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Where Rock The Bells Fails, Drake's Tour Succeeds

Drake backlit at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Monday night.
Stephen Lovekin
Getty Images
Drake backlit at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Monday night.

What does the concert-ticket buyer want? If we're accepting that the market for albums — physical and digital — won't ever rebound, that digital singles will never make up for the loss in revenue and that streaming can't be profitable under current licensing laws, professional musicians (and the labels that love them) need to figure this out. Rap music, with its younger audience, has been more flexible in this regard than other genres: Rap acts now run the multi-genre summer festival gamut after infiltrating smaller cities' club circuits long ago. Some use live bands and perform acoustically, others employ visuals that can support a single rapper onstage, without a slew of hypemen.

But it's not all coming up roses. At the end of September the Washington, D.C., and New York dates of the 10-year-old Rock the Bells Festival were cancelled because of woeful ticket sales. The two West Coast dates, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, had gone off well earlier that month. I asked Chang Weisberg, who created and promotes that festival, why his company came up about 19,000 tickets short on the D.C. date, which was a loss that also sunk New York's scheduled stop the following week. "Probably the No. 1 factor in why maybe the shows weren't as successful as we hoped was that there was a lot more specifically great hip-hop shows on sale specifically at the same time we were on sale. Jay Z's Magna Carta tour is out, Kanye's Yeezus tour, Drake's tour, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis — these are all direct competitors to Rock the Bells," he said.

Rock the Bells has built itself into one of hip-hop's preeminent festivals, without any affiliations to major-market commercial radio stations. The tour holds onto its roots in paying respect to the genre's greats, and it flourished before rap acts were granted the bookings, insurance rates and Top 40 radio promotion that pop musicians enjoy. I last attended Rock the Bells in 2010 at D.C.'s Merriweather Post Pavilion, an outdoor seated venue, there to see Lauryn Hill, Wu-Tang, Snoop and A Tribe Called Quest. Since then it's expanded to two days at each stop (another factor in the East Coast cancellations according to Weisberg, though he says he didn't want to deliver a "watered down version" of the show he put up on the West Coast) and the lineup has tripled in size. "I'm not afraid to say that the talent budget for the D.C. Rock the Bells was very close to $2 million," says Weisberg.

This year Rock the Bells relocated to less formal venues — New York was scheduled for the racetrack at the Meadowlands (Weisberg considers the unfamiliar locale another reason for the lack of ticket sales), and the D.C. date was to take place in the parking lot of RFK Stadium (the place at least one high school girl fainted on the blacktop during Ice-T's set at the 1999 Warped Tour — shout to me). The musicians can be afforded only brief soundchecks, and they play through systems constructed just for that day. One of the more heart-wrenching moments of my interview with Weisberg was when he said that as he went about cancelling Rock the Bells — first calling the artists, then the venues, then security, in the confusion his unwitting vendors kept on building stages in the morning heat.

Nobody dresses up for Rock the Bells. It's for the heads — you will be called out if you don't know the words, or worse, the history — and it's an all-day event. The acts are either legacy or they're rookies still sorting out how they'll perform the songs they wrote in their mother's basement. Supernatural, KRS and Wu-Tang were to play Saturday in D.C., Bone Thugs, Rakim and Slick Rick on Sunday. Out of 56 acts, a grand total of four women (two of whom are rappers) — Jhene Aiko, Syd (of The Internet), Rapsody and Snow Tha Product — were booked, and there were zero heartthrobs, though you could argue Rocky and Kendrick qualify (I'll hear arguments for Sean Price, from the grown ass women among us). Most of the younger musicians on the bill encourage stage-diving at their shows, or a form of turning up that ends in flailing, irresponsible elbows.

Weisberg lists Rock the Bells' ticket pricing as a considerable factor in the cancellation, but he objects to the criticism he's heard. "A 2-day ticket starting at $125 and a single day ticket starting at $69 is very competitive when you look at what else is happening amongst all these other shows." That's fair — I spent a similar amount on Drake's tour with openers Future and Miguel, which landed in Brooklyn this Monday night. Tickets for the Barclays Center ranged from $59.75 (which actually cost the consumer $71.60 from Ticketmaster) to $109.75 (which cost $125.25, unless you buy at the door, which I did, despite Drake's proclamation that he had sold out Barclays).

From where I sit, the biggest factor in Rock the Bells failure and Drake's success isn't on Weisberg's list — it's a summation of those considerations, and it's called date night. What do you want in exchange for $70? If you set those two concerts in opposition, far more people would rather feel fancy, look cute and stroll around that new-car-smell arena until the lights go down than act like experts, look functional and struggle through packs of overconfident, sunburned teenage boys just to buy a beer. They also want a heartthrob.

At Barclays on Monday I stopped counting men in patterned pants at seven. Platforms were rife. The makeup was fresh, the dudes were holding doors. Future was in cold weather gear, then changed into leggings. Miguel sounded tired, and abbreviated sets don't do his tense songs any favors, but his footwork was on point. Drake wore denim on denim on denim, until he took his top layer off, which incited the loudest screams in the room to that point.

From my seats on the floor, Drake had the Barclays Center open — which isn't to say they were just going to give him a pass. The crowd listened hard to the new song, "Trophies," but didn't express judgment. His DJ played that for us during the breather Drake took, leaving us alone with his accompanists and billowing stage smoke, just like the 64-year-old Lionel Richie did when he played Barclays last month. And though Drake's glad-handing around the stripper heel catwalk was entertaining, if garish (it reminded me of the Ol' Dirty Bastard and Eazy-E holograms Rock the Bells had promised), that whole thing was preceded and followed by what both my next seat neighbors (a couple) and all the girls in the bathroom called his "R&B break" — the stretch of songs including "Come Thru" and "From Time," past "Hold On, We're Going Home" and into "Too Much" — almost a third of Nothing Was the Same. They also called this time "annoying."

To me, this portion of the show was aimed at the ladies, but flew right by the actual experience of the women there. It presumed that girls would rather get compliments than hear him rap. It forgot that, prior to the fawning over both a barefoot Jhene Aiko and a barefoot woman ostensibly pulled from the crowd, the Barclays Center, which was at least half women, had lost its collective mind to the opening strains of "Pop That," "Versace" went over bigger than he had any right to expect and the reaction to "No New Friends" shook the building. Drake's dancing throughout was a joy to behold; we should have charged him for the dancing we did during the hard-bodied hits.

One of the main reasons we concert and clubgoers part with our hard-earned money these days is to hear gigantic songs at the volume they were made to be played at alongside total strangers who want the same thing. When Drake brought out ASAP Ferg to do "Work" and all of ASAP Mob for "Shabba," then kept Rocky onstage for "F---in Problems" (known party unifier) it felt like the room was finally answering in the affirmative to his earlier question: "Are we all in agreeance that tonight is my birthday party?" Drake said that we could consider OVO and ASAP Mob as one unit henceforth. I laughed, because the statement flies in the face of Drake's aversion to new friends — absurd already that evening, since Drake didn't come up with or under Busta Rhymes and yet there he was Monday night, a drop-in the length of a verse and chorus of "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See."

People ask me all the time about listening to hip-hop, especially resolutely uncivil hip-hop songs like "Pop That" and "Versace," most of the time because I am a woman and sometimes because I'm a white woman. I have a few different answers — one is about , one questions the purpose of the person getting in my face, one is a history lesson and another is the saying of a friend: dance now, deconstruct later. Hold opposed ideas in your mind at the same damn time. Women who spend money on rap shows do so because they love rap. Most people who spend money $70 on any concert want payoff. Comfort. High production value. We want to forget. We are tired. It would not be bad if your visuals sometimes made us think of Miami sunsets, sometimes of liberated killer whales, sometimes were in actual fact indoor fireworks.

In these days of dusty, overbooked festivals run rampant, a smooth-sounding, tight bill with the promise of a good-looking, down-to-party hometown crowd makes that cash register sing. Competition usually grows a market, but at a time when almost everyone is looking over their shoulder at debt or cutbacks, consumers are going to make decisions that cause pain to some producers. "I feel like I just broke up with my girlfriend," said Weisberg days after he cancelled Rock The Bells.

Drake, Miguel and Future on Monday night were an answer to the question of how performed rap can stay in business right now. Sell an evening. Consider climate control. Dance. All these are old suggestions; it's not so different from Big Daddy Kane taking Scoob and Scrap on the road with him, or an understanding of a hip-hop show as a party, not a recitation of an album. Cater to women, who control most wallets anyway — but cut it out with the patronizing. Don't forget why we're really there.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Frannie Kelley is co-host of the Microphone Check podcast with Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

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