coming country artists as would fit in a four-day festival. With this line-up, Durkin’s CCMF may just live up to its hype.

Among the additional superstars, rising stars, and country/southern legends scheduled to appear: Cole Swindell, Hunter Hayes, Colt Ford, Georgia Satellites, David Nail, Rodney Atkins, Kellie Pickler, The Davisson Brothers, Corey Smith, Rainey Qualley, The Marshall Tucker Band, Brooke Eden, Outshyne, Ricky Young, Brian Davis, Mo Pitney, Dee Jay Silver, John King and a few surprises and possible substitutions.

The CCMF will likely be the largest ticketed outdoor music concert event ever held in the area, with respect given to the two-day Widespread Panic shows held at the Myrtle Beach Speedway in 2001, which saw crowds approaching 8,000.

Beach Blast, an annual early summer Christian music festival, reported ticket sales of more than 4,000 per show, but announced it would not be coming in 2015 due to “reduced funding” from the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Out with the gospel, and in with country.

But why Myrtle Beach and why now?

“We saw that there was a gap in the Southeast for country music festivals,” said Durkin, who has owned and operated Full House Productions for 15 years. Focusing on the Charlotte region, Full House is a large event promoter with a long history of producing music, beer, wine and arts festivals.

“We know how big and popular country music is around [the Southeast],” continued Durkin, “and the Carolinas are the heart of country music. Everything Myrtle Beach represents — the beach, family fun, the sun, vacation, a great experience — is exactly what country music represents. Myrtle Beach fits this event perfectly.”

Also speaking at the January press conference, Rhodes was on hand to show the city’s support.

“Thank you for believing in Myrtle Beach,” Rhodes said to Durkin and the crowd. “We have an opportunity to fill a void. Once this grows, and the word gets out, I think we could rival the New Orleans’ Jazz Festival. Our City Council is behind this; they’ve supported it, the police department, the DRC (Downtown Redevelopment Corporation) ... I believe this will kick off the biggest summer Myrtle Beach has ever had.”

Four months later, and just a few days before the event, we spoke with Durkin by phone to ask how it all came to be?

“We developed a relationship with the [Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce], and we looked at several cities around the Carolinas and thought Myrtle Beach made perfect sense. A lack of large, competing arenas, and the beach setting goes well with country music. People go to big festivals for three days out in the middle of nowhere, but now they can come for three days enjoy the biggest country music artists in the world, as well as everything the beach has to offer.”

Billed as “the largest country music festival in the Southeast,” the CCMF may be just what the doctor ordered. Many have long bemoaned the two back-to-back motorcycle rallies in mid- to late May. These angry voices say that the rallies have stained the image of Myrtle Beach in the hearts and minds of family vacationers needed during those important shoulder-season weeks.

Others say the rallies create an important economic boost, and come at a time before school is out for much of the country, offering an economic benefit. Either way, it seems Myrtle Beach has been without a way to publicly kick off summer for many years.

Durkin and his staff did their homework in choosing Myrtle Beach, and he says the city won out over other southern locales for a variety of reasons.

“We did an exploratory trip to check out the logistics, and figure out how to put this together with our partners and sponsors,” said Durkin. “We want to see this become a big weekend for Myrtle Beach, the merchants, the hotels, OMA (Oceanfront Merchants Association), everybody. The Brittain Resorts group, WPDE, Vacation Myrtle Beach, Oceana Resorts – are just some of the people we partnered with thanks to the help of Brad Dean (Myrtle Beach Chamber) and the mayor. The city gave us incredible support.”

So with the location set, just how do you book the biggest acts in country music?

“Last summer we pulled the trigger and decided we really wanted to go through with this,” said Durkin. “We took a trip to Nashville and met with some of the bigger management companies. We’d already been having conversations with John Rich of Big & Rich; he has the brand and licensing of apparel called ‘Redneck Riviera,’ and he was very helpful in getting us access to the largest acts. We’re also really excited about Eric Church, because of his Carolina roots. He visits Myrtle Beach in the summertime, and we know some of these artists will really enjoy sharing their [beach experiences] with the crowds.”

Speaking of crowds…

Promoters and venues are notorious for not releasing hard numbers on ticket sales, but reliable sources estimate, as of our printing deadline, around 13,000 general admission one-, two- and three-day tickets have been purchased, at anywhere between $39 and $199 each.

An unknown number of VIP and Super VIP tickets have been sold as well, between $349 and $1,300 each.

“We expect 15, 17, 20 thousand people,” said Durkin, who may not be over estimating. With good weather, plenty of walk-up and last minute online purchases, 15,000 attendees may not be an unrealistic number.

“I know they’d like to see more,” said Rhodes from his office last week, “but if we get 12,000 or 13,000 the first year, it’s a huge winner. There were a lot of doubters at first. You know, in Myrtle Beach, we have a lot of people come though with great ideas that never pan out. Once we get this relationship with [Full House] moving forward, we hope this will be successful and lead to more. We’re looking forward to maybe having an event like this in the fall, in September or October, then we’ll be on both sides of the summer with country music.”

Do the math

So anyone calculating in his or her head realizes that this event could likely gross more than $2 million. That sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but what are the costs?

“Most of our costs are in the talent,” said Durkin.

It’s been widely reported that The Eagles were paid $1 million for their show at the former Hard Rock Park in 2008, and that’s just one band. Full House has to pay for five arena-worthy headliners and dozens of opening bands that might get $50,000 for a single performance.

“We’re paying top dollar,” he said. “Production and talent are the [big] costs. We offset that with ticket sales, sponsorships, Coors Light, Coca Cola, Red Bull, Jack Daniels, and the city had given us in-kind services to help offset some of the expenses.”

Despite the large gross, the dollars will be tight, and not likely to make the producers Bill Gates-rich from this one weekend. It’s possible the CCMF could lose money, too, which is not uncommon for a first-time event of this size. Regardless, huge crowds are expected to fit into a fairly small 10-acre area. It’s a wait-and-see for everyone; fans, producers and the City of Myrtle Beach to observe how well all that goes.

For starters…

Where will 12,000-15,000 extra people park?

Durkin says they have a handle on it.

“We’ve studied this and we think that with the hotels running shuttles, the taxis, Uber, car-pooling, the already exisiting parking, new lots that have opened up, people walking from their nearby hotels, and the shuttles from the old [Myrtle Square] Mall site, we think it will work fine.”

Social media has been, a-hem, all a-twitter, with a small minority of vocal locals complaining about the CCMF ticket costs, and their inability to attend a three-day festival at the start of the busy season. With so many in the hospitality industry working weekends, Full House added a fourth, early day (Thursday, June 4) a few weeks ago to help address the concerns.

A house party

“We had an opportunity to book Sam Hunt, one of the fastest-growing country artists there is,” said Durkin, “and this one-day ticket will give some in the service industry a chance to come out, see the festival site, and enjoy some great country music.”

Ashley Cox, 43, is a 20-year resident of Myrtle Beach and is a self-described country music fan. She bought two festival passes for around $338, and plans to share the wealth hoping to take a different person with her each of the four nights. She lives near the festival site and says she’ll be able to take a cab there and back. Who is she most excited to see?

“Sam Hunt,” answered Cox. “All his songs are good, but I really love ‘House Party.’”

Locally based television film producer, Ralph McCloud, 52, should win the “Husband/Brother of the Year” award for his plans to take his wife and his sister to the festival in celebration of the ladies’ birthdays. He bought three “Super VIP” passes, shelling out around $3,300. That kind of cabbage affords the trio special stage level seating, private bathrooms, free food and bar service.

“It’s good for all four nights,” said McCloud, “and we plan to be there for all them. My sister lives in Ohio and she’s flying down for this. We hope for good weather, and a good time.”

Some other residents scoffed at the idea of fighting the crowds and paying big-ticket prices for a festival filled with artists they care little about. A few social media quotes about the CCMF include: “Not me,” “Country music…where?” “I hate country music so much I can’t even be sarcastic about it,” “No interest,” “I hope Myrtle Beach knows what they’re doing,” “Which country? Do they have a flag?”

Haters gonna hate.

If country music is not for you, you’re in the minority.

Though country music has long been polarizing, and the haters can be vocal, they’re clearly becoming marginalized. Country music reigns supreme in the arenas, on the airwaves and through downloaded music sales. Especially as country music becomes more mainstream, its hybrids of pop, rock and even rap have reached a new generation of young fans.

According to a recent Nielsen Report, country music is the No. 1 radio format by far with some 70 million listeners tuning in to country radio every week. Across all age demographics from 12 to 49, the majority of teens, millennials, and Gen-X-ers prefer country music.

So, are you going?

What to expect at the CCMF

Two stages are planned for the festival site. The largest will have its back to the ocean, butted up against the boardwalk. High screens and fences will keep ground level passersby from peeking in, though the sound will clearly travel.

Ocean Boulevard between Ninth Avenue South and Eighth Avenue South will be closed to all traffic. Ninth Avenue North will be open, both lanes going one-way, west, from Ocean Boulevard to Kings Highway. The second stage will be located nearest to the corner of Eighth Avenue North and Kings Highway, not far from the zipline towers.

Planning to freeload?

“We’re not concerned about [non-paying] people standing on the beach, listening in,” said Durkin. “They won’t be able to see anything, the speakers will be pointed away from the beach. People walking around downtown will definitely be able to hear some of the show, which is great, but if you want the true festival experience, you’ve got to be inside; the great food, mechanical bull, the zipline over the crowd. It should be wild. I might do the zipline myself.”

Additionally, plenty of porta-johns, food vendors, along with festival and artist merchandise stores, will create a city within a city for all four nights.

“As festivals go, we hope this will be a five-, 10- or 20-year event, and create an iconic weekend in Myrtle Beach,” said Durkin, “but first things first; we’ve got to get through this one.”

Also making news

Full House Productions will make a contribution to the The Market Common’s Savannah’s Playground, a specially designed public space for disabled and able-bodied children to play together in the same facility.

“The first phase is $1.4 million,” said Mayor Rhodes, “and in total about $3 million. On Saturday night, they plan to introduce Savannah Thompson on stage. Thompson is a young disabled girl, and the playground’s namesake. “I think they want to try to raise money from the crowd as well.”

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