HITS Daily Double


With the concert industry in full swing, I Zoomed with AEG/Goldenvoice Talent Buyer Marcus Johnson,
UTA Partner/co-Head Atlanta Rob Gibbs, Wasserman Vice President/Music Agent Callender and Greg Johnson, a partner in Range Media Partners to get their take on Hip-Hop 50, the evolution of hip-hop as a live art form, their favorite performances, the challenges of booking rap shows in 2023 and the reverberations of that greatest of all challenges to the concert business: COVID-19.

Though they view rising costs post-pandemic as a reason for concern, Greg Johnson says, “Touring is back to where it should be.” Gibbs offers, “I think we’ve come out the other side stronger than ever.” And, auspiciously, there is consensus among this quartet of industry insiders that people are thirsty for live music.

It’s great to see everything that’s happening in celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. A lot of brands are capitalizing on it. And in some cases, what they’re doing feels pretty inauthentic. Some artists are asking, “Where were you 20, 30 years ago when we needed support?” But now that it’s Hip-Hop 50, everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon.

Rob Gibbs: The cream rises to the top―you know who’s been true to the music and the genre. Over the years, you’ve watched their actions, so it’s kind of easy to weed out those who are just trying to stand in the light. They’re getting called out.

Marcus Johnson: I definitely see a lot of corporations attaching themselves to hip-hop that maybe five or 10 years ago never would’ve mentioned either the genre or the artists.

Remember, it was supposed to be just a fad.

Marcus Johnson: Right. But like JAY-Z said, pay us back for what you did to the Cold Crush [Brothers]. [From 2001’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”: “Industry shady. It need to be taken over / Label owners hate me. I’m raisin’ the status quo up / I’m overchargin’ n****z for what they did to the Cold Crush / Pay us like you owe us for all the years that you hoe’d us.”] These artists who didn’t get to benefit off corporate America, now they have the opportunity, in the 50th year of hip-hop, to benefit off these companies that made millions off this music when some of those pioneers never got to see the royalties or their fair share. I’m not mad at it.

Hip-hop started with two turntables and a microphone―as a live form. But the performances have become pretty next-level since then. What are some of the challenges associated with that?

Rob Gibbs: You’ve got artists who want to fly across the arena. We used to joke about stuff like that, but now they’re actually doing it. It certainly is a challenge when you start talking about cost. When they’re selling those kinds of tickets and doing that kind of business, you would think they’re coming home with a lot of money. But when you factor in the cost of that level of production, it gets bigger every time. And that goes for every artist; I don’t care if it’s Beyoncé, Drake—you go down the list, every single one of them, their shows just continue to evolve and get bigger. As we’re doing the deals, we’re trying to maximize the money to serve the artist’s needs on what they’re looking for production-wise. It makes it a challenge for us.

Marcus Johnson: When you think about where hip-hop started—1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx in 1973—it was parks, then street parties, then nightclubs, then theaters, then arenas and now stadiums and festivals. To see where it is now―artists are building out spaceships and rockets. Obviously, as promoters, we gotta keep up. Every year you have your Kanye Wests who just want more. I respect pushing the envelope and taking the creativity to the next level. With technology, even when we can keep up, it gets expensive. But I love to see artists expand on their stage shows. To go from two turntables, a DJ, an MC and maybe a couple dancers to what it is now, it’s awesome to see.

Greg Johnson: I love where it’s going, providing that three-dimensional effect. You get the music in your ears and you can see it on your screen, but to be at a venue and really see the full representation, the lights, the colors, the sounds, the effects, it’s almost tangible for the fans. That’s something they’ll remember forever.

I still remember this giant joint Cypress Hill had onstage at a show in 1993―it burned the entire time!

Callender: I think you’ve all nailed it relative to how it’s grown and how amazing it’s been. I’m actually gonna go against the grain and say I want to see more of the artistry versus sparklers and screens, a little less of that and more about what’s great and what we all love, which is the artist being an artist. People want to see the raw talent. Sometimes things get too complicated.

Marcus Johnson: And I think in some cases, artists can go above and beyond on the production side to make up for what they lack on the artistry side. I won’t name names, but I do see that.

Has it been harder to book rap acts these days, especially in the wake of the Astroworld tragedy?

Callender: I don’t think the Travis Scott situation was genre-specific. You could see that happen at a rock show or an EDM show. I don’t think it was the music. Some of the issues are the same issues you see across the board. It’s just that sometimes with hip-hop, things are emphasized, like, “Oh, this is a rap problem.” I do think there are too many rappers―that’s probably the issue with booking rap today.

Too many MCs, not enough mics.

Callender: Exactly―not enough slots on Rolling Loud! But people are realizing how important hip-hop is, how in-demand it is and the value behind its artists and followers. It’s a great opportunity for people who actually come from hip-hop to make a living and learn the other avenues in the hip-hop genre, what agents, attorneys and promoters do. I think most kids felt that in order to be in rap music, you had to rap or be Puff Daddy. Now it’s opened people’s eyes. Those are some of the positives I’ve seen over 50 years of hip-hop—well, the 38 years I’ve been here.

Speaking of challenges, how did you handle the COVID-19 shutdown?

Rob Gibbs: It was the first time we all got to sit down and not have to be on planes for a minute, so that part was good for us, but the uncertainty made it tough. It was a lot of rerouting and trying to play a chess game nobody knew how to play. Ultimately, I think we’ve come out the other side stronger than ever.

Greg Johnson: It was definitely bittersweet. D Smoke is one of my clients. We had dropped an album on Feb. 7 [2020’s Black Habits] and had a tour routed through the summer. As far as the timing, not only did the tour get rerouted, but we were at Jimmy Fallon’s last show before the lockdown hit. We’re ready to celebrate, we’re running around New York and we can’t find anywhere to go. To land back in Los Angeles and hear that everything was being moved was a weird moment. We’re coming off the biggest moment of the artist’s life—and a lot of our own lives—but we couldn’t tour that entire year. Then D Smoke’s tour got pushed almost another year because it was so hard to get a date to hold. We had a Grammy-nominated album that September and we couldn’t tour. It was a dark time.

Marcus Johnson: I started at AEG as a talent buyer during the pandemic. It’s so funny that Rob Gibbs and Callender are on this call, because these are two guys I leaned on and went to for advice during the pandemic, which I call “the great restart.” People had time to think about the industry overall. Some people left their jobs and pivoted to other careers. I had to watch employees lose their jobs, and certain people who were fortunate enough to stay on had to take on a lot of different responsibilities. That was tough. But at the same time, we were able to have conversations with the people at the top of these companies that put out statements during the pandemic following the police killing of George Floyd and everything that was going on with social justice. It gave us an opportunity to sit still and think about what the face of these corporations looks like. And obviously, the conversation about diversity and inclusion became a big topic―after they put out those statements, these companies had to live up to them. And honestly, it gave people like me, as a Black talent buyer, an opportunity that maybe I wouldn’t have had if these things had not occurred.

Callender: I kept telling people to enjoy this time if they could because we ain’t gonna get this ever again. And everyone was excited, saying, “mental health, focusing on me” and yada, yada, yada. Now that the world’s gotten back on track, you see less and less of that because we’re all in the thick of it again. What I took from the pandemic is to be more mindful. Whether that’s being mindful of myself, my family, my colleagues or promoters. Everything can be taken away in the blink of an eye. We live with a different level of respect and have a little more foresight and sense of responsibility.

Do you think we’ve bounced back, or are you still feeling the repercussions?

Greg Johnson: I think the music itself has become better, deeper, because everyone was sitting with their thoughts, and their experiences coming out of that came from a different perspective. So music felt different; it felt more introspective. And touring is back to where it should be.

Rob Gibbs: It’s true; shows are back and stronger than ever. But when you get to the economic side of things, security, buses, fuel, labor costs... Some veteran people out on the road said, “Hey, I took a break, but if you want me back, it’s gonna cost you double or triple.” People had time to reflect and think about what they wanted to do and where they wanted to be. Some left. Some came back. But costs are higher than ever, and we’re feeling that.

Marcus Johnson: We feel like we have one foot out of it, but we’re still dealing with canceled shows from two years ago that had to get rerouted. And everything is definitely more expensive now. People didn’t account for the increase in production costs. We’ve seen tours go up that had to come down because people couldn’t afford to do it. Also, I can recall at least three or four shows where somebody tested positive for COVID the night before. It was rough during that time. But the excitement is definitely back. The restrictions have come down, the numbers are up―the rooms are full.

People are thirsty for live music.

Callender: I agree. But I also agree that costs have become astronomical. I think Santigold was one of the first people I saw put out a press release about not being able to afford to tour. As much as artists love to do shows and be on the road, touring is an expensive undertaking. Then you add that buses now cost $120,000 out of the gate, gas costs are going up and, like Rob said, stagehands and tour managers are inflating their prices; it’s hard to get a good tour manager now—they’re picking and choosing. They’re comfortable with just not doing the work. That’s the aftermath of the pandemic.

Switching gears, what live music has stood out most for you personally? Tell me about the best concerts you’ve ever been to.

Callender: I’d probably say it was my first Coachella. It was Dr. Dre and the 2Pac hologram. It was one of the most epic hip-hop performances I’ve ever seen. I never really went to concerts growing up, but seeing that, I got to see my childhood. Even Dre bringing out Kendrick, which was very of-the-times with him bubbling up, and seeing Snoop and Dre on a stage, 50 Cent and Eminem—I’m getting chills thinking about that right now.

Marcus Johnson: I have to piggyback on Callender and say Coachella the year Beyoncé headlined. To see the first Black female artist to headline Coachella paying tribute to HBCU institutions, it gave me chills. Just knowing how many years of Coachella, and just festivals in general, that never had a Black female―seeing her headline took me to a whole other dimension and gave me so much inspiration.

Greg Johnson: Mine was Rock the Bells 2010. It was like watching an all-star team perform. Everyone did their classic albums end to end; Snoop Dogg did Doggystyle, A Tribe Called Quest did Midnight Marauders, Wu-Tang Clan did 36 Chambers, Lauryn Hill did The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. To watch them go from song one to the end—we’ll never see that again. I was in law school in D.C. at the time, and I spent way too much money I didn’t have to sit on that field. Still, to this day, it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.

Marcus Johnson: Greg, I was at that one, too. Also, Nas did Illmatic.

Greg Johnson: He did!

Rob Gibbs: The Watch the Throne Tour was special. I’m a big JAY-Z fan and a big fan of, you know, the old Kanye. To see those two guys onstage together performing that incredible project along with their hits is something we probably won’t see again either.

What would you say the future holds for touring in the rap space and what are you most looking forward to?

Marcus Johnson: I’m looking forward to some of the Hip-Hop 50 programming this year. And, obviously, a big one for me is Coachella. This was the first year I was able to book artists. Next year, I’ll definitely be more involved in the booking process for it and some of our other festival properties.

Greg Johnson: I’m looking forward to helping emerging artists build bigger brands. A lot of music has been skipped over. I found a couple things we’ve been working on, and I’m excited to see fans’ reactions when some of these younger acts who have something to say get in front of them. You’ve got to fill in the old space with the new stuff. While I love my old heads, I’m excited for what some of these new ones are talking about and how they’re going to bring some issues to light that have been ignored for a while.

Rob Gibbs: For me, it’s what’s coming next―I love listening to new music. I love to watch artist development happen in a real way. I think the industry is lacking some of that artist development, so when you see labels and management companies do it the right way, it’s exciting. I just moved from L.A. to Atlanta, so to come down to this market and be one of the first major agencies to plant a flag here… I’m super-excited for what the future holds.

Callender: I’m booking the first tour on Mars―charging 20% now! No, what I’m really looking forward to is what these guys on this Zoom have going on.