Nothing New
In a year marked by show cancellations, temperamental ticket sales and a shift in demand, where does the world of hip-hop touring go from here?
Words: Stacy-Ann Ellis
Editor’s Note: This story appears in the Winter 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

Ever since he graced the airwaves with his studio debut, Section.80, Kendrick Lamar has worked to cement his status as an upper-echelon hip-hop performance artist. Upon the release of his fifth album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers—a triumphant five-year return after his Pulitzer Prize-winning album, DAMN.—fans were eager to get back into his orbit to experience it live. The Big Steppers Tour, which spanned six months, made evident Kendrick possessed a consistent dedication to his craft

“Hood Beethoven—that was the initial idea,” Kendrick Lamar told The New York Times Magazine last December. “Now incorporate that with dance and art, and you get this contextualized, theatrical type of performance.” The global tour found Kendrick commanding minimalist stages with incredible gravitas, his mini-me Lil’ Stepper ventriloquist puppet in tow. The production lured 929,000 ticket buyers across 73 shows and helped K-Dot earn $110.9 million. Those numbers make it the highest-grossing rap tour ever and edges out Drake and Future’s 56-date Summer 16 Tour at $84.3 million.

In 2022, it wasn’t just Kendrick raking in significant wins on the road. The Compton spitter spent all year long in excellent company. The Weeknd’s After Hours til Dawn Tour (supporting his 2020 album, After Hours, and 2022’s Dawn FM) spanned 18 North American cities before heading to Europe and Latin America. The global stadium tour grossed more than $30 million in revenue for the first four shows alone, according to Touring Data. A portion of each ticket sale went towards his XO Humanitarian Fund.

Nas and The Wu-Tang Clan launched their NY State of Mind Tour, hitting over 25 U.S. cities in 2022, before going global and running it back in the U.S. in 2023. Pusha T had a two-phase North American tour for his It’s Almost Dry album, starting in late May last year and then again in early September of 2022. According to Billboard, Tyler, The Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost Tour grossed $32.6 million—selling out 32 arenas—reportedly the biggest in his career. His Los Angeles show at the Arena had the biggest night at $1.6 million and 14,757 tickets. Jack Harlow kept busy last fall with his sold-out Come Home The Kids Miss You Tour. With 200,000 tickets sold across 26 dates, it became the most attended tour of Harlow’s career.

“Last year was one of Live Nation’s highest-grossing years ever for people to see shows,” says Booking and Operations Manager Michael Carney, who does booking and project management for Live Nation Urban. But what happens when the tide changes?

2023 paints a very different picture of the hip-hop touring landscape. In the last two years, touring artists thrived, but there has been a falloff this year. While one side of the spectrum boasts vital players dominating the road, the other end has been met with oversaturation in the market, undersold venues, high-cost or inaccessible tickets and fan disappointment due to cancellations.

“When you turn off all touring for two-and-a-half years, and then you suddenly turn it back on again, and it comes back with a fury, I think it’s expected,” explains James Rubin, Partner and Co-Head of the Hip-Hop Department at WME. The talent agency’s client lists include Travis Scott, Lil Baby, Gunna, Moneybagg Yo and Tyler, The Creator. Rubin adds, “Not everything can do great continuously.” The COVID-19 pandemic caused a unique, perfect storm of albums being released, which sat with listeners for a prolonged period, and a built-up demand of people not being able to see shows but wanting to. Live Nation Global Tour Promoter Dominick Prieto points to Quality Control Music artist Lil Baby, whose rise was undeniable during that time.

“Lil Baby’s album was one of the craziest albums during Covid and coming out,” Prieto recalls. On the heels of Baby’s 2020 album, My Turn, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200 and is now certified quadruple platinum by RIAA, he graced arena stages almost immediately. For his and Lil Durk’s Back Outside Tour in 2021, in support of their The Voice of the Heroes joint LP, the duo allegedly made $15 million from 250,000 ticket sales across 23 cities. Then, in the summer of 2022, Lil Baby embarked on One of Them Ones Tour with Chris Brown, a 26-stop arena trek that reportedly averaged $1.6 million per show with approximately 13,545 tickets sold.

Rapper Lil Baby performs during Lil Baby and Friends I.O.U. Tour at Arena on August 5, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Prince Williams/WireImage

Now, this year, Baby is singing a slightly different tune. The Atlanta rapper quietly removed 10 cities out of 32—Phoenix, San Diego, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Denver, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Louisville—from his It’s Only Us Tour. The move left irritated fans speculating about low ticket sales and sharing screenshots of unfilled arenas on Ticketmaster.

“A lot of that happens in the secondary and tertiary markets, the markets where honestly those financial strifes speak directly to the community,” says Leighton “Lake” Morrison, Cofounder of Generation Now, label home to artists like Jack Harlow and Lil Uzi Vert. Unlike smaller markets, cities like New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Houston will consistently sell. But when you get to Minneapolis, when you get to middle America, that’s where ticket sales may be low.”

Lil Baby wasn’t the only big-name act feeling the pullback this year. Lil Durk announced his Sorry For The Drought Tour in May of 2023, planning to hit 26 stops throughout the U.S.— predominantly at arenas with 15,000 to 20,000 capacities. But by July, at least 20 of those shows had been canceled, including his set at Rolling Loud Miami, after he was hospitalized for severe dehydration and exhaustion. Moneybagg Yo canceled the Philadelphia and Orlando dates of his 23-stop Larger Than Life Tour—the latter of which was reportedly canceled the week of the show—with low ticket sales speculated as the culprit. Later along the tour, his hometown finale at Memphis’ FedEx Forum was postponed, albeit by the venue, with no future date given. “I Spent 300k in production and had MAJOR special guests popping out to help me put on for my city,” Moneybagg wrote on Facebook. “I tried everything in my power to assure them that none was gone happen! Unfortunately at the moment we looking for another venue that’s large enough.”

Rapper Moneybagg Yo performs during MoneyBagg Yo Larger Than Life Tour at State Farm Arena on August 4
Prince Williams/WireImage

“I don’t want to say demand has scaled back, but we’ve had an evening out of the amount of big tours that are happening and the middle-of-the-road tours that are happening,” Prieto maintains, noting that booking teams have plenty of data about how tickets are selling at their disposal to make an educated decision on the right time to cancel a show. Ideally, a few weeks out. One of the more obvious and immediate reasons for the prevalence of such low sales is the state of the global economy. As much as the world was eager to get back outside after the pandemic, outside got way more expensive. “When you try and compare 2018, 2019 to 2023, it’s really difficult because the prices of things now are not even close to what they were back then,” Rubin explains. Artists may have financial padding to weather these changes, but their fans and target audiences, not so much. With so much choice in the market, it makes it that much harder to secure tickets for their concerts.

“The truth is, everybody doesn’t have an abundance of money,” Morrison relays regarding the competitive market. “A lot of times, these kids have a summer to choose one or two of their favorite acts, and there’s 15 acts going out.” So, to compensate, “these guys have to play these huge rooms to accommodate for the dollar amount that they’re demanding when really the fan base isn’t there yet.” And even when the fan base is there and has the funds, they have to beat out bots and exploitative resale tickets first. Upper-level tickets for Drake’s It’s All a Blur Tour with 21 Savage were reportedly on sale for $200. Ticket buyers in Canada even filed a class-action lawsuit against Ticketmaster for alleged price-gouging tickets for Drake’s tour. It’s an uphill battle to slow the prevalence of resellers and bots, but there are some ways to make tickets slightly more accessible to the core fan.

“[Artists] raise their ticket prices too high and realize their consumers aren’t the same consumers as they were two, three years ago,” Carney expresses. He thinks the next decision for an artist to make is either cancel or downsize. “Some artists are like, ‘I don’t want to go on a small tour, so I’m gonna just cancel.’”

“That’s on the team, on the agent, on the manager, on the promoter and on the artist to make sure that you know your fans, [and] what they will pay,” Rubin adds. “You know what’s fair. It’s a balance.”

Ticket prices are typically calculated after using previous and current tours as research. Still, sometimes elevated costs boil down to the artist guarantee, where fast-rising stars sometimes request the highest-dollar amount without considering how it may affect other facets of the tour.

Festival appearances can contribute to the mirage of earnings and audience. While they have helped build the careers of several “festival artists,” they often present a false sense of where an artist is in their career and what they can demand. “They’ll see 80,000 people outside and think, Holy shit, all these people are here for me? The truth is there’s 70 people on the bill,” Morrison states. In addition to the distorted vantage point, the top-dollar amount festivals offer can set a confident expectation and poorly influence touring decision-making. One of the biggest touring faux pas is jumping the gun and booking rooms that an artist may still need to be equipped to fill. “A lot of guys are going from the club to an arena,” Morrison says. “At least do the 1,000-cap venues, get the ballrooms, do some amphitheaters and then get to arenas. Because it’s hard to keep 20,000 people captivated.”

In March of 2022, Latto was heckled for employing the same clever tactics during her first tour: performing in smaller venues. A video posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, shows an early stop on her 777 Tour, part of the Monster Energy Outbreak Tour. Some comments on the clip call out the “lil ass stage” she and Saucy Santana were performing on.

Latto quickly defended herself and reminded critics that every artist starts somewhere. “I’m still selling out 1-3k capacity venues on my first tour. Doing a hour long set w amazing breath control & choreo,” Latto posted on X. Such 2,000 to 2,500-capacity venues included The Novo in Los Angeles, San Diego’s House of Blues, the Fillmore in Maryland and Atlanta’s Tabernacle, third-tier venues primed for artists on the rise.

“Y’all be impressed by festival stages with tens of thou- sands of ppl that came to see 100 artists. These 1-3k ppl coming to see ME,” Latto continued on X. “Most new artists scared to do it ’cause they can’t sell hard tickets ’cause the internet hype don’t transfer over in real life.” Exactly one year later, with Teyana Taylor as her creative director, Latto’s Sahara set, the largest tent stage at Coachella, lit up the internet.

This urge or pressure to quickly fast-track to bigger stages is part of the problem. “When an artist sees other artists going on arena tours, and they think they’re just as big or bigger, they’re gonna want to do the exact same thing,” Morrison explains. The key is starting at the bottom and owning the journey. Morrison cites his Generation Now artist, Jack Harlow, as an example of doing things in what he feels is the right way. Harlow’s Come Home The Kids Miss You Tour was a full-fledged arena tour across the country, but he initially got his start doing 150-capacity venues. This detail Jack often shares with his crowds. “It’s about making the smartest decision, and it’s about not skipping steps,” Morrison adds.

Or, in other words, playing the long game—a responsibility all parties in an artist’s career share. “Compare culture drives a lot more decisions than it should,” Prieto reveals, insisting that more honest conversations must be had with artists to set them up for success. “Just because you can sell 5,000 tickets doesn’t mean you need to do it. That social media moment, the harm that comes from the world seeing a set that’s not ready, that does hurt the potential touring opportunities for that artist.”

While no artists are bulletproof from hard times, strategy is helping a handful of artists navigate the touring climate. The formula is simple: underplay and oversell. “Instead of trying to do a huge room, I’d rather do a smaller room and sell the tickets out in two or three days, where I could do a second show,” Morrison explains. “Lil Uzi’s team did a good job of doing realistic venues and scaling them down based on what [Uzi has] done.”

Lil Uzi Vert announced the Pink Tape Tour, their first headline dates since the Endless Summer Tour alongside G-Eazy in 2018. “[Uzi] could have done an arena, and there’s a possibility [they] could have sold it out, but the [Coca-Cola] Roxy sold out in four days,” Morrison continues. And when Jack Harlow announced his No Place Like Home Tour across Kentucky, the only tour he’d be going on this year, Morrison projected the six hometown shows would “sell out immediately.”

Sexyy Red, who’s catapulted to fame thanks to songs like “SkeeYee” and joining Drake’s It’s All a Blur Tour, is an example of a buzzing sensation seizing the opportunity the right way. “It’s much more than just a viral moment for her,” Prieto says, pointing to her sold-out 20-city Hood Hottest Princess Tour. “It’s connecting with people. She upgraded venues in most markets that had an upgrade available. She even upgraded to an arena and sold it out.”

And for an elite few, if they’re hot, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is. Tickets will sell. Drake visibly enjoyed a seemingly untouchable run with his It’s All A Blur Tour, despite mixed reviews and controversy surrounding his and 21 Savage’s Her Loss album. “For an artist like Drake, we really downplay how big he is,” Morrison states. “Arenas are a walk in the park for this dude. He’s the exception to the rule, but I think his catalog speaks for itself.”

Then there’s Travis Scott’s Utopia - Circus Maximus Tour, which Rubin confidently projects will be “all sold out.” Rubin says a month before Scott has even hit the road, “it’s the biggest sales he’s ever sold.” So much so that they had to add 11 more dates before it kicked off; for comparison, Scott’s 2018 Astroworld - Wish You Were Here Tour reportedly grossed over $60 million from 806,900 sold tickets across 55 dates, according to Pollstar.

Travis Scott performs during Travis Scott Utopia – Circus Maximus Tour at SoFi Stadium on November 05, 2023 in Inglewood, California.
Bennett/Getty Images for Live Nation

To test the waters, WME put up a 60,000-capacity Circus Maximus show in Rome (which later featured surprise guest Kanye West) with five days to sell all the tickets in August. All tickets were gone within two days.

And although festivals are going through a rough patch of their own (both Rolling Loud New York and Made in America Festival canceled this year, citing logistical issues), Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Festival sold out in its entirety on the presale, something Rubin admits has never happened before. “Scarcity drives demand,” he concludes. “The more you hold something back, the more people want it.”

This is why nostalgia has drawn audiences down memory lane versus the tours of younger artists. Hip-hop’s 50th anniversary this year has been the perfect backdrop for rappers that fans haven’t seen in years (or ever) to make a return to the stage. Like LL Cool J’s The F.O.R.C.E. Live Tour, his first headlining tour in 30 years, supported by The Roots, DJ Z-Trip and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Or Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and DJ Drama’s High School Reunion Tour, which “did close to 100 percent business” and sold over 500,000 tickets, according to James Rubin.

This year also marked 20 years since 50 Cent dropped his classic Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The Queens MC’s corresponding The Final Lap Tour, supported by Busta Rhymes and Jeremih, was one of the biggest hip-hop tours of the year, with over 100 dates in over 30 countries and 1.5 million tickets sold at press time. But as meaningful as the occasion has been, even 50 Cent had to self-fund the effort because of the wariness of the touring space.

50 Cent performs during 50 Cent: The Final Lap Tour at Cellairis Amphitheatre at Lakewood on August 17, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Prince Williams/WireImage

“I was going to do four dates internationally, and Live Nation didn’t want to do the four dates,” 50 told XXL in July, naming COVID-19 fears as the main hindrance. “I paid for the arenas and sold them out by myself.” After selling out 16 shows and doing another run right after, Live Nation wanted to revisit the conversation. “When they saw me sell it out myself, they changed their thought process a little bit.”

As fans grow older, as well as the artists they grew up listening to, there is a reprioritization to see the OGs over younger, popular acts. “Let’s be real, life is short,” Michael Carney adds. “They want to see both, but know Lil Baby’s going to tour again.’”

When Baby and similar level artists tour again, the performances must meet the musical expectations. “We can beat around that bush as much as we want, but the music has to hit,” Dominick Prieto says. “This year, hip-hop in general has had a rude awakening,” Morrison conveys.

The genre has been the most popular music for the last five years, but in this moment, there’s a lack of top-billing music to sustain that momentum. Social popularity does not equal touring success. Working harder to create hit records does.

There’s no definitive answer to how hip-hop tours can thrive in an economy that has taken a hit this year. But it’s clear the road that should be most traveled leads straight to the studio, where the supply and demand starts. A rapper making quality music that meets the needs of the people means fans will more than likely follow that sound straight to the stage.

Read about the state of hip-hop touring in the Winter 2023 issue of XXL Magazine, on newsstands now. The new issue also includes the cover story with Latto and conversations with Killer MikeFlo Milli, DD OsamaMaiya The DonMonaleoMello BuckzzSexyy RedBigXThaPlug, plus more. Additionally, there's an exclusive interview with Fetty WapQuality Control Music's Coach K and P discuss 10 years into the label's growth, in-depth stories on the popularity of sampling in hip-hop and the best moments of hip-hop's year-long 50th anniversary celebration.

See Photos From Latto's XXL Magazine Winter 2023 Cover Story

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