Inside Nicki Minaj's Path to Arena Headliner: 'She Knocked It Out of the Park'

Nicki MInaj performs during "The Pinkpint Tour" on July 26, 2015 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Courtesy of Republic Records

Nicki MInaj performs during "The Pinkpint Tour" on July 26, 2015 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Nicki Minaj's debut foray into headlining large venues in North America on the Pinkprint tour was a complete success on every level, the next phase of an ongoing strategy to position the artist as an elite headliner for years to come.

While her celebrity profile, fueled by an active social media following and a stint as an American Idol judge, is among the highest for any pop star, Minaj's touring history is limited. Minaj has performed in front of large crowds as support for such arena-level headliners Lil Wayne and Britney Spears, but the Pinkprint tour, in support of her 2014 album of the same name, was her first domestic big-building headlining tour. Veteran tour producer Shawn Gee, who co-manages Minaj with Gee Roberson at Maverick Management, says the strategy for Pinkprint actually began in 2012, when Minaj embarked on her first headlining tour of America.

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Back in 2012, Minaj played arenas in the U.K., and large clubs and theaters in North America and the European continent. Since then, Minaj, Roberson and Gee have plotted relentless, "about touring strategy, where we want to be, and the steps we need to take," Gee tells Billboard. Back in '12, "Nicki's profile was really high, coming off of the last album, but she had never had a hard-ticket headlining date."

In fact, Minaj's first tour, prior to joining Roberson and Gee for management, was on the Gee-directed Lil Wayne I Am Still Music tour in 2011. "Wayne put her in a great position in the middle of his set," Gee recalls. Then, under Gee and Roberson's management, Minaj nailed down a support slot on Britney Spears' Femme Fatale tour, but going into her second album still hadn't embarked on a headlining tour.

That's when Minaj and her team plotted to change that. "We knew that, although her profile was high, she had to develop her hard ticket base, and also give herself a chance to really learn how to perform as a headliner," Gee explains. "So we did what, at the time, was considered underplays domestically, between 25-30 theaters in the U.S., with the vision of, 'next album, we're going to use this as a platform.' Because then you have a base of consumers that can build and grow with you, and then we'll build it out to the large buildings, which we were able to do this summer."

Gee describes Minaj as "a strategist in everything she does," playing critical roles in packaging, production and routing. "She's really in tune with her core consumer," he says, "which is evidenced by her social media numbers and outreach. The theater tour blew out, and that was the goal: to leave some demand outside of the doors. We wanted to make sure we left some tickets on the table, so when we came back and played the bigger buildings, with a larger profile and more catalog, that we caused a bit of a frenzy. This was definitely one of those 'I love it with a plan comes together' situations."

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Another goal, given Minaj's global appeal, was to get the artist's profile on an even keel worldwide. "Her profile internationally back in 2012 was higher than her touring profile domestically," Gee points out. "We had to manage that, because as she moved along in her career, we wanted to make sure she had a proper balance from a profile perspective across the world. Obviously, we want to play similar-sized buildings [globally] so we can have the same production, we can amortize costs across the world, as opposed to having to build two different productions for two different sized venues."

Mission accomplished. On this year's run, Minaj was able to continue in arenas in the U.K., and grow to arenas on the European continent while developing new markets like Germany, which grew from clubs to arenas for Minaj. "We were able to bring that same momentum back over to the States and it sort of evened out, whereas three years ago it was a bit imbalanced," Gee says.

According to Gee, Minaj was able to grow as a performer and build on her creative vision with the Pinkprint. "Laurieanne Gibson was the creative director, and she and Nicki really put together an amazing visual show, and Nicki delivered from top to bottom," Gee says. "The growth in her as an artist, as a performer, everything was in line for this summer, and she knocked it out of the park."

Minaj began her touring in support of Pinkprint with string of European headlining dates in March, followed by a sellout headlining the BET Experience festival at Staples Arena in Los Angeles. She then played 10 European festivals, a goal of Minaj, according to Gee, before returning to North America. "This was our first step up into the big buildings, so we wanted to be careful of the markets we picked, and we wanted to take it out the entire summer," Gee explains. "Nicki hand-picked the markets, and once we had the routing together and built around what we were doing early summer in Europe, everything fell into place with the markets and buildings we wanted to play."

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The North American leg began July 12, a 21-date run of primarily amphitheaters, with a few arenas including a sellout at Barclays Center in Brooklyn that grossed $1.3 million, according to Boxscore. The tour did "extremely well," Gee says, averaging about 14,000 tickets per show. Between Barclays and Holmdel, N.J., Minaj sold 30,000 tickets in the New York/New Jersey market in one weekend, and other highlights included 19,000 tickets sold in Dallas, 21,000 in Philadelphia, and 22,000 in Chicago. The tour wrapped last week in Edmonton, with a total gross of about $14 million, according to Boxscore, with 321,525 tickets sold for an average nightly count of 14,652.

The European festival plays did a good job of setting up North America, Gee says. "When we were in Europe in March we did well, and when we came back with the festivals, she really killed it," he says. "It all built upon each other, especially with her social media following. We actually tracked ticket sales in the U.S. from when we were doing a lot of the European work, and we saw the increase in the U.S. once the social media kicked in on what we were doing in Europe. People didn't know what to expect, and once people started seeing the clips on YouTube and how amazing her show was, demand started to peak."

While it seems that there were more dates on the table in North America this summer for Minaj, "for us it's a marathon, not a sprint," Gee says. "This was the first of many tours in her career. We're never in a rush, we want to build from a strategic perspective, look at what we're doing, then continue to build upon on that. Now that we know the type of business she did on this run, on our next big building run we can really handpick some additional markets and build on the success we've had."

Touring in support of this album cycle may not yet be over, with Australia, Asian, and other global markets potentially yet to come. "We toured [Australia and Asia] on the last cycle, those are really big markets for her, so we're still looking at hitting those markets, hopefully later this year," Gee says. "We want to look at South America, Africa, so we're looking at the rest of the world at this point. The album dropped in December of last year, right at the top of the new year is when we started building her set and rehearsing. So January through September we focused mostly on Europe, the U.S. and Canada, and now we're looking at the rest of the world for the next six to 12 months."

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