10 Questions with ... Gil Cunningham
October 25, 2015
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Gil Cunningham co-founded Neste Event Marketing in 1996 with his wife, and business partner, Liz Cunningham. Neste is a full-service event production company servicing clients throughout North America, whose mission is to provide a visionary, one-stop source for all of your entertainment and concert production needs.
Cunningham started his career in the event business as a talent buyer in 1972 and moved into the event production business in 1988. Over the years, he has produced hundreds of events, booking thousands of artists for a variety of clients. He books in excess of 200 concerts each year and has been instrumental in establishing major events throughout North America.
Neste is starting to transition into special events too, one of them being Nashville's premier night of fashion, set for Sunday, November 1st. The event will feature designers from around the world including Gucci, John Varvatos, Peter Nappi, S.Carter, Amanda Valentine, Johnathan Kayne and many more. Live performers will include Chase Bryant, Kaleo, Big Kenny, Old Dominion, Phil Vassar and more to be announced in the coming weeks. Tickets for the event can be purchased for $500 at offtherecordnashville.com and will benefit Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.
1. Gil thanks for taking time for 10 questions. Let's start with your what company does - can you give us an overview of Neste Event Marketing?
There are actually two of our companies involved in this: Neste Event Marketing and Entertainment Buy. Neste Entertainment Marketing is a talent buying company - we do buy talent for a lot of events across North America, were the largest country music festival talent buyer in North America. We currently work with 18 different events. The last couple of years the festival side of the business has really blown up. Entertainment Buy is a special events corporate company, but both companies are involved in producing the event.
2. Quick question on pronunciation of the company name - Neste, as in "nest," or Nest-ee?
Actually, a little side story to that. That is my wife's maiden name, and she started the company when her great great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Sweden. Their name was not Neste but they came from the city of Neste in Sweden so they changed their name on Ellis Island to Neste. Then they adopted an E to make it Neste. Originally they pronounced the name Nest, as they do in Sweden, but the pronunciation has changed over the years.
3. So, as we saw in your bio, you joined the company in 2003, which combined your experience previously as a talent buyer, with Neste Entertainment Marketing planning. Can you give us a background on how you got started in the business of buying talent?
G: Well actually, I was working for an electronics manufacturing company in Burlington Iowa and the company I was working for wanted their employees to get involved in local, civic events. So I volunteered to work on an event called Burlington Steamboat Days in Burlington, Iowa. It started out as a Dixieland Jazz festival. I came in and with some of the other board members we gradually changed it into an all-genre festival and helped changed it into a major event. I hired the Don Romeo Agency out of Omaha, Nebraska to do the talent buying for us and developed a relationship with Don Romeo and Bob Romeo; they eventually offered me a job, so I went to work for the Romeo Agency in 1999. So from '88 to 1999, I worked at the Don Romeo Agency in Omaha Nebraska. Then my wife had started a company several years prior to that, and when I left, merged with her and we joined forces. She handles the marketing and sponsorship side of the business and I handle the talent buying side of the business.
4. You know you mentioned the explosion of festivals and it is incredible. The last three to five years, this amazing proliferation of musical festivals, and Country in particular. What in your mind makes them so appealing for both fans and artists, because both factions seem to love these things?
Well, part of it is that - there have been Country music festivals around for 30 years and the demographic of the Country fan has changed over the years. There are two distinct audiences: that older demo, the traditional Country music fan, and a new demo - and a lot of the acts that have broken in the last couple years appeal to that young, 18-25 demo such as Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia line, etc. Then even with someone like Hunter Hayes, the demo is even younger than that. So that is part of the reason for the explosion. The Country music fan base has increased but also the change in the music and the popularity of the music. The festivals have come as a result of that but just like anything else when things are really going hot, a lot of people jump into the market with that festival concept. So there's a lot of competition now from other festivals and the number of country shows that are touring. When I started in the festival business there were no Country tours, no major promoters buying Country tours. Today - take next year. It looks like there's going to be close to 20 Country tours and each Country artist that tours takes a couple of support acts with them. So now you have to compete against those packages in the marketplace.
5. When you have to protect the artists play in the market, are festivals viewed as a different entity as opposed to playing a traditional venue - say a shed or an arena? Let's say you go through Des Moines, and there's a festival there. Can that artist realistically play in a different venue and offer different packaging? Because the festivals are generally a large, all day or multi-day event and the roster is tremendous. Can you package it differently and come through sooner than you normally would?
Well, Des Moines is a good example, because we do buy the talent for the Tree Town Festival in Forest City, Iowa and they market in Des Moines. So any tour that plays Des Moines, any artist on that tour will not play Tree Town - either the promoter won't clear it or Tree Town won't clear it. They try to protect the markets as much as they can, and that's where the conflict comes and some of the competition comes in. So we have that to deal with, and it makes it more difficult and more challenging. As a result, because of the competition, the price of the artist continues to escalate and for the festival promoter, it's becoming more expensive on the talent side.
6. Speaking of the artists, in a time when record sales are challenged, and that sector of the business is going through a transition and maybe not in a good way as we've all witnessed, it appears that touring, and the collateral on that with the potential on merch sales, this is the artists' greatest opportunity for making money. Is that a correct observation?
That's correct. The touring part has become very important for the country artist.
7. And even the ones who are in that kind of B range, who may not even have #1 songs, but they're getting consistent airplay and still not able to move sales, that's a really great position for them to be in - where they can support themselves touring , that's their chance to make a living.
Yes, and you have the terrestrial radio but also [SiriusXM] Highway that benefits the country artist because some of these newer acts are getting airplay in places in North America that they never got, would've never have gotten before, specifically like Canada. You know up there the radio stations have to play so much Canadian content, which then precludes them from playing Country artists in the states, so it usually takes four or five songs before they get airplay up there. Now, with the Highway there's a huge Canadian audience on that channel and these new acts are getting the opportunity to get exposure up there.
8. At what point do you think the festival concert event reaches a saturation point? Is that ever going to be a problem? I mean you just mentioned, for 30 years there have been Country festivals, but they kind of just keep growing, like Taste Of Country and so many more. Are we ever going to see a situation when there's too many and they're not viable?
I think you see that already in some markets. There's oversaturation, there's multiple festivals in a number of markets which makes it more difficult for all of them. In Florida there's three festivals that conflict with each other. There are several festivals up in the Northeast that conflict with each other and you can't play the same acts, so yes, already in some markets there's oversaturation. And then you've got the tour. In some cases you've got festivals competing with tours in the market.
9. What makes one of these events successful? And on the other hand, part two of that, what are the landmines that can really cause one to not go well?
Well in today's market, you really have to have deep pockets. If you don't have the money to sustain losses for a period of two or three years then you shouldn't get into the business. Because that's what it's become. You have to pay so much for a headliner and you need a headliner to sell tickets and establish a festival, most likely new promoters are going to lose a substantial amount of money - it could be two or three million dollars in the first year. So if you don't have the resources to lose that kind of money, then you shouldn't get in the festival business. It's almost impossible for a small independent promoter to start in the Country Music festival business, in this day and age. Now having said that, there's other markets around the country that probably a new festival could survive and do well, and that would be in markets where there's not a lot of oversaturation. But it's becoming limited.
10. You touched on something earlier I want to come back to. You were commenting on the growth of these festival events and you were crediting a lot of the younger movement to Country music as some of the reason for that. I can't remember a time, particularly on the touring side, where it's bee as diverse and popular as it is, mainly from the younger side. If that cools off, do you project these outdoor events suffering...? Because as you just mentioned, the kids like to go out to these things - so are we incorrect in assuming the kids will tolerate an all-day outdoor event, where an adult, let's say a 54 year old adult, that's not really their thing? They'd rather go sit in a nice comfortable seat in an arena and that's their concert experience?
I agree with that. You look at some of the new festivals they'll have, let's say a headline act that could go in an arena and sell 17 to 18 thousand tickets and yet they headline the festival for the first year and they do eight to 10 thousand tickets with multiple acts. So there are people who don't want to commit to four days or three days. They'd rather just wait until the tour comes through town and just go see the concert. When I first started with the Country music festivals, it was all just about the music. There were a couple side stages and main stages, and that was it, just music. In this day and age you see a lot of the festivals coming up with lifestyle attractions and events, other things that the festival goer can engage in and enjoy while they're at your event. And you look at some of the big rock festivals, they've almost become like branding events, for major corporations. And there's a lot of lifestyle going on with those kinds of events so... It's trending in that direction.
1. How has the ubiquitous presence of social media impacted these events?
It's has had a huge impact on the Country festivals. I'm sure it happens on the Rock side, but speaking to the Country events, social media has had a huge impact , and again, five or 10 years ago, these festivals, - let's use the camping he camping side of it for example - if someone wanted to buy an entire camp site, friends and relatives can get together and share an area. Now - and this is primarily that college aged, younger audience - they're going in and buying 50-60 campsites, creating their own community. It's their own entertainment area, their own place to hang out, so that social media thing, and on a whim, you buy 40-50 sites, you send out notice to all your contacts, and they've got the sites, and the space committed.
2. Let's segue and talk about the upcoming event for Second Harvest Food Bank. It looks like a huge night of fashion and country music and a lot of fun When is it again?
It's Sunday November 1st. Obviously we're heavily in the festival world, and now we've made the decision to transition into more special events that we produce, operate and own. In this case we came up with the idea of doing "Off The Record" and bringing a fashion show to Nashville that was on the same scale as the fashion shows you see in New York City. What we didn't know at the time was that one of the goals for the Nashville is to put the spotlight on this city as a potential fashion center and they've worked on developing a program where they're training people to be a seamstress or pattern designers for example, so they can bring fashion manufacturing to Nashville. That was kind of a surprise to us, because we didn't realize it, they've been a big supporter of this and they love the idea that this event is going to take place in Nashville.
3. It looks like a great time for the event and just looking at the artist line up too, its impressive: Chase Bryant, Big Kenny, Old Dominion, Phil Vassar and of course, I guess you have more people coming. That in itself kind of sounds like a mini-festival. A fashion festival, but it's pretty high end with the ticket purchase for $500.
Again, what we didn't know going into this is that so many artists have embraced this; I didn't know this because I'm not from the fashion world, but some of the artists - Country artists - have their own fashion line. Like Brian Kelley [ pf Florida Georgia Line], there are a lot of artists that are introducing their own fashion lines. You know Chase Rice has his own as well, so it's been really interesting to see that and realize that's a big part of a lot of these artists, their careers and what they're doing in terms of releasing their own product lines. One of the heavy hitters on the fashion side of it is John Barbados and he has made a commitment to participate in this event. He has several artists that are basically endorsing Barbados' line, and he's opening up a place here in Nashville. So there's a lot of moving parts here that we didn't initially realize.
Thanks again for the time Gil -- Once again, this is happening Sunday, November 1st, and tickets can be purchased for $500 at offtherecordnashville.com benefitting Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.