Eight of the 11 acts at this year’s Minnesota State Fair grandstand have never headlined there. One has a Top 10 hit on the country and pop charts. Another has a YouTube channel with more than 2.6 billion views. One did a remarkable seven-concert stand at a Minneapolis theater.
“It’s probably one of the most diverse lineups we’ve had for quite some time,” said Renee Alexander, the fair’s deputy general manager for entertainment and marketing.
Maybe fairgoers should thank Treasure Island and Mystic Lake casinos. Alexander faced unexpected competition from those venues, especially for classic-rock and country acts — the grandstand’s bread-and-butter. One of her standbys, Brad Paisley, is playing Treasure Island on Saturday. The casinos booked several other possible headliners, including Journey, Santana and Lionel Richie.
“We’re competing with a lot more venues,” she said. “To their credit, the casinos were pretty aggressive. Treasure Island came out of nowhere [with nine concerts]. Usually I’ll hear from agents if I’m bidding against someone. It just never came up.
“Part of this lineup’s diversity may be because of that — you’ve got to get a little more creative.”
It’s working, too: The fair is on track to break last year’s record grandstand attendance of 111,319 (totaling $4.6 million in ticket sales). As of last week, advance sales topped 93,000, more than 9,000 ahead of last year’s pace.
People are buying tickets for a fresher-than-usual lineup — from Sam Hunt, the crossover country star, to Pentatonix, the a cappella champs and YouTube sensations, to Jim Gaffigan, the family-friendly comic. Not to mention Rock Hall of Famers Stevie Nicks and John Mellencamp, R&B star Usher and Nickelback, the biggest North American rock band to emerge in this century.
“That’s something I always strive for — to appeal to as many different tastes in music, age groups, demographics,” said Alexander, who has been booking the 16,000-capacity grandstand for a dozen years.
The grandstand fits in with the fair’s overall mission of “providing a world-class showcase that is innovative, entertaining and fun,” Alexander said. “For many Minnesotans — myself included — the grandstand is their very first concert experience and those memories can last a lifetime.”
Nickelback was cornerstone
Nickelback will kick off the grandstand series on Thursday. The Canadian rock band that critics love to hate was the first act Alexander landed — a show announced way back in December. Nickelback had canceled two Twin Cities appearances in 2015, and she caught the “How You Remind Me” hitmakers on the rebound.
By contrast, Toby Keith’s agent called Alexander. The country rabble-rouser enjoys playing the fair, so she booked him for a fifth time. His opening act is 3 Doors Down, the rock band remembered for the 2000 hit “Kryptonite” and for playing at President Donald Trump’s inauguration. (Ironically, Nickelback opened for 3 Doors Down at the grandstand in 2001.)
Alexander researches acts and decided that Gaffigan was a no-brainer after selling more than 14,000 tickets in his seven-show stand at the State Theatre in 2015. She hadn’t booked a comedian since ventriloquist Jeff Dunham in 2009.
When she heard that Pentatonix, the a cappella quintet big with anyone who’s ever sung in a high school choir, drew 10,000 to Xcel Energy Center last fall, she went after them.
As for Usher, the pop-soul stalwart is not touring this summer but Alexander — who aims for an R&B show every year — persuaded his agent to do a one-off performance.
As a board member for a talent buyers’ trade organization, Alexander is in Nashville regularly so she’s plugged into country music. She booked up-and-comer Hunt in March, before his hit “Body Like a Back Road” went to No. 1 on the country chart and crossed over to the pop Top 10.
The casinos aren’t the only competition for country acts.
Keith was originally supposed to play on Friday, but with country’s First Couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, playing Friday and Saturday at Xcel Energy Center and Paisley at Treasure Island on Saturday, Alexander decided to move him to Sunday. After all, how much country can Minnesotans afford in one weekend?
And when it came to classic rock, Alexander didn’t turn to old reliables like Def Leppard, Styx or Kiss this year. Instead, she went with two veterans who are new to the grandstand, Nicks and Mellencamp.
Like a puzzle
Booking the grandstand is like putting together a complex, expensive puzzle. Alexander knew she’d have Garrison Keillor again on the last Friday of the fair. And since the first Monday is Senior Day, she booked Frankie Valli, who last played the fair in 1976. She noted that a “Jersey Boys” spinoff act — the hit Broadway musical is based on Valli’s life — did well at the fair’s bandshell in 2011.
To get a hip demographic to the grandstand, the final Saturday is reserved for a concert sponsored by radio station 89.3 the Current. Alexander didn’t announce this year’s show starring Phantogram and Lucius until July 11, which is late for marketing purposes.
An act fell through “so I had to go back to the drawing board,” she explained. “This is actually Plan C. No offense to Phantogram or Lucius.”
To fill 11 specific dates in August and September can be tricky — and expensive. When agents know you need to fill an exact date, talent fees can get inflated. Last year, the top-paid headliner got $617,000 (the Dixie Chicks) and the lowest received $67,500.
Alexander is planning ahead for 2018. She’s already booked one act. And she’ll probably announce it in September — a first.