Kenny Chesney - The Wall Street Journal

Sunday, May 24, 2015 - 7:45am

Country star Kenny Chesney is today’s most relentless and successful touring act, filling arenas and stadiums every summer for more than a decade. John Jurgensen joins Lunch Break with details from the inside of the singer’s touring machine.


The night before his recent concert in Cowboys Stadium here, Kenny Chesney went up to the nosebleed section and surveyed the ocean of empty seats below. It's his ritual preshow trek to the cheap seats, a way to stay in touch with what the fans will see from the last row. There was also a more calculated reason for his visit.


He put on a Cowboys helmet, then with an assistant shooting video on an iPhone, the singer recorded a greeting (including a shout-out to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones) that would splash across the stadium's behemoth screens the following night, whipping 45,000 fans into a roar before he stepped on stage.


Kenny Chesney performed to a sold-out crowd at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, May 11.


He shoots a similar video in every football stadium he plays, a routine that started when he strapped on a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet three years ago. "It's a touch pandering," Mr. Chesney said. Through such savvy communion with local fans and dogged attention to detail, he has become the top-selling touring act of the last decade in North America.

In the music industry, a stadium concert is the ultimate rock-star status symbol: Few acts can sell enough tickets to fill one, let alone a multitude of such venues year after year. Superstars Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake had to team up to book 14 stadium shows this summer. Mr. Chesney is doing 18—a typical summer run for him. Less-frequent tours by blue-chip artists like the Rolling Stones, Madonna and U2 may grab more headlines, but their numbers are dwarfed by those of Mr. Chesney, a 45-year-old country rocker whose onstage uniform is a cowboy hat with the brim pulled low and a sleeveless T-shirt that shows off chiseled biceps.


Through relentless touring year after year, Mr. Chesney (who seldom performs overseas) has sold 9.8 million concert tickets since 2003, the year he graduated to stadiums, for a gross of $608.6 million, according to Pollstar. His closest rival in tickets sold is the indefatigable Dave Matthews. who mostly sticks to arenas and amphitheaters. Bruce Springsteen, no stranger to stadiums, sold 5.5 million tickets over the last 10 years for a gross of $460.5 million.

Even as musicians are more dependent than ever on touring revenue, few are willing to swallow the outsize costs of a stadium tour. Over the next two weeks, Mr. Chesney's core convoy of 65 tour buses and tractor-trailers is expected to burn through $280,000 in diesel fuel, rumbling from the Washington Redskins' stadium to the home of the Seattle Seahawks, then back east to the Philadelphia Eagles' field (plus stops along the way at smaller venues in Boise, Idaho, and Virginia Beach, Va.).


It takes only eight hours to set up for a concert in an arena. For a stadium show, a team starts four days in advance by building the stage from scratch. The job requires about 50 local stage hands (at a total cost of $250,000 in the Dallas area, and almost twice that much in a union town like Chicago) and 13 tractor-trailers just for "the steel," as the crew calls the guts of the stage.


"It's a matter of moving game pieces around so you don't have 80 guys standing around with nothing to do at $30 an hour," says Ed Wannebo, Mr. Chesney's production manager of 12 years.


Employing a tightknit band of road veterans, including three friends he has known since grade school, Mr. Chesney's touring staff works with a military efficiency that comes from wrapping a stadium tour every August and putting the next one on sale by December. When the singer took a year off in 2010 (to rest and make a documentary film about football), he kept his staff on salary. "You don't want to mess with the mojo," says Clint Higham, the singer's manager since 1996.


Mr. Chesney's success hinges on a kicked-back sound that he first mastered with the 2002 album "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems." On his new release, "Life on a Rock," he name-checks Bob Marley and sings about trading it all in for "a pirate flag and an island girl." The island vibe defines a lifestyle for fans and fuels his merchandise business, which he shrewdly retained rights to, adding millions in profits over his career.


For Mr. Chesney, a sports nut who hosts many top athletes backstage, stadium concerts help sustain a big-league aura. The high-volume gigs also let him tour at a relatively relaxed pace with 49 dates this season. Every Thursday night through August, he plays an arena or amphitheater in a smaller market, followed by a stadium concert every Saturday. His private jet is often in the air before the parking lot is empty, with four days before the next week's cycle.

Mr. Chesney is considered such a valuable off-season moneymaker for these big venues that last year, when word got out that Mr. Chesney intended to lay off stadiums this summer to focus on sites with half the capacity, managers of some of the NFL's biggest buildings teamed up.


Ron VanDeVeen, senior vice president of events at MetLife MET -1.77%Stadium (home of the New York Giants and Jets), says he called his counterparts at the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium and elsewhere, urging them to jointly lobby Mr. Chesney's team. They persuaded him there was plenty of demand. With only about 10 nonfootball events annually at MetLife (including coming concerts by Bon Jovi and Taylor Swift), Mr. Chesney's impact is significant. He sold out all 55,000 tickets the last two years in a row.


With his yearly stadium runs, Mr. Chesney defies one of the first rules of touring—don't burn out the audience. He can get away with that because of fans like the ones who started tailgating here outside Dallas as soon as the parking lots opened at noon, four hours before the stadium doors opened. Set up next to vehicles like the trailer painted with "Team Cocktail," they fired up grills, spread sand and coconuts on the asphalt, and handed out gummy bears soaked in gin. This party culture make the concerts an annual rite for the faithful. "They're going on their one-day vacation," says Louis Messina, the promoter who has set up all the singer's concerts since 2001.


Tickets start around $150 to see the Rolling Stones on their first major outing in seven years, as they try to maximize their margins in arenas that top out around 15,000 available seats. At Mr. Chesney's show, you can spend about $250 on a ticket to sit in "the sandbar," an area within spitting distance of his cowboy boots. But the average ticket price is $77, with seats in the rafters starting at about $25.


To fill stadiums, headliners have to give fans more bands for their buck. The Dallas show started at 4 p.m. with Kacey Musgraves, followed by the Eli Young Band and Eric Church. It was past 11 p.m. when Mr. Chesney finished signing autographs from the stage.


The singer played high-school football, then went to East Tennessee State University, where he was a guitarist in the school bluegrass band. He played beer joints solo by night, and graduated with a marketing degree. He moved to Nashville and landed a songwriting deal in 1992. A debut album of tradition-minded country soon followed, but the rock-oriented record label that signed him had little clout with country radio.


Mr. Chesney got a start in stadiums, too—as an opening act on a George Strait festival tour in 1998. He had jumped to a major label, and racked up some radio hits with a glossier sound and homespun ballads. His sets were over by midafternoon and his merchandise sales averaged out to 15 cents per ticketholder. By his third year on the same George Strait tour, his song "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" had broken out. His merchandise sales leapt to $1 a head, grabbing the attention of Mr. Strait's promoter, Mr. Messina. Now, Mr. Chesney usually gets between $8 and $12 in "merch" per person.


Two of his former school buddies oversee his merchandise business, including Chesney drink tumblers, sunglasses straps and ladies underwear. Fans in Dallas bought 8,200 T-shirts, 1,200 hats and sundry gear for a total of $379,885. About 20% of that revenue went to the house. The rest went directly into Mr. Chesney's coffers, whereas many artists farm out merchandising rights to third parties.


"It's really easy, especially early in your career, to take a lump sum of money that some company wants to give you," he said. "I thank God every day that I didn't do it. I want creative control. I want to own it. I want to pay for it. And if I make any money, I don't want to share it with some company that gave me a couple hundred thousand dollars." To his offerings, the singer recently added his own brand of Blue Chair Bay rum, named after his favorite island perch. In Dallas, he sold 523 black flags emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and "No Shoes Nation," the title of the 2013 tour. It's also the new name Mr. Chesney invented for his legion of tailgating fans, who (unlike Deadheads or Jimmy Buffett's Parrothead followers) had somehow never gotten a nickname.


Five hours before showtime in Dallas, stage manager Tom Nisun wore an apron as he monitored a professional-grade grill installed on the side of the stage. He called crew members in for burgers, handed out cold cans of Corona and peeked into a bag of Cajun boudin sausage brought by a crew member. The grill has been a hit with sometimes prickly local stage hands. In Chicago, workers brought 100 pounds of Italian sausage to the job at Soldier Field.

During the concert, Mr. Chesney hopped and sidled down a T-shaped stage into the crowd. Up in the top deck, clusters of fans swayed and sang along with anthems like "Beer in Mexico" and "Living in Fast Forward," though it was almost impossible to focus on the tiny singer onstage whose image was multiplied on video screens seven stories tall.

Mr. Chesney sold 94% of the 48,000 available seats for a gross of $3.5 million. The cost of renting the building and staging the show amounted to about $1.5 million, Mr. Messina says. That didn't include such related expenses as paying the support acts or spending $85,000 to advertise on radio stations as far away as Little Rock, Ark.


While some A-list acts sink upward of a million dollars into lavish stage sets, Mr. Wannebo says he spent less than $200,000 on Mr. Chesney's understated set this year this year by sprucing up the set from the last tour.


Though the singer hates pyrotechnics, he has sprung for some elaborate stunts, like flying over the audience on wires in 2011 (price tag: $15,000 a week). Mr. Wannebo says the vast majority of their design time goes into planning the first two minutes of the concert. One rejected proposal involved shooting a Kenny Chesney dummy out of a cannon. This year, however, the singer opted to simply walk out onstage.


Even in glistening Cowboys Stadium, there were some headaches. Guitar tech Zeke Clark, who has repaired stage gear for everyone from Van Halen to Prince, dealt with a problem caused by two of the biggest video screens in the world, each 160 feet wide. They emitted so much radio-frequency interference that Mr. Clark struggled to get a clear signal for the band's wireless instruments and in-ear monitors.


Mr. Chesney used to have anxiety dreams about being late for concerts. Before his recent show, as he hoisted a cup for a photo-op toast with the band and Cowboys players hung out, the singer looked like a preoccupied party host who had left something cooking in the kitchen. He says his worst fear is that fans will exit his shows feeling anything less than ecstatic: "That drives me crazy. I can be in the middle of the song and questioning whether I'm doing that."

He's increasingly wary of taxing fan loyalty, and is undecided about touring next year. "You have to feed the machine,

but there's also the possibility of running it into the ground."