2024 Impact 50 Cover Honoree: Shawn Gee, President & Co-Founder, Live Nation Urban

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Live Nation Urban’s Shawn Gee has steadily built a music promotion juggernaut that by itself is on par with some of the most successful promoters in the business. With massive ticket sales, top festivals in major markets and tours that regularly appear on Pollstar’s top tours charts, Gee’s vision for his promotion company, supporting Black culture and community, is scaling and rising to a level few if any promoters in this business ever attain.

When we speak in late May, Gee is in full-on festival mode: He’s in Dallas where he has two running concurrently — Kirk Franklin’s Exodus Music & Arts Festival at the Toyota Music Factory in Irving, Texas; and TwoGether Land, an inaugural fest he’s promoting with his partner Jason “J” Carter with headliners Lil Wayne and Summer Walker at Dallas’ Fair Park.

The following weekend he’s off to his native Philadelphia to work on his anchor fest since 2008 — The Roots Picnic — the city’s largest ticketed festival with some 60,000 attendees (75K last year if you count the comedy fest the night before). It is not Live Nation Urban’s only market-leading festival. There’s also Atlanta’s ONE Music Fest that brought in 100,000 last year and is now ATL’s biggest fest; and Broccoli City Festival, which was Washington, D.C.’s biggest ticketed festival in 2023 with 45K in attendance and this year is moving from RFK Stadium to Audi Field.

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A drone shot of the 2024 Roots Picnic at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, which drew some 60,000 attendees and is the city’s largest festival. (@samshapiromedia/LNU)

“We sold north of a million tickets last year and 85-90% of them were to Black consumers,” Gee says. “The idea is for Live Nation Urban to be Intel, the chip that powers all these computers, but you rarely see Intel out in front. You see the computer brands. My goal with Live Nation Urban is to be the chip that powers Black culture from a live music perspective. I want to give my individual partners and individual brands the autonomy to build their own equity right within the communities in which they serve because that’s how they’re going to—excuse the pun—lay roots and grow.”

If it’s a business model that sounds familiar, it’s because it is and it has to do with one of Gee’s mentors. “The brilliance of Michael Rapino (president and CEO of Live Nation) is that he invests in ideas and in curious people,” says Gee, who clearly has learned from, and is a beneficiary of, the Live Nation business model, which since its formation has continuously acquired and empowered live industry businesses and entrepreneurs.

Using a similar flywheel model, Live Nation Urban has created its own slate of live, which beyond the aforementioned fests, also includes the Summer Block Party tour, Lil Weezyana Festival, Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman Festival, Honeyland Festival (“It’s like the Black Bottlerock”) and The Reunion Tour. The latter is Kirk Franklin’s tour which LNU took to arenas and partnered on with Gospel music entrepreneur Norman Gyamfi. LNU’s touring division, which in addition to Kirk Franklin, includes runs by LL Cool J, Ari Lennox, DVSN, Jill Scott, and Tony Toni Toné. Mari Davis runs LNU’s touring division, which Gee says makes up 30% of its revenues.

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The Live Nation Urban Flywheel (Courtesy LNU)

There’s also a sponsorship component which the promoter sees as a growth opportunity. “I have an internal team I’m building to go out to the marketplace to let people know if you want to tap into Black culture from a live music perspective, there’s no other place to go other than Live Nation Urban. We’re selling more tickets to Black people than anyone.”

With some festivals this year feeling a pinch and some cancellations, when asked if LNU’s experiencing flagging sales this year, Gee is optimistic. “We don’t have data yet, but I can tell you Mary J. Blige’s Strength of a Woman did bigger and better than ever. The Roots Picnic will be our best year yet. That’s the difficulty of the festival business — just because you have a great year one year, does not guarantee you’ll have a great year the following year.”

In October 2014, Gee — who was managing The Roots and Jill Scott, running The Roots Picnic and part of the larger management team working with Kanye West, Drake, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj — became part of Live Nation with its Maverick management roll-up helmed by Guy Oseary.

Once inside Live Nation, Gee began pushing for a change that would eventually become Live Nation Urban. “Once we sold the company and became partners with Guy Oseary and with Michael … I would have these conversations with Michael every time I saw him. I’d say, ‘Hey, you know the company’s really not invested in Black culture.’ We started talking about it a lot. It got to a point where he assigned Jordan Zachary, who had just started at Live Nation, to it.

Jordan and I talked about my thesis and the company not investing enough in Black culture and how we could build something to find a solution. After about a year of conversations, Michael, Jordan and I came to the concept of building out a venture that was focused on Black culture. Michael understood I had a vision and he was willing to invest in it.”

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MAKING THE DREAM WORK: The Live Nation Urban team at the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia included (backrow, L-R) Jason “J.” Carter, Taalib Din, Shawn Gee, Sil Mani, Richard Gay, Malcolm Gray and Eric Reed. Middlerow: Amanda Anderson, Mari Davies, Brandon Pankey, Jasmine Kelly, Nicole Cigliano, Aleah Jones, RebeccaProudfoot, Natalie Leary and Taylor Patton-Williams. Front row: James June, Najaya Ruffin, Sadaq Ervin andMichael Carney. | Courtesy Live Nation Urban

Launched in 2018, at the core of Live Nation Urban’s business is what Gee says are the three tentpoles based around investment in Black culture: The first, he says, is producing music festivals, tours and live events centered around an expansive definition of Black culture; second is identifying Black entrepreneurs and investing in their ideas and helping them grow by providing resources, capital and infrastructure; and third is building an on-ramp for Black executives to enter the live music industry.

Live Nation Urban is clearly invested in Black culture with its broad, non-denominational programming of Black music and culture, which includes the biggest names in hip-hop, R&B, gospel, jazz, country, Americana, blues, comedy, podcasters, food and far more. “We are a mosaic, not a monolith,” Gee says.

As for empowering Black entrepreneurs, both D.C.’s Broccoli City Festival and Atlanta’s ONE Music Fest are use test cases and share a similar trajectory in how Gee worked with Brandon McEachern and Marcus Allen at Broccoli and Jason “J” Carter on the latter, to provide resources, fund their visions and scale their festivals.

Broccoli City

Gee first heard about D.C.’s Broccoli City Festival from artists, including Solange and Erykah Badu, and agents who would ask for a radius clause carve outs, when he was booking The Roots Picnic.

“I did my research and went down to the festival in 2017 and met Brandon and Marcus. They had their fingers on the pulse of this young Black music culture. When I went, it was in Southeast D.C. and they had maybe 7,500-10K people. It was raining all weekend, but when I looked out in the audience, it was pure Black joy, like thousands of young kids just having a blast…but what they lacked was infrastructure and resources.”

Gee partnered with them and “took over some of the back of house infrastructure. Together we started building a strategy. We moved the festival to RFK’s parking lot. I was able to provide capital so we could elevate the talent. That first year it took off. We had Migos, Cardi B, Nipsey Hussle — rest in peace — and H.E.R. We took it from 7,000 to over 30K that first year.”

It’s a similar story with Atlanta’s ONE Music Fest. One of Gee’s first meetings after announcing Live Nation Urban was with J Carter. “I said, ‘Hey, how can we work together? How can we help you build out your vision? What are things that you would like to do?’ And he said, ‘You know, I want to get to Piedmont Park.’ Piedmont is Atlanta’s largest park, it’s where (the recently canceled) Music Midtown was held.”

LNU in 2021 entered into a partnership with Carter on ONE Music. “What we did is leverage our cultural capital, our relationships on the talent side (last year’s included Kendrick Lamar, Janet Jackson, Megan Thee Stallion), with buyers and agents and leveraged our resources to provide J with a solid foundation that allowed him to grow this brand. In 2021 we did nearly 20K per day at Centennial Olympic Park; last year, we made it into Piedmont and did over 50,000 per day, so over 100,000 last year.”

What Gee understood with both entrepreneurs, his own businesses and others, is that often Black entrepreneurship goes unfunded. “A lot of times, from an entrepreneurial perspective, you can have a great idea, but if you don’t have the support from an infrastructure and resource perspective, the vision will never materialize. And that’s what happens with us Black entrepreneurs in the live space, there’s no one to provide funding, capital, experience and expertise.”

Philly’s Finest: Questlove and Shawn Gee attends premiere of “HIP HOP: The Songs That Shook the World” at The World Famous Apollo Theater in New York on October 7, 2019. (Arturo Holmes/SIPA USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

At the core of Gee and his own entrepreneurship is the City of Brotherly Love. It goes back to Mount Airy, a neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia where he was born and raised (near his cousin, who is none other than The Root’s Black Thought, aka Tariq Trotter). Gee loved music, especially hip-hop, but never thought of it as a career. He attended Millersville University on a Division II basketball scholarship, though an injury sidelined that dream. Instead of the NBA, he got an MBA from George Washington University and set out for Wall Street where he became a VP at CitiBank.

“I felt like I was walking in other people’s footsteps and not really adding value to my life, but adding value to other people’s lives,” says Gee, who had to work out of Zurich Switzerland two weeks of every month. So it was fortuitous when his friend, the late great Richard Nichols, who first managed The Roots (and who Gee calls “The ultimate Fifth Beatle” and a “creative, visionary genius”) reached out.

“He was mixing a record at Sony Studios, after work I went to the studio. He vented about his frustration with the business of music and dealing with the suits. He said, ‘Look, I really need you to help me out with this…I’m going to give you a couple of phone numbers and tell them you’re going to call tomorrow. I need you to figure this out for me. I want to focus on the creators.’”

Those phone numbers turned out to be industry heavyweights: Cara Lewis, then at WME, and label exec Wendy Goldstein at MCA. “It was like being thrown to the wolves,” Gee says. “But I called them and literally started learning the business organically and through trial and error and figuring out and building a strategy around The Roots business while still a banker.”

ONE Music Festival
Shiny Happy Faces: Fans at Atlanta’s ONE MusicFest at Piedmont Park is the city’s largest ticketed event and last year drew 100,000 in 2023. (@latishamariee/LNU)

Eight months later, Gee would leave Wall Street and focus full-time on The Roots, who two years in were playing 200 shows a year and international festivals. He picked up the great Jill Scott in 2001, with the two artists forming his core business. It was his third client, though, who changed his game.

“I got a call from a lady who said, ‘My son just put out an album. He wants to do a tour. His management team and everyone on his team have only managed music producers. They don’t know anything about tours and artists. We have a booking agent, but the agent said you need someone on your team who understands this business. I researched a couple of people’s names and your name kept coming up, and it came from our booking agent. Would you meet with us?’ So I flew out to LA. And that lady who called me was Donda West, and the artist was Kanye West.”

It was 2004 and Kanye’s stone-cold classic College Dropout had just dropped and he wanted to do a college tour. So Gee helped put together “The School Spirit Tour.” He would work on Kanye’s tours until 2011-12’s “Watch The Throne” with Jay-Z. Through West, he met Gee Roberson and Al Branch and later Cortez Bryant, who brought on Gee as the “tour strategist” to work on the touring careers of Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj.  

2019 Billboard Power 100 Inside
Power Pic: Shawn Gee (second from left) with Al Branch (left) Cortez Bryant, Gee Roberson, Jean Nelson, (center), Robert Gibbs on Feb. 7, 2019 in Los Angeles (Rich Polk/Getty Images)

In 2008, after touring and experiencing European festivals with The Roots, the group had a meeting. “Nichols, Quest and Tariq were like, ‘How come we can’t do this in Philly?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, maybe we can?’ I talked to a variety of people, to some brands, trying to figure out how to launch this thing. I pitched Geoff Gordon, who at the time was president of Live Nation Philadelphia. He said, ‘Okay, let’s try it.’ In the first year we sold like 2,300 tickets at what used to be Festival Pier, our headliners were Gnarls Barkley and that was the start of The Picnic.

“We lost money — it’s not an easy process. A lot of times you’re building these things from scratch,” Gee says. “You got multiple artists, you got infrastructure you got to activate, you got a boatload of expenses. But what we saw was the impact we were having not only on the artistic community but the Philadelphia community, so we decided to keep going.”

Sometimes businesses take time to scale and it took The Picnic moving to Fairmont Park in 2018, a place where “Tariq, Ahmir and I grew up going to” (and maybe more importantly where The Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff shot “Summertime” video) to further reach its potential.

“As The Picnic grew, the impact it had on Philadelphia grew and we created relationships. At the time, the Mayor was a guy named Michael Nutter. He used to come to The Picnic every year. Geoff, myself, Tariq and Ahmir had a conversation with Mayor Nutter and he gave us the blueprint for how we could move to Fairmount. And that’s when we got our groove, because we were able to expand capacity, our experiences and the overall vibe.

It’s a use-case on local entrepreneurship, knowing a market and finding success with and part of a community. It’s a formula and mantra that Gee’s used to build an impressive business in six years.

When asked what his next six years might look like, the 52-year-old exec says, “In the next six, we’re going to continue to build our purpose. We’re going to continue to build our portfolio. We’re going to continue to provide access. We’re going to continue to invest in entrepreneurs and continue to grow this. … We’re starting to achieve some scale, the next step is figuring out what are the other things? What are the other businesses? What are the other ideas that can come from the scale that we’ve been able to achieve?”

Gee acknowledges his business model is similar to Live Nation’s but for one key thing. “There is a mirror to what Michael’s done with Live Nation, focusing on entrepreneurs and focusing on artists, but there is one word I would insert there: Black artists and entrepreneurs.”