When the Coastal Country Jam relaunched Sept. 16 at Marina Green Park in Long Beach, Calif., after a four-year absence, headliner Blake Shelton looked up before he took the stage and saw his name sparkling like a floating marquee in the sky.
Gwen Stefani and her kids cheered the moment, says Activated Events founder and event producer Steve Thacher, but they weren’t just seeing Shelton’s name in lights. They may have seen the future of country festivals. The Coastal Country Jam is one of at least four country gatherings that employed drone shows for the first time in 2023.
“We’re always looking for new, fun, wow factors to incorporate into our event,” Thacher says. “We thought this would be one of them.”
The drone show is a still-developing technology that had its biggest audience during the global broadcast of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in 2022, when 1,800 drones were used to create a complex series of images suspended over the stadium. The technology has been utilized in a number of different events since then, including a coronation concert for the United Kingdom’s King Charles III in May and a New Year’s Eve celebration that Keith Urban witnessed in Australia.
“It’s surreal what they can do and how many of them can be synchronized or coordinated to do insane things,” says Urban. “It’s really amazing, like a modern version of skywriting.”
Activated Events debuted the drone show at the Coastal Jam after the company worked with several municipalities that were replacing fireworks displays with the new technology. Drones appeared before the headliner both nights during Coastal, presenting a series of images (an American flag, a whale, a surfer and the Queen Mary tourist attraction) before employing a “Next Up” announcement, leading into Shelton’s name on the first night and Tim McGraw’s on the second. The company presented a different version of the show during its Boots in the Park festival in Tempe, Ariz., Sept. 22-23, with Shelton, Sam Hunt and Brooks & Dunn.
Similarly, Southern Entertainment held a drone show one night each at two different East Coast festivals: the Carolina Country Music Fest in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on June 9 and the Barefoot Country Music Festival in Wildwood, N.J., on June 18. They employed their own images — including a patriotic red, white and blue eagle — ahead of the direct-support act, with several visuals that hinted at income-generating possibilities.
At the Carolina event, organizers used the drones to announce one of the 2024 headliners, Morgan Wallen. They also created an in-air QR code for sponsor Selfie.Live, a Lee Brice-affiliated company that enables consumers to get celebrity autographs on their own digital photos. Six thousand of the 35,000 ticket holders downloaded the QR code, a number that impressed Southern Entertainment co-founder Bob Durkin. The QR code holds other possibilities, including guiding fans to the festival website to buy tickets for the next year’s show.
Additionally, the Carolina drone show included two giant beer bottles with Coors emblazoned on their virtual labels. The display was not monetized in 2023, though it’s easy to see how it could evolve into a source of advertising revenue.
“It was sort of an added value for our sponsor,” Durkin says. “They got to see their brand portrayed in a different way, and the greatest part was [Molson Coors chairman] Pete Coors was at the Carolina Country Music Fest. He said, ‘I’ve seen it all, but I haven’t seen that.’”
Drone shows, which Durkin says can range from $25,000 to $100,000, require significant advance work. Both Activated Events and Southern Entertainment booked outside drone production companies roughly nine months ahead of their festivals, allowing time to design the presentation and program each drone. Promoters also have to navigate local regulations, which can vary widely. Drones pose security risks, as well as potential safety problems — imagine a flying object losing its charge and falling out of the sky on top of an unsuspecting patron. That complication is one reason that some promoters are reticent to get involved in the drone business. But three of the four country festivals were held in beach communities, allowing the light display to take place over the water and away from pedestrians.
There’s also a fair amount of give-and-take between the promoter and the drone companies. The concert promoters suggested messages and images they would like to see during the show, and once the production company came back with an initial presentation, the two sides tweaked the lineup and sequence and were able to time out the event. At Activated Events, DJ Luwiss Luxx built a playlist to go with the light show once the display was scheduled out.
The overall mix of sights and sounds won over a captive audience as it marked time between acts, and led to a positive social-media response.
“In every email or text message that I got, it was ‘Oh, my god, that drone show was epic,’ ” Thacher says. “I had random people reach out on LinkedIn, literally saying, ‘Hey, I never do this, but I just have to tell you, not only was the experience great, but that drone show was absolutely amazing.’”
Both Thacher and Durkin plan to do it again next year, and they may get more bang for their programming buck since continued advancements will likely make it possible to incorporate more material in the same time frame.
“I know there’s a few country festivals in 2024 you will definitely see use it,” Durkin predicts. “It’s not a great big industry, so we all kind of know each other. And they’re all like, ‘Holy cow.’ You know, everybody’s trying to one-up one another.”