The California State Fair is known for its prize-winning livestock, deep-fried delicacies and midway thrills — but marquee musical acts? Not so much.
This year, amid a glut of tribute and cover bands like Petty and the Heartshakers, Journey Revisited and Queen Nation, the fair offered a few headliners with some early 2000s name recognition.
The Plain White T’s performed on opening day, with Sean Kingston and Martina McBride on hand to close it out this weekend. TLC, one of the bigger acts slated to perform, canceled due to illness.
For at least the last 10 years, the State Fair hasn’t really featured a headliner of major national acclaim. The last State Fair performer in recent memory with real star power was country singer Blake Shelton, who came to Cal Expo in 2009 — although that was before he made his debut on the popular television series “The Voice.”
Yet Sacramento clearly has the ability to draw A-list performers: Just down the road from Cal Expo, household names in the music industry like Post Malone, Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer are booked at downtown’s Golden 1 Center.
Despite theoretically representing the entirety of the Golden State, the State Fair’s showing was upstaged by Paso Robles’ smaller Mid-State Fair, which boasted concerts by Cardi B — one of the biggest names in hip-hop — Shelton and rising internet sensation Mason Ramsey, a 12-year-old who got his start in a viral video of him yodeling in a Walmart.
So why is the State Fair such a lackluster curator of big acts?
Consider the business model
Trevor Swenson, a Carmichael-based agent at international music promotion and booking firm Artery Global, said the State Fair is an attractive venue to every client — but its business model is not necessarily geared toward landing A-list performers.
Even though Cal Expo draws thousands of visitors every summer, regular admission prices of $14 are likely not enough to offset the cost of a major artist, Swenson said. “They’re doing what they can with their budget,” he said.
The State Fair does not charge separate admission to its concerts, though it does offer paid reserved seating. For that reason, spokeswoman Sabrina Washington said, comparing the State Fair with its Paso Robles sibling is “comparing apples and oranges.”
Most of the Mid-State Fair’s bigger acts require tickets that cost anywhere from around $20 to over $100, depending on seating, in addition to entry admission.
Washington said the State Fair wants to be mindful of the cost of admission for fairgoers, so leadership focuses on inclusive entertainment.
The State Fair’s main revenue generator is food and drink concessions, Swenson said, which means its target market is the 30-to-65 demographic, who are of drinking age and are willing to shell out for pricey fair food.
Meanwhile, the prime age range for concert ticket sales is 15 to early 20s, Swenson said, a group that largely cannot purchase alcohol.
The cover bands and legacy acts that the State Fair books — what Swenson characterized as “nostalgia artists” — provide a family-friendly atmosphere.
And that’s what fair is all about anyway; people aren’t primarily coming to Cal Expo to see the next hot concert, Swenson said.
“The drawing power of the fair is the event itself,” he said. “It’s not that the music is secondary — it adds to the event.”
Washington agreed that the State Fair is a more holistic experience rather than primarily a music venue, and its leadership has been making strides to innovate and broaden its target audience in other areas, such as introducing its esports tournament and its Bank of America Selfie Experience, which she said have been very popular.
“There are so many other venues that you can go to to see music,” Washington said. “We are not in the business of just doing concerts.”
However, Swenson said if the fair wants to move to be more concert-oriented, organizers might consider adding music that appeals to a younger crowd, like pop-punk band Good Charlotte, which made an appearance at Cal Expo in 2017.
“Maybe go crazy and get Katy Perry one year,” he said.
Mid-State Fair’s strategy
It’s all part of its strategy to reach a broad, diverse and young audience, Mid-State Fair CEO Michael Bradley said.
Mid-State Fair officials are asked pretty frequently how they manage to attract star power, Bradley said, and there’s more than one reason.
For one, he said, the Mid-State Fair has been putting on great concerts for a long time. In 1969, country legend Buck Owens performed there, starting a historical trend of landing top-tier performers, he said.
The San Luis Obispo Tribune reported that Mid-State Fairs following Owens’ concert featured performers so popular, fairgoers camped out to buy tickets until it was disallowed.
In recent years, the Mid-State Fair has seen Garth Brooks — who sold out close to 15,000 tickets in just 30 seconds online — Britney Spears and The Chainsmokers, among other popular performers, Bradley said.
It’s not necessarily that the Mid-State Fair is better at convincing big names to perform, but it is uniquely geographically situated in a kind of venue desert, Bradley said.
The relative dearth of large venues in the areas surrounding Paso Robles means potential concertgoers have fewer available options, Bradley said, driving fair concert ticket sales.
Bradley, who used to live in Granite Bay, said Sacramento’s music scene is host to a wide variety of large venues, which means the potential revenue of the region’s concert-attending market is split.
“We really don’t have huge competition within, say, 90 miles of us,” Bradley said.
Evidence of this, Bradley said, is that the Mid-State Fair draws 50 percent of its ticket buyers from more than 50 miles away, while the State Fair likely draws close to 90 percent of its attendance from within 50 miles, Bradley said.
Washington said about 86 percent of attendees at the 2018 State Fair were from Sacramento, San Joaquin, Placer, or Yolo counties, according to the most recent fair survey.
“People that live in the Sacramento area and the Sacramento Valley, they have a very large number of choices for big name entertainment, so when the State Fair goes to book entertainment they have to be very careful,” Bradley said. “They may be able to get the dates right with an act — and that’s only half the challenge. Now what you have to do, is be able to book the act and be able to get folks to buy tickets for that act.”
If the State Fair were to just go ahead and grab a large act without considering its ability to get paying attendees into Cal Expo, it would very quickly be a losing business model, Bradley said.
If the State Fair were to consider beefing up its concerts, Bradley suggested beginning with running some studies on what acts State Fair customers want and what they’re willing to pay to go see them.
“I would start by saying it’s going to be a tough job,” Bradley said. “The entertainment business changes every hour.”