Rolling Loud is Not ‘Hip-Hop Coachella’

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Dan Runcie

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The growing hip-hop festival is often compared to Coachella, but two events are like night and day.

Playboi Carti (via Shutterstock)

In a few short years, Rolling Loud has become the largest hip-hop festival in the world. The Miami-based event survived a haphazard inaugural show and has since made waves. It’s now a franchise model with shows in the Bay Area, Southern California, Australia, and future plans for the UK and Japan. “I’m trying to create Starbucks,” said Matt Zingler—co-founder of Rolling Loud—in an interview with Forbes last year.

‘Starbucks for music festivals’ sounds like a wild idea that’s overheard in an UberPool. ‘Starbucks for music festivals’ sounds like a pitch that gets hated on by Mark Cuban on an episode of Shark Tank. But ‘Starbucks’ is much a better comparable than ‘Coachella for hip-hop,’ which Rolling Loud is often called.

Coachella is a brand-centric experience. The festival’s culture is a stronger draw than its individual artists. Meanwhile, Rolling Loud lives and dies by its talent. Zingler and co-founder Tariq Cherif built relationships with artists and leverage them regularly to fill lineups across the world. Rolling Loud’s success will depend on its ability to streamline critical elements and cut unnecessary ones. But some of those extra elements give Coachella and other festivals their unique identity. Franchising is ambitious, but attainable if Rolling Loud makes the right moves.

The Coachella machine

Coachella’s headliners are more interchangeable than fans like to admit. Paul Tollett, Coachella’s co-founder and president of its parent company Goldenvoice Productions, confirmed as much in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times after Kanye West dropped out of this year’s festival:

When Kanye pulled out, what did you have to do?
It was surprisingly mellow. I had my team there. I told them, “OK, Kanye is not going to go this year.” There were some gasps.

Has Beyoncé raised the stakes for others who play the main stage?
It’s up to them. We’re giving them the platform to do what they want. It comes down to the songs too. These artists push themselves. I don’t want to take credit for anything they’re doing. Like for Beyoncé, we just don’t want to get in the way.

I guess Paul’s not part of the Beyhive, huh? To be fair, his responses reflect a tolerance for ambiguity. He’s likely dealt with numerous cancellations and varying quality of performances throughout Coachella’s twenty-year run. But it also shows confidence that the machine still runs as long as there’s a healthy mix of pop music from yesterday and today.

That ‘machine’ is the ecosystem of influencers, digital brands, and pop-ups that help drive Coachella’s culture. In 2017, the Revolve clothing company bought hotel rooms and festival tickets for over 400 influencers, dressed them for the weekend, and asked them to Instagram their experience. The company also had a pop-up at Coachella for guests to snap pictures. According to Forbes, Revolve generated 4.4 billion social impressions as a result.

Influencers serve two roles for Coachella. First, they bring in dedicated guaranteed ticket sales. Companies like Revolve, Fashion Nova, H&M and others are willing to put them up and cover expenses. “[Coachella] gives us more opportunities to showcase our brand than a traditional venue like New York Fashion Week,” said Revolve’s co-founder Michael Mente in a Forbes interview.

Second, and more importantly, influencers drive demand with the general public. It’s the same reason why the Fyre Festival created that expensive promotional trailer with Emily Ratajkowski, Bella Hadid, and other models. (The same trailer that Ja Rule would now call “false advertising.”)

Goldenvoice currently promotes nine other music festivals, including Firefly. Each is its own annual event. Some focus on a particular genre of music. The general public might not know they’re even associated.

That unique identity would be gone if each was branded as a Goldenvoice festival. But it also forces each festival to establish itself. It’s a very different approach than Rolling Loud.

Standardize the important elements

The Rolling Loud co-founders have prioritized their relationships with artists. Here’s Tariq Cherif in Billboard last year:

“We’ve been working with Travis Scott since 2015, when he was playing for 1,000 people. When you grow with an artist like that, it’s a mutual respect. So it’s really just a pleasure working with these guys.”

To date, Travis Scott has been in the lineup for six of Rolling Loud’s nine shows. Relationships like that make it easier to grow. The franchise model requires scalable elements that can be standardized well and replicated easily. Since artists are Rolling Loud’s focus, other elements of festival culture must fall to the wayside.

As a result, influencer culture is subdued. While Coachella is full of Bohemian-inspired garments, Rolling Loud’s attendees are quite the opposite. The largely male audience is in a low key competition to wear the most iconic and rare retro NBA jerseys. Highsnobiety and other sites have highlighted the ‘best fashion’ at Rolling Loud, but it’s largely an exposé for hypebeasts.

Rolling Loud has dreams beyond festivals. According to Billboard, it wants to become a lifestyle brand that runs a media company, record label, compilation album, clothing line, liquor company, and more. The potential’s there, but its founders should prioritize moves that will help the festival franchise scale effectively.

Since artists are central to its product, Rolling Loud needs to think beyond the Lil’s, Future, and Travis Scott. Those artists carry a unified brand that has fueled Rolling Loud’s growth. But expansion requires a wider range of artists. It’s had Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, and J. Cole as headliners in recent years—which is great—but Rolling Loud should also secure top rappers from past generations. OutKast, Eminem, and others have done very well on the international festival circuit. They also attract an older (and now wealthier) fanbase that spends more money on concessions, merchandise, and other high-margin products.

But as older fans come through, Rolling Loud will have to improve the baseline experience. Logistical issues have still plagued recent shows. A successful franchise can overlook several bells and whistles, but logistics can’t be one of them.

Rolling Loud also needs to continue addressing the lack of women in its lineups. This problem exists with many music festivals, but Rolling Loud hasn’t helped itself. In December, Cardi B (Rolling Loud’s first woman headliner) had her set crashed by her then-estranged husband Offset. Rolling Loud denied aiding the Migos member in the shameful incident, but many folks still question how that’s possible. If Rolling Loud improves this, it would demonstrate growth and help drive its healthy expansion.

If the franchise model works, Rolling Loud festivals will be in high demand across the world. Selecting the right locations is a good, yet important, problem to have. The founders can do pop-up events with select artists to evaluate untested markets. The most successful pop-ups can graduate to one-day festivals the following year. This staged process will reduce the risk associated with each launch.

As I wrote in August, the music festival landscape gets saturated when the same product is replicated in the same areas. Organizers need to identify niches, leverage comparative advantages in those regions, and focus on overlooked talent. Rolling Loud has addressed this at a macro level. That’s why it’s grown each year. But it needs to do the same at a micro level. Franchisees will be most successful in markets that don’t have competing and similar events.

The good thing is that its founders are willing to experiment. This will create a better overall product for the growing number of Rolling Loud festivals.

If successful, the only downside will be the number of played-out retro jerseys that will now get worn across the world. Please, no more Larry Johnson’s or Charles Barkley’s. Those are far too common now. Let somebody come through with a Shareef Abdur-Rahim Vancouver Grizzlies jersey. I’ll tip my hat.

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Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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