Of the top ten grossing tours in the first half of 2019, just one hailed from hip-hop. But of the top ten songs, ranked by on-demand audio streams, eight were rap singles.
That disparity between people’s concert interests and their home-listening preferences is partially the result of longstanding biases in the music business. “African Americans traditionally haven’t had the opportunities that others have had in the live music industry,” says Shawn Gee, President of Live Nation Urban. “There needs to be someone to call it out, to say, ‘Hey, this is a problem,’ and be intentional with finding the solutions.”
In 2017, the concert behemoth Live Nation Entertainment brought in Gee to help address that very issue. His primary mission is to fortify the middle-class of touring. “Our goal is to create more platforms focused solely on the hip-hop, R&B, and gospel space and build them out,” Gee says. “We want the portfolio of events that are available to be plentiful, and make it so that it’s not just a one and done: ‘I get that slot on that festival, or I don’t.'”
Gee’s background in finance and touring makes him well-suited to this task. He got his start as a private banker working on Wall Street. But his cousin is Black Thought, the rapper in the Roots, and the group recruited Gee to help handle the group’s business operation in the 1990s. “Our goal was always just to make sure that these guys could pay their rent,” Gee says. “Can they give their mom some money for their light bill, and can they take a girl out on a date?” To achieve this goal for a group that rarely had major radio hits, “out of necessity, we built a very sort of efficient, effective touring model.”
By the time a young Kanye West wanted to find someone to help him build out his own touring, “everyone said The Roots had the most well-oiled, organized machine,” Gee says. He was with West as he transformed from a soul-sampling producer into an arena-headlining star. “There’s an old adage that you can’t skip steps in touring,” Gee says. “You have to consistently get out there and build your fan base. And you also have to be cognizant of your pricing — you never want to out-price your fame.”
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At Live Nation Urban, Gee has a multi-part plan to foster diversity in the concert business. He partnered with two streaming services, Spotify and Audiomack, to create live events showcasing rising artists — a direct method of closing the gap between the digital world and the live circuit. RapCaviar Live, which takes its name from Spotify’s second-biggest playlist, periodically brings lineups of up-and-comers to cities around the U.S.: Megan Thee Stallion leads an all-female lineup at the 2,400-cap Fillmore Miami in October.
Similarly, Hometown Heroes is named after one of Audiomack’s marquee playlists. “This partnership brings our locally-focused playlist series to life by allowing those artists to perform in front of fans who have been supporting them from day one,” explains Audiomack co-founder David Ponte.
Gee is also working to push more black artists into the ever-growing festival scene. R&B is often treated as an afterthought at mainstream modern festivals; the most recent edition of Lollapalooza featured more than twice as many rappers as R&B singers. To nourish the singers, Live Nation Urban kickstarted Summer Block Party, which grew from a one-off in Chicago (6,500 tickets) to a four-city event cumulatively selling 35,000 tickets.
Whenever possible, Gee looks to partner with young black entrepreneurs to help expand their own events. Since Live Nation Urban joined forces with the D.C.-area Broccoli City Festival, started by Marcus Allen and Brandon McEachern, the gathering has tripled in size, growing to 30,000 attendees in the last three years. Gee now describes it as “the largest gathering of African-American millennials in the world.” “We’re going to help with changing the complexion of the live music industry,” he says. It’s a prediction, and a promise.