McHenry County Fair is taking heat for booking Ted Nugent, but it hasn't hurt sales
McHenry County Fair is taking heat for booking Ted Nugent, but tickets sure sold
Booking musical acts for suburban concerts and festivals sometimes collides with politics, but as it turns out, controversy can increase exposure and ticket sales.
Jeff Kleinschmidt knows all about that, after booking 70-year-old rocker and former suburban resident Ted Nugent as headliner for the McHenry County Fair in August. The move drew fire from critics including the Democratic Party of McHenry County, which blasted it as a divisive "wrong choice."
That got lots of media attention, and when tickets went on sale Wednesday, it became the fastest-selling show in fair history. First-day sales were equivalent to what he'd anticipated for a whole month, Kleinschmidt said.
"People are slamming us as (making) a political move, but we never even thought of this as a political move," he said. "This is a rock concert. Ted Nugent is a legend."
Music has become increasingly politicized in recent years, prompting dissension across the ideological spectrum from the Dixie Chicks to Toby Keith. But promoters would rather avoid sparking controversy, said Ron Onesti, president and CEO of the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles.
Before signing off on Ted Nugent concerts at the Arcada in 2017 and 2018, Onesti said, he had a conversation with Nugent's team about the musician's political outspokenness.
"I was assured that our shows would never be a platform for his politics," he said, adding he respects all points of view.
"The concerts that we provided with Ted Nugent are just about the music. He gives us two hours of rock 'n' roll, great rock 'n' roll, and that's what people come here for."
Nugent, a longtime member of the board of the National Rifle Association, has made disparaging statements over the years about people including former President Barack Obama and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
People calling to stop his concerts is nothing new. A concert scheduled in 2014 at a fair in Washington state was canceled after organizers cited a contractual conflict following an online petition, and an appearance in 2012 at Fort Knox in Kentucky was canceled over Nugent's comments about Obama.
Two years ago, Nugent pledged not to engage in "hateful rhetoric" anymore.
On his Facebook page, Nugent posted a newspaper article about the McHenry County Fair controversy and said, "Only liars and America hating scumbags have a problem with me. My spirit irritates their demons!"
Neither the McHenry County Fair's board members nor Nugent and his team responded to inquiries from the Daily Herald.
Nicknamed the "Motor City Madman" because of his Detroit roots, Nugent lived in Palatine as a teen and graduated from St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights. A memorial to his mother, Marion "Ma" Nugent, stands outside Durty Nellie's in Palatine.
Kleinschmidt said he was hired to bring musical entertainment to the fair, which is debuting new grandstands this year, and wanted "a big, over-the-top rock concert."
It's not easy to book a headliner for a set, once-per-year date, he said. "People say, 'You have hundreds of acts to choose from.' No, you don't."
Kleinschmidt said he presented several options to a fair committee, which made its final choice based on its budget, the musician's availability and the expected turnout. The committee also had a strong interest in another music act that had to be in California the night before, making travel to the Midwest too difficult, he said.
"After the fair committee researched and analyzed everything, the overwhelming choice was Ted Nugent," he said.
While he expected some criticism, Kleinschmidt said, he didn't anticipate the firestorm. He respects all opinions, he said, but the McHenry County Democrats' criticism was "politically motivated," he said.
Party chairwoman Kristina Zahorik's statement read, in part: "I thought county fair was about families and bringing the county together. The choice of Nugent is antithetical to that mission."
Ribfest in Naperville went through a similar controversy two years ago when it booked country singer Toby Keith, who had been criticized by the political left for performing that year at President Donald Trump's inauguration. There were also revived concerns over lyrics of his song "Beer for My Horses," which some say are racist and allude to lynching.
In the end, Keith "was very well-received," said Rick Grimes, executive director of the Exchange Club of Naperville, which organizes Ribfest. "It was a great show. The people who came thoroughly enjoyed it. But we don't enjoy controversy around artists."
Ribfest organizers initially deleted some negative comments about Toby Keith on the festival's Facebook page, but they eventually allowed people to express their opinions. Grimes said it's important to acknowledge detractors. "Although we don't speak for the artist, we made sure it wasn't falling on deaf ears."
Organizers also worked with the police department to provide an area for protesters the day of the Toby Keith concert, Grimes said. "It was very subdued. Like much on social media, there was a lot of talk and not a lot of action."
Grimes said Ribfest has "drawn lines" in the past regarding artists with a history of child abuse and domestic violence -- the festival raises funds for those causes -- and artists who swear on stage.
"With that being said, we don't convict anyone in a court of public opinion," Grimes said. "We realize that with almost any artist you are going to get a situation. Certainly, with Ted Nugent."
Officials from the Illinois State Fair, which is funded by taxpayers, didn't substantially answer questions about how politics might come into play when booking acts.
The fair "is a family friendly event and we strive to bring concerts with artists who will appeal to a wide audience and ask all artists to keep the show at a PG level," fair spokeswoman Morgan Booth said in a statement. "When booking acts for the Illinois State Fair four major factors affect our decision: budget, availability, routing, and the desire to have a diverse lineup to appeal to a wide audience of people."
Concerts at the fair, which opens Aug. 8, include Megadeth, Bad Company, Dan + Shay, Why Don't We, the Pentatonix, Snoop Dogg and Reba McEntire.
Different events target different audiences, which leads to making different choices, Grimes said.
"There are acts, especially in the Chicago marketplace, less in the suburban festivals, where any individual might say, 'That's a questionable act to have at your event,'" he said. "You have to balance entertainment and balance at the same time putting on a community festival that needs to reflect not so much the morals but the culture of its community."
Music-related controversies have affected both sides of the political spectrum. Most notably, radio stations across the country stopped playing music by the Dixie Chicks after their singer bashed President George W. Bush during a concert in 2003.
Politics and music shouldn't be intertwined, Kleinschmidt and Onesti said.
"Unfortunately people can't remove themselves and enjoy a night of entertainment without having their political feelings being hurt," Kleinschmidt said.
"If I hired rock 'n' rollers by their politics ... it really wouldn't be about the music, and I would be cheating the people who love this kind of stuff," Onesti said.
Still, critics are entitled to their beliefs, both said. "This is America," Kleinschmidt said. "You can buy a ticket and go, or you can not buy a ticket."