Shawn Gee is a supreme live industry baller with some 25 years of experience that’s taken him to the highest echelons of the business. It began in the mid-’90s working with fellow Philadelphians The Roots and then Jill Scott, before running the touring table with a series of A-list clients including Kanye West, Lil Wayne, J. Cole and Drake. Along the way, he produced major festivals and events and, in May 2017, formed Live Nation Urban, a JV with Live Nation. As expected, Gee’s not one to rest on his laurels through these challenging times.
“When COVID hit in March, those first couple of days were a bit depressing and scary,” Gee says. “But quickly, my Roots management team, Questlove and Black Thought, we all immediately went to work. Some people call it a pivot, but within the Roots crew it’s what we’ve been doing for over two decades: being creative. Over the past few months, we’ve developed over 80 to 90 pieces of original content that we stream on The Roots’ YouTube channel and we signed a multi-year production deal with [NBC subsidiary] Universal Television. We also ideated and developed the Roots Picnic Virtual Experience in partnership with Michelle Obama, that aired on YouTube this past Saturday [June 27].”
The Roots Picnic, was supposed to take place physically May 30, but with the impact of COVID was transformed into an online philanthropic partnershipwith Michelle Obama and her nonpartisan, nonprofit When We All Vote to help drive voter registration. The event featured performances by artists including DJ D-Nice, H.E.R., Lil Baby, SZA, Roddy Ricch, Snoh Allegra, EarthGang and Bilal, and attracted 600,000 viewers and major sponsorships like PayPal, Lowes, Lyft and Ciroc, all while garnering a massive billion media impressions.
But if Gee’s cousin Tariq Trotter (a.k.a. Black Thought), his band The Roots and The Roots’ manager hadn’t reached out to Gee, this MBA might still be working on Wall Street – though, given his talent, drive and creativity, he’d likely be sitting in a C-suite somewhere—albeit likely far less happy.
“One day when I was at the bank, the Roots’ manager at the time, Richard Nichols, called me,” Gee recalls. “He was at Sony Studios mixing a record a few blocks from my office, so I went down there and over a bottle or two or three of red wine he told me how much he despised the business side of being a manager.”
Gee describes Nichols, who passed away in summer 2014, as one of his mentors and “the ultimate fifth Beatle with the Roots and creative foundation for theguys.” Nichols told Gee he wanted him to deal with the touring, finances and label administrative side of the business and “basically take over the non-creative side of management.” “At the time, it was a surprise,” Gee says. “I was like, ‘I have a job, Rich. I have a full-time job with a bank.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ll figure it out. Here’s our touring agent’s number, here’s our label contact. Just call them up. I’ll send them a note tell them you’ll be calling them.’”
And that Gee did, working with the band’s agent Cara Lewis and their DGC/Geffen label and setting up a business strategy and financial foundation from which the band could sustain itself and grow while creating a hybrid management position for himself that focused on the live side of the business. “It was all about business modeling, strategizing and properly executing the strategy,” Gee says. “My thought was, ‘How can I make sure that my artist A) maximizes their creativity, while B) maximizing profits at the same time?’ That was always my goal as a manager, and it’s still the lens that I operate from to this day.” One issue, however, soon arose with The Roots’ business model: there were no hard-touring hop-hop bands to model off of in the late ’90s.
“I studied Phish, I studied the Grateful Dead,” Gee says. “Those are the models we looked at to answer, ‘Who are we?’ We’re a Black jam band. This is the late ’90s. We didn’t have Puffy Bad Boy era club singles. We didn’t have the big syncs that were going to generate seven figures. There was no one in Black music we could model after because we were an anomaly. First off, we’re a band with a rapper. But what we did have at that time was a really strong live core fanbase. It wasn’t huge but they were very loyal to us. So we literally modeled that phase of The Roots’ career after Phish and the Grateful Dead and said, ‘We’re going to be the first big Black jam band.’”
Building the Roots’ live career without skipping steps and picking up another Philly star-in-the-making in Jill Scott allowed Gee to learn the business up close. “From the Roots playing 400-capacity club to settling the show and arguing with promoters about the towels they’re charging on the settlement sheet to figuring out how to make the cash last until the next gig to hiring the right tour manager and production team, I learned the touring business from a purely organic perspective. That helped lay a foundation for me personally for where my career went after,” Gee says. This, it turns out, would be on a whole other level.
“My third client was Kanye West, in another hybrid role as he had a full management team in place, but my role was tour strategist,” Gee explains. With Ye’s classic The College Dropout coming out, his timing couldn’t have been better. “I learned a ton from Kanye during my years with him,” he says. “We started out in colleges and clubs and grew to arenas. I learned how to do big shows with Kanye. Helping to put together tours like ‘Glow In the Dark’ was a grad school course in and of itself. It elevated my abilities and gave me the vehicle to learn how to build massive tours. The managers that I walked into the room that Ms. West and Kanye first introduced me to was a guy named Gee Roberson and Al Branch [of the Blueprint Group]. And Gee and I, from that day, became partners. So when he started co-managing Lil Wayne with Cortez Bryant in 2008 and they released Tha Carter III, which was the biggest album in the world, they allowed me to come in, build the infrastructure and tour strategy, hire the tour manager and production management team and negotiate a global tour deal directly with the buyer at the time who was Live Nation. The first tour which was the ‘I Am Music Tour,’ which took Wayne from clubs and brown bag money to arenas. From there, I worked with J. Cole and with my partners Gee and Cortez, Drake and Nicki Minaj.”
Gee noted the promoter most often on the other side of the table at Live Nation eventually became another mentor. “A gentleman by the name of Al Haymon,” he says. “Me and Al were on the other side of the negotiating table from one another, but he literally put his arms around me and said, ‘Look, I got you. I’m going to teach you the buy side of this business.’ As a manager, I was on the sell side. Because there weren’t many – I should say any – Black promoters of prominence other than Al, he saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself at the time.”
“He taught me a lot,” Gee continues. “Al was the first promoter that I experienced that hired Black people on the tour and tech staff. I saw Black promoter reps, I saw Black production managers and Al taught me that if we don’t hire our own, they won’t get hired. So that has become part of my business DNA, with everything that I do. In every tour or every festival, it’s not like I’m hiring only Blacks, but I’m definitely making it a priority. If you look at Live Nation Urban, if you look at the executives that I’ve developed, if you look at the entrepreneurs that I’ve invested in, for me, you have to pay it forward. You have to do that. Because if you’re not intentional with it, the system will never change.”
As for what lies ahead, Gee believes some of the engagement in digital streaming post-pandemic is here to stay.
“This digital consumer engagement we’re seeing now is not going to disappear. It’s now forever part of the live economy – the new live economy is what I call it. The digital disruption that we’re going through now will create new opportunities in the live music space to build and scale brands, and when we are all able to go out and fill up theaters and arenas again, this new technology and new consumer engagement model will make the live business bigger than it has ever been.