Panelists Talk the Rise, Challenges and Future of Hip-Hop Festivals at Billboard Live Music Summit

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'Rock the Bells: Meet Hip-Hop's Next Generation of Festival Promoters' panel during the 2018 Billboard Live Music Summit + Awards at the Montage Beverly Hills on Nov. 14, 2018 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The hip-hop festival space has seemingly sprung from the ashes over the past half-decade, as the genre rose in popularity to become the kingpin of the streaming age.

"We started Broccoli City as an earth concert -- Urban Earth Day," said Brandon McEachern, founder of the hip-hop-centric festival based in the Washington metropolitan area, drawing laughs from the crowd towards the business end of day one of Billboard's 2018 Live Music Summit. McEachern's festival offers a variety of things beyond just music, however: you can do a 5K run, work in the community, take classes, "And then at the end of the day go and get wasted and forget everything you learned that day," he said.   

Such is the growing variety of the hip-hop festival space, which has seemingly sprung from the ashes over the past half-decade as the genre rose in popularity to become the kingpin of the streaming age. In the past, festivals like the panel's namesake, Rock the Bells, toured the country with an eclectic mix of MCs, but since that festival's demise five years ago, others have taken its place -- and helped shift the overall festival market along the way.

The health, status, challenges and future of hip-hop festivals dominated the conversation at the Rock the Bells: Meet Hip-Hop's Next Generation of Festival Promoters panel, moderated by Vibe editor in chief Datwon Thomas. Joining McEachern on stage were Sascha Stone Guttfreund, president of ScoreMore Shows; Tariq Cherif, co-founder/owner of Rolling Loud; Erin Larsen, agent at Paradigm; and Eddie Meehan, president/co-founder of Wonderful Union.

In particular, Rolling Loud, which Cherif co-founded alongside Matt Zingler, has taken up Rock the Bells' mantle, having expanded to California in 2017 and continued, ahem, rolling along with plans to take their festival international. "There's no science to this except real-time learning," Cherif said about how he and Zingler got their festival off the ground. "I did not go to school for this. Just figuring it out along the way."

Guttfreund, whose Texas-based ScoreMore company operates JMBLYA, Mala Luna and Neon Desert, has branched out lately into upcoming artist-curated festivals like J. Cole's Dreamville in North Carolina and Travis Scott's Astroworld in Houston, the latter of which sold out before even announcing a lineup. "I think Travis has done an incredible job of building a brand," he said about Astroworld. "Culture is winning and it will forever, and Travis is building an incredible culture."

Larsen, who works with artists such as Playboi Carti, G Herbo and Dave East, has seen these festivals grow alongside several of the artists she represents, and stressed the importance of being realistic. "You have to put the work in," she said. "You can't expect to go play 2,000 cap ballrooms every night. You have to put in the same grind as every other artist."

Larsen also pointed out that the rise of hip-hop festivals has pushed more mainstream events, like Coachella, deeper into hip-hop with their lineups, when traditionally they had been ruled by rock bands and pop artists. But with the more established players looking to pick up the biggest rappers for their own festivals, those in the hip-hop realm get more creative with their lineups. When Thomas asked if Broccoli City had thought about booking a JAY-Z, for instance, McEachern fired back with a line that picked up another slew of laughs: "I mean, you can think about it," he said, before turning more serious. "You try to curate it -- an artist for this crowd, an artist for this crowd. You try to do your research and get the timing right as best as possible."

Guttfreund echoed that need to get creative and stand out from the crowd. "Our model is different; for us it's cheaper ticket price," he said. "In El Paso and San Antonio we have a bilingual festival. In Austin, we were never going to be able to outdo ACL. We wanted to do something different."

As hip-hop festivals rise in both number and popularity, other headaches have also cropped up -- and Cherif was not shy with his disdain for one of them: the cost of insurance. "It's prejudiced how much we spend on insurance," he said. "We never have violence. But these insurance companies are pretty damn corrupt, because they're charging us a lot of money." (Guttfreund's take: "I manage Tory Lanez who climbs and jumps on everything. So insurance is a big part of my life.")

Still, that expansion isn't all bad. Cherif also spoke about the trepidation he felt when Rolling Loud was first considering expanding beyond its South Florida stomping grounds.

"My mentality was like, 'No, let's slow down.' But then, when we started the expansion in 2017 with our first two California shows, they were amazing," he said. "You're gonna have haters; I was just afraid of the hate. The truth is, it's a beautiful time for music, the culture is really strong right now and people just want to have a good time. So I'm glad that we did it."