In 2007, capacity for the inaugural Stagecoach country music festival wasn’t determined by the amount of food and drink on hand or by the number of people local officials said could be safely accommodated.
“The cap was how many tickets we could sell,” said Stacy Vee, vice president of Los Angeles-based Goldenvoice, which puts on Stagecoach along with the annual Coachella festival on the sprawling grounds of Indio’s Empire Polo Club.
The answer back then was 12,000, which was the size of the crowd that turned out to see George Strait, Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn while surrounded by the mountains and palm trees of the Southern California desert.
Fifteen years (and one global pandemic) later, Goldenvoice is hoping to draw more than seven times that many fans to Stagecoach with a 2023 edition it announced Monday will be headlined by Luke Bryan, Kane Brown and Chris Stapleton. The singers put contrasting spins on country tradition, with Bryan (also known as a judge on “American Idol”) doling out amiable party songs, Brown dabbling in slick hip-hop beats and Stapleton pushing his raspy voice toward old-school soul music.
Other acts on the three-day show, set for April 28-30 at the Empire Polo Club — one weekend after Coachella 2023, which will run April 14-16 and April 21-23 with a lineup yet to be revealed — include Jon Pardi, Riley Green, Old Dominion, Gabby Barrett, Parker McCollum, Melissa Etheridge, Morgan Wade, Tyler Childers, Bryan Adams, ZZ Top and — back again — Brooks & Dunn.
“This will be our 15th anniversary,” Vee said of next year’s festival, accounting for the gap brought on by COVID, “so they’re kind of bringing it full circle.”
The starry bill reflects Stagecoach’s status as the “granddaddy of country festivals,” according to Jay Williams, co-head of WME’s Nashville office.
Yet the lineup announcement comes at a challenging time for festival promoters in general, and for Goldenvoice specifically. After regularly selling out for a decade, Stagecoach failed to hit its target of 85,000 tickets this past April, when Thomas Rhett, Carrie Underwood and Luke Combs headlined the event. And this year Goldenvoice called off a pair of festivals — the Latin-focused Viva L.A. and the hip-hop-based Day N Vegas — reportedly due to low ticket sales; Palomino, a new one-day alt-country show held in July outside the Rose Bowl, earned admiring reviews but drew a smaller crowd than the company had hoped.
“It’s tough out there,” Vee said. “Rising production costs, inflation, lingering COVID effects — there are a lot of things working against festivals right now.”
Add to the list a number of deadly tragedies at recent fests such as last year’s Astroworld in Houston, where 10 people died in a crowd rush, and December’s Once Upon a Time in L.A. at Exposition Park, where rapper Drakeo the Ruler was fatally stabbed. Vee declined to comment on safety issues at those festivals, both of which were put on by concert giant Live Nation, a prime competitor to Goldenvoice’s corporate parent, AEG. But speaking broadly of the ticket buyer’s experience, she said, “You should be able to assume you’re going to be safe at a festival.”
So what is Stagecoach — whose general-admission passes cost $389 but whose various VIP packages top out at an eye-watering $2,749 — doing to attract a full house? Beyond the top-line talent, the show will feature celebrity chef Guy Fieri doing cooking demonstrations with artists. It will feature a trio of musician-slash-actors — Ryan Bingham, Lainey Wilson and Luke Grimes — who’ve appeared on the hit TV series “Yellowstone.” And, Vee said, it promises unannounced guest appearances along the lines of Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose’s surprise drop-in with Underwood in April.
“I know for a fact that next year’s headliners saw that happen, and they’re like, ‘We gotta get to work,’” Vee said. Of Rose’s cameo, in which the singer joined Underwood for performances of GNR’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City,” Vee said, “It was something that had been floating in the ether for like a year beforehand because Carrie loves rock ’n’ roll. And Axl” — who played Coachella with GNR in 2016 — “couldn’t stop smiling the whole time he was onstage.” After the gig, Vee said, the two “stayed and partied at Stagecoach until the wee hours of the morning.”
Stagecoach is also working to deepen its reputation as a place of diversity in a country music scene roiled of late by conversations about institutional racism and sexism. In an email, Brown, who will be the first person of color to headline the festival, said, “A lot of people when they first look at me don’t think I’m in country music.” But, he added, “You don’t have to look a certain way to listen to or love country music. Stagecoach is one of my favorite places to play, and I can’t wait to be back with everyone.”
Though the 2023 bill lacks a female headliner — a fact likely to draw some criticism — it features rapper Nelly, who’s collaborated with Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line, and Breland, the young Black artist behind the viral country-rap hit “My Truck,” as well as several members of the LGBTQ community in Etheridge and Trixie Mattel.
“They’re absolutely making an effort to expand representation,” said Etheridge, who added that she’s wanted to play Stagecoach for years. “And because it’s in California, they’ve kind of got the space to do that.”
Asked how confident she is that the festival will sell out next year, Vee said she was encouraged by a strong advance presale Stagecoach held before the lineup was announced. (Regular passes will go on sale Friday morning.) “To have those tickets in the bank gives you a little confidence in the market, which is an amazing feeling, especially right now.
“But,” she added, “85,000 tickets is a lot of tickets to sell.”