The scene was striking in its incongruity.
There was Nelly, the St. Louis rapper who was dominating the Billboard charts, standing onstage at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View back in 2002. It was, in many regards, Nelly's year. His sophomore disc, "Nellyville," had debuted at No. 1 and was well on its way to selling a mind-blowing 6 million copies. His single "Hot in Herre" was the club anthem of the year, and radio stations across the country seemed to be bumping it every hour on the hour.
Yet that couldn't translate to a sell-out crowd in one of the top markets for hip-hop in the country. Touring as part of a package with Big Tymers, Fabolous and Lil' Wayne, Nelly was only able to fill roughly a third of the building — just a smidge over 7,000 tickets — meaning the 22,000-capacity Shoreline looked ridiculously empty as Nelly rapped his way through his chart-topping hits.
Truth is, given major label hip-hop's track record at arenas and amphitheaters, promoters were probably lucky to get that many fans into the building. Nelly's Shoreline show was hardly an isolated case of a mega-rapper failing to fill the house. In fact, for much of rap's history, including its dominant days of the late '90s and early 2000s, that's been pretty much the norm.
As we prepare for the biggest weekend of hip-hop local fans will see all year — Kanye West leads an all-star lineup into Arco Arena in Sacramento on Friday and the
Hit CD not the ticket
Even though rap seems a few years past its glory days, you're still likely to see several hip-hop artists on the latest Billboard album charts. Then take a look at the Pollstar Top 50, which counts up the biggest money-makers currently on tour, and you'll notice quite a different story.
"I look at our Top 50 tours and there's almost nothing on there but rock 'n' roll and country," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert industry trade publication Pollstar. "In general, rap/hip-hop tours don't do near the business that you'd expect based on record sales. That's just across the board."
That's not a recent trend or even a trend at all. The genre never seems to post the type of concert revenues that live up to its record sales. It seems to be the opposite of the rock world, where so many big names (the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Elton John, etc.) do far better at the concert gate than on the album charts.
To illustrate, scan the numbers from the first part of this decade, when rap was experiencing some banner years. In 2003, two of the year's top 10 selling albums belonged to rappers, including 50 Cent, who came in at No. 1 with "Get Rich or Die Tryin.'" In 2004, three hip-hop stars placed among the year-end top 10 sellers. The following year, it was the same story.
But over the same three-year time period, there wasn't a hip-hop star who finished among the top 10 in the concert industry.That says plenty about where the emphasis lies in each genre.
"The rock experience is all about the live show," says Rick Mueller, president of Live Nation Northern California. "I'm guessing if you took a poll, (people would say) the hip-hop experience is all about the CD."
Things have only gotten worse for the rap concert industry in recent years, as major players such as Eminem and (at least temporarily) Jay-Z dropped out of the game. The gap between a hip-hop artist's ability to sell records and to move tickets, according to Bongiovanni, "just seems to keep widening — ridiculously."
In 2006 and 2007, there was relatively little news about rappers embarking on major tours. That's due in large part to the lack of hip-hoppers who can actually command arena dates.
"There are very few," agrees Rob Evans, editor of the Ticketmaster-owned tour news Web site LiveDaily.com. "I don't know if I'd even put the Beastie Boys in that category any more. (Hip-hop tours) have sort of dropped off the radar. You've got the Roots, who can sell out any theater in the country. But take it up a notch (in terms of venue size), and who do you have?"
The guys in suits, the ones whose year-end bonuses are determined by the relative health of the rap economy, like to say that hip-hop's failure at the box office can be attributed to an overall decline in sales in the music industry. Other insiders suggest other theories.
"I say that a lot of it has to do with substandard product," says Bay Area hip-hop journalist Davey D.
Making a connection
Davey D has a little game that he likes to play with people: He finds a hip-hop fan and asks him or her to name a recent hit album. He then asks that person to name more than three songs off that record.
"Most people can't do it," he reports. "But if I ask them to name all the songs off Wu-Tang's '36 Chambers,' there are people who can do it."
Davey D gets similarly knowledgeable responses when he asks folks about a classic Tupac disc or Public Enemy's sophomore outing, 1988's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back."
"That's an indication that there is an emotional connection that those artists made with their fans," he says. "And a lot of them did it with touring."
Yet hip-hop artists, at least those signed to major labels, have been reluctant to tour. And label execs have been shy about sending their artists out on the road, perhaps afraid that the rappers will play to half-full houses and the tours will lose money.
Thus, the hip-hop industry currently finds itself in a classic Catch-22 situation. Everyone would like these artists to play for big crowds, but are hesitant to invest what it takes to build a sizable audience. "There are very few acts of any genre, who, if they are not working the road continually, can fill up a building," Evans says. "Whereas acts that have sort of lived on the road, like the Roots and Spearhead, they can sell out."
Indeed, as Davey D points out, rap has two divisions. There are the major label rappers, who shun the typical tour circuit in favor of other means of promotion, and there are the independent cats, who understand that playing concerts is one avenue to success. That latter group includes the Roots and Spearhead, as well as such local acts as Lyrics Born and the Coup. Not coincidentally, those road warriors tend to be some of the best-reviewed live acts in all of hip-hop.
"Independent artists do 40-50 dates a year and do quite well," Davey D says. "You see Boots (Riley) and the Coup, and some of the other artists who don't get regular airplay, and they're killing it in concert. They clearly understand that the best way to make a connection with their fan base is to tour."
Not everyone, obviously, would agree with that theory.
Video killed the concert star
The standing operating procedure for breaking a new rap star, and building a fan base, has very little to do with touring. It's built on getting airplay, which means playing 15-minute sets at multi-act radio-station-sponsored events, and pouring lots of money into making videos.
During hip-hop's salad days, there was no reason to argue against that process. Overnight rap sensations were moving millions of units, watching themselves on TV and flying around the country in fancy jets. Yet there's a downside to such a quickly built foundation.
"It can put you in a space that you think you don't really have to worry about performing," Davey D says. "BET, MTV videos are the important thing — millions see you and it goes to your head."
But these rappers often find themselves replaced by the next hot new thing, with the next hot new single, and if they want a seat on a jet, they'd better have an airline ticket.
"I think that's really the problem that the hip-hop artists face — that they are commodities, and disposable ones at that," says Davey D.
Hip-hop, perhaps more than any other genre, is fueled by one-hit wonders. Some artists achieve that ranking by accident, while others seem to be molded into a perfect fit. But when that song has run its course on radio and the charts, a label has no further use for the artist. Thus, a label isn't going to pour a lot of money into developing hip-hop artists.
"Soulja Boy is not going to get a major tour," says Marcus Reeves, author of the newly released book "Somebody Scream! Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power." Reeves says he understands why so many young hip-hop artists have been reluctant to tour over the years — it was a money thing, and the quick fix came with signing a record deal, not from months spent out on the road. Thus, the emphasis has traditionally been on polishing up the mixtape instead of honing the live show. That strategy worked as long as record execs were willing to throw handfuls of cash at prospects, but, as Reeves points out, "those days are over."
There are some indicators that things could improve for the hip-hop concert industry. For one, the touring hip-hop festival Rock the Bells drew some 50,000 locals during its stop in San Francisco last year — although not without the help of rock-oriented headliner Rage Against the Machine.
A more pertinent case will be played out this upcoming weekend as the Bay Area hosts Kanye West and the Jay-Z/Blige juggernaut. Tickets will be hard to come by for both. Live Nation's Rick Mueller expects Jay-Z to sell out, while ducats for West's show — featuring, among others, hot newcomer Rihanna— are long gone.
"I've never seen a show sell out so fast," said Danielle Madeira, publicist for Another Planet Entertainment, the Berkeley-based promoter hosting West's gig in San Jose.
West is a dramatic exception in the live hip-hop business. Although his last visit to the HP Pavilion in 2005 filled only half the house, he's continued to build his audience, and has become known as the rare hip-hopper who embraces the same type of pricey stage theatrics as the Rolling Stones.
"Kanye is a showman, which I think is a trait that a lot of other hip-hop artists lack," says Pollstar's Gary Bongiovanni.
Let's say that things changed overnight and that rappers decided to start touring as frequently as Jimmy Buffett. Would that right the ship?
One possible roadblock is the perception that violence and crime are staples of the hip-hop bill. Some parents are clearly wary of sending their teens to a rap show, having heard the urban legends and a few real news stories about problems at hip-hop shows — but how well-founded are these concerns in 2008?
"Does violence happen at some shows?" says Oliver Wang, editor of the book "Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide." "At times, sure, but violence happens at all kinds of public events, and it's rare that you've seen the same level of whipped-up hysteria."
The concert industry has really upped its efforts to ensure public safety. The scene at a hip-hop show today is vastly different than what one would have found even five years ago. Plus, the lyrical content has changed dramatically (with Glock-toting gangsta rap now out of favor).
"There have been relatively few problems at major hip-hop shows," says LiveDaily's Evans. "I think (the violence factor) is more of a perception than reality."
That perception, however, is not what's keeping promoters from booking hip-hop acts, Evans says. It's the perception that most rappers won't draw at the gate.
"Concert promoters are in it to make money," he says. "If they thought they could make it with hip-hop shows, there would be more major hip-hop shows."