Hip-hop has established itself as a touring genre -- so what caused Rock the Bells to cancel its East Coast dates?
While hip-hop touring has historically not equaled the relative success the genre has seen at retail and as a force in popular culture at large, the story the past couple of years has been one of general uptick driven by artist development and a cadre of hard-touring young artists. So the cancellation of two East Coast stops on this year's 10th-anniversary tour of Rock the Bells, produced by Guerilla Union and the most well-established brand in hip-hop touring, would seem contrary to the trend. And it is.
The 2013 Rock the Bells lineup -- including Kid Cudi, Wu-Tang Clan, Wale, Chief Keef, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar -- seemed solid. But producer Chang Weisberg, founder of Guerilla Union, pulled the plug Sept. 26 for shows Sept. 28-29 in Washington, D.C., and Oct. 2-3 in East Rutherford, N.J. (basically a New York play) due to poor ticket sales. Despite the cancellations, Weisberg will be the first one to testify to the genre's touring strength.
"I happen to be the one that didn't do well, but hip-hop is stronger today than it's ever been," says Weisberg, who also produced the Paid Dues fest in March in San Bernardino, Calif., which he says sold 27,000 tickets. "Obviously, a lot of tickets are selling for a lot of great acts in this genre. [The cancellation] is just an example of what can happen when people have too many choices, maybe. We just didn't have the show people wanted to go to."
Hip-hop agent Peter Schwartz of the Agency Group agrees that the cancellations aren't a reflection of the genre's health. "This is definitely not the decline of hip-hop touring," Schwartz says, citing the Under the Influence of Music tour with Wiz Khalifa, A$AP Rocky, B.o.B, Trinidad James and Joey Bada$$. "We were selling out amphitheaters and averaging 15,000-20,000 per show."
It could be that hip-hop touring is in some ways "a victim of too much success," Weisberg says. "This was the busiest touring summer and fall I can remember," he says. "When you have Kanye West, Jay Z, Drake, Lil Wayne, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller all touring, that's a lot of shows."
Schwartz says Rock the Bells has generally been more of a West Coast brand. "The fact is, while Rock the Bells has been a great forum for live hip-hop for a decade now, the East Coast shows have always struggled to match the success out west," he says. It's true the festival was founded in Southern California, but Weisberg adds, "We've had success on both coasts," and points out Rock the Bells has in the past done well in New York at Governors Island and Randall's Island.
"D.C. is a market we've been trying to come back to. I wanted to pull that one off so bad, and we were so close," Weisberg says. "Unfortunately, it was going to be a much bigger disaster, and we had to lay it down. New York was so bad, had we not had New York on the table, we would have been able to pull off D.C. financially."
Redevelopment on Governors Island led Weisberg to look at the Meadowlands Racetrack site in East Rutherford, and he now believes the new site may have played a role in the lack of ticket sales. "But it's not any one thing," he adds. "It [was] a heavy touring summer, a new venue, it could be the two-day format on the East Coast. I'm still shaking my head. I wish I could give you more. We're going to come back."