There was a time when the Ohio State Fair concert lineup was headlined by the likes of the Jackson 5 and the BeeGees in their prime.
Johnny Cash performed multiple times, including in 1969, when he won two Grammy Awards for his soulful hit “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Most of those acts had a song in the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 Singles the same year they took the stage at the fair.
>> Timeline: History of music at the Ohio State Fair
On Wednesday, the first act in this year’s concert series at the fair was Kidz Bop, a group of young performers who cover popular music without inappropriate themes or language. It was visiting for the third year in row.
Staples from the 1970s, such as REO Speedwagon and Bad Company, will be at the fair before it ends Aug. 4. The last time either of those bands had a year-end Top 100 hit was 1985.
There are many reasons for the decrease in big-name headliners at the fair, industry insiders say, from the country’s changing demographics to the evolution of music venues. State fairs became less of a draw for musicians as the industry changed.
“It was a platform to get big artists to come in front of audiences to sell physical records,” said Marla Calico, the president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. “That’s how you sold the music to make money by doing live performances. Fairs were a wonderful venue for that. Now, there’s a lot of competition.”
It’s not that fewer people are going to fairs in Ohio — in fact, the accessibility of transportation and Columbus’ central location makes it one of the most well-attended state fairs in the country, with about 800,000 to 900,000 people attending per year, according to fair spokeswoman Alicia Shoults. But there are a lot more options for musicians making a stop in Columbus now.
“Back in the day, the fair was probably the main attraction that brought big-name entertainment to Columbus,” said Brett Chance, entertainment director at the Ohio State Fair. “Now, the arenas hold twice what we do. That causes competition while booking headliners.”
Pop sensations Taylor Swift and Beyonce now have the option to fill Ohio Stadium, which expanded seating in the 1990s and can accommodate more than 100,000 screaming fans. Grammy Award-winning artist Ariana Grande can belt out musical runs to a sold-out crowd of nearly 19,000 at Schottenstein Center, built in 1998. And emo-rock group Twenty One Pilots can electrify fans in its hometown at the 20,000-seat Nationwide Arena, built in 2000.
In contrast, Ohio Expo Center’s performance area, Celeste Center, only holds about 10,000 people. The neighboring Mapfre Stadium, with a capacity of nearly 20,000, hasn’t been used for a state fair concert since 2012.
Chance said the Ohio State Fair doesn’t hold concerts to make a huge profit. Tickets to fair shows range from $20 to $65. Entertainment booking is allotted $2 million of the $8.5 million fair budget, so booking a major artist like Rihanna or Drake would take out over half that budget, leaving little or no money for the other 10 days of performances.
Instead, the Ohio State Fair seems to have found its niche: country music, Christian rock, a kids act, comedy and a nostalgic band, Chance said.
“We try to have a little something for everybody, but variety and affordable are important,” he said. “Nostalgia is definitely a strength of fairs. We do well with old-school acts and some specific genres too.”
That niche is confirmed by this year’s lineup, which includes Christian singer Matthew West, country musician Hank Williams Jr. and comedian Gabriel Iglesias, who also performed in 2017.
Perhaps those niche acts serve Ohioans best, because the past three years have been the top-grossing concert years in history, Shoults said.
“It’s a tough job,” Calico said. “There’s so many different elements, but at the heart, you have to listen to your community.”