The Urban Live Explosion: From Closed Doors to Open Arms

Shareif Ziyadat / Courtesy Shareif Ziyadat Photography

When the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience announced Post Malone for its lineup in June, the “White Iverson” rapper was an already popular but still growing artist. As a mid-level hip hop touring artist he could fill large clubs and do major festival plays along with support slots for the likes of Diplo and Justin Bieber. But, by the time he took the stage for his Oct. 29 set at the New Orleans fest, his career had hit another level. 

“We got the number one f**ing song in the world right now,” the 22-year-old triumphantly bellowed before a sea of fans crammed in to get as close to the festival’s second stage as possible. This just before launching into his hypnotic mega hit “Rockstar,” which would bring the already keyed-up crowd to a state of pandemonium.

Post Malone
Drew Cigna @a_ciggs
– Post Malone

In the time between the Voodoo fest announcement and the show, Post Malone’s massive single featuring rapper 21 Savage broke the Internet. “Rockstar” now has over half a billion streams on Spotify and is in its eighth week atop the singles charts. Post is now one of the headliners for the upcoming San Bernardino iteration of the independent, hip hop-only festival Rolling Loud, his sold-out club shows through September and October now look like underplays and, according to management, the artist also known as Austin Richard Post will be headlining larger venues next year—none of which could have happened just a few years ago.

“Promoters and venues didn’t used to want to take a chance on a young artist they hadn’t heard before because they had limited access to your music if your song wasn’t playing on the radio,” said Jeff Robinson, CEO of MBK Entertainment who co-manages H.E.R. alongside Jeanine McLean-Williams, the firm’s principal. “But now the young fans live on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and so on, and they don’t necessarily have to be restricted by that,” added Robinson, who has guided the careers of Alicia Keys and Brandy among others. “You have instant access to a fanbase, so of course the result is more touring. It’s like the Wild West and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Post Malone is just the latest example of the continuing explosion of hip hop and other urban genres, where a former reality TV star and stripper is topping festival bills; a 20-year-old R&B multi-instrumentalist sells out a club tour in five minutes; and rap artists are hitting larger clubs and theatres for more extended tours than ever before.  These artists’ careers are buoyed by streaming data propelling them to the top of the music charts while creating something of a data pipeline that helps agents to make increasingly larger holds for clubs, theatres and what looks to soon be arenas for a growing active touring roster of urban artists.

Shawn Gee
– Shawn Gee
Maverick / Live Nation Urban

“Streaming has enabled hip hop to grow even bigger and at a far quicker pace due to the unlimited global access it provides in music, video content and sharing,” hip hop agent legend Cara Lewis told Pollstar. “Hip hop and R&B are defining the culture of today and what resonates with young fans,” she added, noting “stellar performances with over-the-top productions.”

For 2018, Lewis mentioned upcoming shows with Cara Lewis Group clients Travis Scott (arenas), Eminem doing his first U.S. performances since 2014, Khalid’s The Roxy Tour taking him to large theatres and sheds in May, and Grammy winner Chance The Rapper playing international dates including Lollapaloozas in Chile, Brazil and Argentina.

2017’s urban explosion begins with consumption, as the combined R&B and hip hop genre overtook rock for the first time. A Nielsen SoundScan report this summer said urban is now responsible for more than 25 percent of all music consumed in the U.S. The combined R&B/hip hop genre makes up just under 30 percent of all on-demand streams across the U.S – which is just short of rock and pop, the next two genres, combined. A Spotify statement to Pollstar broke it down more specifically: “Overall, Hip Hop listening increased 74% over the past year according to Spotify data – a significant increase, particularly considering hip hop’s popularity in 2016.”

Pollstar touring data mirrors this rise, with a clear urban trend in the top North American tours of the year. For 2016, Beyoncé was No. 1, with $169.4 million grossed and 45,684 average tickets sold. Not far behind her were tours by other now-established stars like Drake (No. 8), Kanye West (No. 18), Rihanna (No. 22), Pitbull (No. 61), Snoop Dogg/Wiz Khalifa (No. 110) and G-Eazy / Logic (No. 133), all solidly in the Top 200.   

“When I first put my toe in the water, somebody like Snoop, you couldn’t even book him with him the A-list guys,” said WME partner and agent Brent Smith, who signed hip hop legend Snoop Dogg 20 years ago.

“[Promoters] wouldn’t touch it, they wouldn’t go anywhere near it. You’d cobble stuff together. The A-level promoter in the market would just pass on hip hop a lot, with some exceptions,” Smith said, recalling night-of-show cash settlements and marveling at being able to pull tours off at all. “There were misconceptions about it being dangerous or drawing the wrong crowd. It was a really, really rough way to put a tour together. A lot just did one-offs here and there.”

Smith represents established superstars like Drake, whose sold-out 2016-17 world tour grossed in excess of $140 million, according to Smith, making it the highest-grossing hip hop tour in history and included multiple-night sellouts at major arenas like Madison Square Garden ($7.1 million, four nights) and Staples Center ($4.9 million, three nights) according to Pollstar data.

Also on Smith’s roster is Kendrick Lamar, who just received seven Grammy nominations including Album of the Year for his universally acclaimed DAMN. Kendrick is doing arenas – “Aggressively doing arenas,” Smith added, with sellouts this year including Dallas’ American Airlines Center, Prudential Center in New Jersey, Air Canada Centre in Toronto and Oracle Arena in Oakland among many according to Pollstar data.

WME’s Peter Schwartz said things really changed for him in the MySpace days in the 2000s when music was able to get directly to fans in a big way.

“It became super evident to me with Wiz Khalifa,” said Schwartz, whose roster includes Macklemore, A$AP Ferg, Lil Pump and Ty Dolla Sign, among others. “I was sort of getting my stats from MySpace, and seeing if an artist was getting 40,000 or 50,000 plays a day, something has to be happening.

“When we booked the first Wiz Khalifa tour, promoters were not believing he could do the business. So we pretty much took door deals and whatever we could get and said we’ll prove you wrong, and we sold out his entire first tour. That was a very eye-opening tour.” 

Brent Smith
– Brent Smith

Shawn Gee, partner at the Maverick artist management firm and president of Live Nation Urban, had a similar experience when The Roots were setting out to tour in the ’90s.

“Hip hop wasn’t popular from a venue or promoter standpoint at the time. There were a handful of promoters and venues in top markets that were accepting of what we were doing and who we were, but depending on the market we would have to reclassify ourselves. We would tell them we were a psychedelic-fusion hip hop act, a soul-jazz band,” Gee said, laughing. “We always knew that once they saw who came into the venue and what we were doing, and understood what it was, any stereotypical thoughts would go out the door,” Gee said of the band, which would do 150-200 shows per year to build its live audience.

But that’s all changed for the likes of Paradigm’s Erin Larsen, who represents a new and younger breed of cutting-edge hip hop artists, with a roster that includes Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti and G Herbo.  Nowhere is the rising wave of hip hop more evident than on the festival circuit.

“It used to be here or there you’d see Ludacris on something or Kanye on something, but it would take you getting to a certain kind of level,” she said. “And I think you’re starting to see the brands like Rolling Loud and others that are looking more to invest in hip hop. I feel like it’s kind of the new EDM in a way, where that was kind of a wave, but this is hopefully going to have a little more staying power.”

To wit: Three years ago Rolling Loud festival debuted in Miami with just 6,000 people attending the single-day event; this year’s iteration has ballooned to 120,000 over three days and expanded to include Rolling Loud Bay Area at Shoreline in Mountain View, Calif., and the upcoming Rolling Loud Southern California Dec. 16-17 at NOS Events Center in San Bernardino with Future, Migos, Lil Uzi Vert, Schoolboy Q, Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, Young Thug, Post Malone, 21 Savage, Lil Pump, and more.

Rolling Loud features solely hip hop music and fields a lineup of 50-70 artists. The event’s independent promoters, 20-something-year-olds Tariq Cherif and Matthew Zingler, have plans for China, Japan and UK editions for next year.

“We just knew what the properly crafted lineup would do,” Cherif said, noting he and Zingler’s experience with their Dope Entertainment company booking club shows in the Florida area for years before they launched Rolling Loud. “It’s not an actual equation, but we kind of know – if I spend this much, have this much big talent with this much up-and-coming talent with the right media and the right lineup, I will generate this amount. You kind of know.”

Curating a hip hop-specific lineup provides a festival platform for artists that may otherwise not fit most festival bills, he said, with the latest and freshest talent able to play to a large audience of diehard hip hop fans.

Erin Larsen
– Erin Larsen

Live Nation Urban this year launched the RapCaviar concert series with Spotify, known for its hugely popular hip hop playlist of the same name, which played Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom with Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, and DJ Drama Oct. 20 and was sold out clean for weeks, according to Gee. Nov. 21 had A$AP Mob, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, The Diplomats and others at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York.

Gee says Live Nation Urban is looking to develop urban-leaning events and now handles the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia and Broccoli City event in Washington, D.C.

Tory Lanez, who plays RapCaviar Houston at the Revention Music Center along with southern “trap” rap pioneer Gucci Mane, Bun B and others Dec. 14, is a perfect example of the new school of rap touring.

“We did Missoula, Montana, for $500. We went and did everything,” said Lanez’s manager and ScoreMore Shows promoter Sascha Guttfreund. “We put out an 86-city tour, just in North America.”

Based in Austin, ScoreMore Shows also puts on the JMBLYA festival, which in May attracted 50,000 fans to Dallas and Austin featuring hip hop (and EDM) acts including Chance The Rapper, Gucci Mane, Lil Uzi Vert and others. ScoreMore Shows’ Mala Luna in San Antonio sold out 50,000 tickets over the Halloween weekend with headliners including Future, Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa and Migos.

Cardi B is nominated for two Grammy awards and was included on Forbes’ prominent “30 Under 30” feature alongside Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, SZA, H.E.R. and Migos.”

“This didn’t just start this year,” Cardi B’s agent, CAA’s Mark Cheatham, said of the rise of urban and hip hop music. “A number of artists have long had successful touring careers, but with the new music distribution and consumption models, hip hop is reaching a much wider audience.”

Cardi B was on Spotify’s “Who We Be” event at London’s Alexandra Palace Nov. 30 alongside UK grime artists Bugzy Malone and Dizzee Rascal, as the streaming service has taken its “Spotify Presents” branded live events internationally.

With such a pervasive influence on overall pop culture, defining hip hop and urban music isn’t easy today, with rock, pop and country superstars obviously influenced and heavily borrowing from it, and styles and rap subgenres running the gamut. Justin Bieber brought on Post Malone for 59 arena dates on his “Purpose” North American tour last year as support, further demonstrating the crossover appeal of hip hop.

Post Malone’s subsequent “Stoney” headline tour sold out during presale, UTA’s Cheryl Paglierani told Pollstar, adding that long-term success today takes more than hit songs.

“Anyone can gain momentum online with the right music but supporting that effort by making the right moves with your touring career is what will make the difference between having longevity or being here today and gone tomorrow. I tell my artists this all the time,” Paglierani said.

“There’s much more opportunity now. With so many different ways an artist can gain exposure today it’s really opened the doors for touring opportunities to be created for acts who otherwise wouldn’t have had a platform.”

Roy Rochlin / Getty Images

Tory Lanez performs during the Meadows Music And Arts Festival at Citi Field in New York Sept. 16, 2017.

Paglierani cites Rich Chigga, an 18-year-old Indonesian rapper known for incorporating humor into his music. He’s just sold out The Paper Tiger in San Antonio and The Mohawk in Austin, according to Pollstar data. “He has no label and no radio play,” Paglierani said, “but we just finished our first U.S. tour selling out 750-1,500-cap rooms across the country. When I started in this business 10 years ago that would have never happened.”

ICM Partners is among the agencies on the forefront of urban’s current rise, with artists like Future, J. Cole, and SZA under the stewardship of the agency’s Urban division, which includes senior agents and partners Dennis Ashley and Robert Gibbs, who have been instrumental in building the urban department. 

Making noise right now on tour for ICM Partners and signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville label are Bas and Cozz, who Gibbs says are both building their fanbases, and J.I.D and Earthgang who are out together selling out clubs across the country and poised to announce another 25 shows on a 40-date, two-leg tour.

“The team is taking the blueprint with what we did with Cole and applying it to these guys,” Gibbs said, adding that J. Cole grossed just shy of $27 million on his recent North American run. “J.I.D and Earthgang are playing everywhere from El Paso, Texas, to Salt Lake City – to Minneapolis, to Calgary, Alberta. So when we talk about hip hop hitting markets and growing, these guys are a prime example.” Gibbs goes on to credit agents like Caroline Yim, representing Daniel Caesar who is selling out 500- to 1,000- caps and ICMer Mike Hayes who reps Jon Bellion, whom Gibbs says is headed for arena-level business.

And then there’s rising 20-year-old multi-instrumentalist H.E.R., who’s had public shout-outs from superstars Rihanna, Usher, and Wyclef Jean and racked up some 250 million streams without going to radio according to manager Robinson. With building buzz for an upcoming debut LP and building an audience with an opening spot on Bryson Tiller’s tour through theatres and arenas, Gibbs says H.E.R. sold out 22 headline club dates in under five minutes of the onsale. 

Cheryl Paglierani
– Cheryl Paglierani

H.E.R.’s just-completed tour took in venues like New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Neumos in Seattle, Union Transfer in Philadelphia and Baltimore Soundstage. And next year, her manager says, she’ll expand to the 2,000- to 2,500-caps.

While much has gone right this year with hip hop, the genre hasn’t fully shaken stereotypes of violence and crime sometimes associated with it. While much of its tangled roots originate in hard-scrabble urban areas, today’s rising hip hop artists far more often than not transcend those associations.

“Some of the problems that were tied in with rap in the past still exist,” said Heath Miller, talent buyer and founder of ExcessDB Management which books shows in New Jersey and New York, “but most rap artists today are professionals. They know this is their career and treat it that way.”

Miller also says he’s seen a change in the fans. “A lot of rap shows aren’t really a rap audience anymore. It’s become a mainstream audience. Everyone listens to rap now, with [crossover] artists like Charli XCX,” Miller said. The influence can be seen with even artists like Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line adding rap-inspired segments to their music.

Irrespective of genre, Miller says it’s essential to do research on the artists and crowds for each show, adding that altercations are probably more common at rock shows and that every genre has issues, such as some teenagers taking party drugs at EDM shows.

“I try to book shows that I’m not going to lose sleep over,” Miller said, adding that he has a handful of fans he consults with from various genres who can warn him about any problems with a particular artist or fan-base.

Nederlander director of talent Eric Milhouse, who formerly worked at Goldenvoice and named Run The Jewels and A Tribe Called Quest among his favorite artists, concurs that issues arise at shows of every genre.

“It’s in the nature of doing live music. People don’t necessarily know how to contain themselves,” Milhouse said. “Fights happen at hip hop shows, but also especially at shows you wouldn’t think would be a problem.” 

With urban’s growing mainstream acceptability and growing demand, and touring continuing to be the primary revenue driver more than consumption, publishing checks or brand deals, artists and their managers are taking full advantage of the road.

“As some of those revenue streams have dried up, people have started to rely more and more on the touring business as an income source,” said Gee, who has worked with major artists including Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. “Overall, artists realize both the financial importance as well as the strategic importance of getting on the road.”

“I think artists are hungry to tour,” said ICM Partners West Coast urban division co-head Dennis Ashley, “Like J. Cole who broke on the road, another artist, Machine Gun Kelly, was basically a hometown hero really growing out of the Ohio area. He may have done 130 shows in one year – just growing his touring business without a record at all. And he was hungry for it. We rolled up our sleeves and put in the work and built him up the right way,” Ashley said, stressing that the agency’s urban division takes a team approach.

Mark Cheatham
– Mark Cheatham

Growth seems all but inevitable, with more arena-level artists like Chance The Rapper, whose Coloring Book became the first streaming-only album to receive a nomination for (and win) a Grammy Award.

“I think over the next few years we’re going to start to see a lot more hip hop acts make it to arena and festival headliner status,” UTA’s Paglierani said. “In an industry where the landscape is constantly changing and evolving, hip hop has always managed to push the culture forward. It’s only going to continue to grow.”