State fairs aren't exactly the place to go for cutting-edge music. Playing it safe and appealing to the masses is standard. But in looking at the lineup of bands playing at Fair Park for this year's festivities, which wrap up their three-week run Sunday, the lack of notable names is hard to miss. There's the Beach Boys, who played last weekend, and then ... well, a lot of regional acts. Take a look at previous years and the situation isn't much different: the past two years have seen Kool & the Gang and Blondie, legacy acts both, headline the Fair.
Granted, the competition from neighboring state fairs isn't exactly very stiff; in Oklahoma, for instance, two of the 11 nights for last month's fair were headlined by something called "Elvis Extravaganza." But that's not the case everywhere: the Minnesota State Fair (ever heard of that place?) boasted a comparatively strong lineup this year, including the Avett Brothers, Alan Jackson, Def Leppard, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, as part of their Django & Jimmie mini-tour.
So what gives with Texas? It is, in part, by design.
"We're different from many other state fairs in that we don't charge additional grandstand or main stage tickets in order to view bands on the main stage," explains Karissa Condoianis, the fair's director of public relations. "We like to book acts to where we're able to offer free concerts as part of admission. That's why a lot of artists are on their way up or may have been around for many years and want to come back for the State Fair of Texas."
Tickets for the Minnesota State Fair's concerts ran as high as $65, as much if not more than you might expect to pay to see the same acts at a place like Gexa Energy Pavilion, whereas all of the shows at Fair Park have been free. Of course, that also makes for a cheaper budget for the fair to operate on, necessarily pushing the music into the background even though it could theoretically be a flagship part of the fair. But don't expect that to change any time soon.
"We talk about it every once in a while," Condoinanis says of potentially charging additional ticket fees to bring in more and bigger music acts. "At this point we want to continue doing free concerts on the Chevrolet Main Stage."
Condoianis points to an artist like Kelsey Ballerini, who recently picked up her first No. 1 single on the Country Radio Airplay charts, as just the sort of "artist on their way up" the fair likes to book — and there's at least some historical evidence to back that approach up. "We had Garth Brooks on the Chevrolet Main Stage back in 1990, and then he hit it big — so that was a huge crowd," she says. "We had the Jonas Brothers on the Chevrolet Main Stage and they hit it big and they were here right after that — and that was a huge crowd."
Fans with longer memories would likely add another show to that list: the Dixie Chicks' mega-performance at The Cotton Bowl back in 2002. Which brings up another point: the seeming under-use of neighboring venues like The Cotton Bowl or Gexa Energy Pavilion, both of which are located on the Fair Park grounds. Hosting fair concerts at either venue, or even doing promotional tie-ins, would seem to make sense, yet even Gexa has mostly stood empty for the duration of the Fair, with Van Halen and Ricky Martin's shows the lone exceptions.
Condoianis says there's no reason such events couldn't take place. "I don't think that would be an issue. We have a great relationship and they're right next door," she says of Gexa, whose shows are handled by concert promoter LiveNation. (Booking for the fair's main stage is handled by Glenn Smith Presents, who manage Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert among others. The other three stages are handled internally.) Still, she acknowledges that those events could be beneficial: "They have the Oddball Comedy Tour out there this Sunday and I would guess that may bring out a lot of fair-goers before the show."
Whether that's a missed opportunity or not will have to go unanswered for the foreseeable future. The fair is perfectly happy the way it is right now. "We have more than 100 daily things to do out here that are free and then there's the midway with the rides and games," says Condoianis. "So there's a lot to do out here."
LiveNation declined to comment when contacted for this story.