Sin City lassoing top-notch country artists

For country music artists on tour, a stop in Las Vegas has become a must. The city where names like Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Barbara Mandrel once graced casino showrooms, newly built venues and recently refurbished, multimillion-dollar, high-tech hotel stages now attract new-guard chart-toppers like Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and others.

The town’s success in drawing top acts can be traced to several factors: Paydays can be bigger than the typical stop because casinos that operate venues can charge higher ticket prices and are willing to pay acts more money. Top-tier acts can make as much as $1 million on a two-night stand. Chesney’s tour in 2005 ranked seventh nationwide, with a $61.8 million gross for 71 shows.

Also, the growing number of venues competing for top talent keeps guarantees high, and there is a large audience pool consisting of residents of the region, tourist and convention traffic, as well as fans from Los Angeles willing to pay top dollar to attend the shows.

“It’s not the secondary market it was once thought of,” says Gary Bonjiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the trade magazine that tracks the touring industry. “Las Vegas used to be where older artists went to play and where newer artists went when their career was over. Superstars now make it a regular stop on their national tours.” Vegas now rivals such key country music stops as Dallas, St. Paul and Nashville.

In the ’70s, artists of country music (then dubbed country-western) would use the annual National Finals Rodeo to help bring in audiences. Promoters would schedule shows to bookend it, hoping visitors in town for the popular December event would also pay for a nearby concert or two.

Some acts still play at NFR-related festivals, but the town’s growing population and tourist trade have helped fill local venues, keeping the demand for shows brisk all year. “Acts no longer need the NFR days to tie in. Now there are plenty of people to go around all year,” observes Bonjiovanni.

Some view Reba McEntire’s 30-night headlining contract at the Las Vegas Hilton as a sign of country music’s solid popularity in the city. Running nonconsecutive weekends through August, McEntire’s gig is considerably longer than any booked by Rogers or Mandrel, and hotel execs are hoping her crossover appeal will attract tourists and conventioneers willing to pony up $225 for the top ticket.

“Vegas is better now for country music than ever,” says Alex Hodges, executive VP of HOB Concerts. “The casinos have built some top-drawer stages, and whenever you start investing in venues, you begin attracting more local and out-of-state traffic and big-name talent.”

(Barbara Sherzer contributed to this report.)

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