Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For 'Tour Tales,' we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it's still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on 'Tour Tales.'
—by Keith Nelson, Jr.
"It's not a great thing, to me, that some artists feel like they have to tour, instead of touring because they love to tour."
That's Junia Abaidoo, and this is the sobering reality of the music industry.
Abaidoo is one of the co-founders of LVRN, the record label of R&B's current supernova 6LACK, and the perpetual party that is DRAM. The 26-year-old also serves as the company's head of touring, handling everything from confirming and denying performance offers for LVRN's artists and mapping out tour routes, to making sure the label's artists have their preferred brand of liquor backstage. For someone who admittedly fell into his role while tour-managing the label's first artist, Raury, in 2014, he's helped develop both acts from internet sensations to bonafide touring acts.
But now, he and the label have the makings of a superstar in a music industry that's seen its touring sector change drastically over the years. 6LACK's recently released sophomore album East Atlanta Love Letter debuted at No.3 on the Billboard Top 200 chart, the highest chart performance of any album released by the six-year-old label.
Before 6LACK headlines his 39-date international tour in support of the album, Abaidoo speaks to Tour Tales about the lost art of the touring artist, the tears 6LACK compels at his shows, and what he thinks may happen if streaming royalty payouts catch up to live show revenue for artists.
It's almost been a year since 6LACK's first ever headlining tour, 'Free 6LACK.' Was there a performance then that made you believe the fanbase was solid, and the internet streams had translated to real life? There's a lot of them, honestly. There was a show where there were multiple people crying their eyes out, the entire time. So after the show, 6LACK had his security go find them and meet them.
When I spoke with LVRN co-founder Tunde Balogun last year, he said 6LACK wasn't doing many shows in 2016 when the world started taking notice of him. Can you tell me how his live show has evolved over the years? In the beginning, when we released FREE 6LACK, his debut project, we did a short run where we did major markets. We did two shows in Atlanta, we did a New York show, an L.A. show. The thing about 6LACK is, even though people have just found out about him, he's been making music, and he's always been a well-known artist in certain sections of Atlanta, for awhile. He's been doing it for about 10 years. So he wasn't brand new to a stage. But, at the same time, he was brand new to the audience he was now getting because of the music. So, there were lot of things we knew we had to develop and change, in terms of his presence on stage, comfortability, giving him things he can go to for crowd participation and things like that.
Junia Abaidoo (left) and 6LACK (center)
6LACK's first supporting tour was with The Weeknd on the 'Starboy: Legend of the Fall Tour.' How did that help his development? It gave him constant repetition of being on that type of stage in front of that many people, because they were stadiums. He had never done anything besides 350-, 500-[capacity venues] up until that point. Also, [he was] able to watch and learn from the other people performing. The Weeknd is an amazing performer. He got to watch The Weeknd every single night. He got to see what he did to get the crowd into it. How he paced himself. How he performed different sounding songs. So, he learned a lot from that too. Also the repetition of him having to, kind of, hand-to-hand-combat try to win people over that may not know who he was, in that setting, for over 30 shows. He came back at the end of that tour a completely different performer. He also says when he cut his hair, he felt more aerodynamic.
When it comes to signing an artist to your label, how much is their live performance factored into the decision and why? It is something we consider a lot. That being said, we look at ourselves as a developmental type of label, so we spend a lot of time and resources on developing artist. We spend a lot of resources developing how they work in the studio, fleshing out whatever branding they have, and who they are as a person. Also, live shows. We don't expect who we're looking at signing to be at the peak of where we think we can see them. That's part of the value that we bring to an artist, helping them get to that point. But live performances are still super important, because it lets the fan know if you're the real deal or not. The music field is too competitive, in our viewpoint, to not spend a lot of time perfecting what you do in the live setting.
LVRN's biggest song has been DRAM's "Broccoli," which peaked at No.1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in 2016. How did that song change the demand for DRAM to tour? The thing about it was DRAM actually went on his first headlining tour in the U.S. before "Broccoli" came out. I'd like to think that him having that core and him doing things like that helped "Broccoli" become what it was, because there was a base of people that really loved his music. It became a moment, as a song, and there's a lot of people who just know the song more than they know what the fuck we're doing. It's huge for the type of shows we're doing, the type of festivals we're doing. For a lot of festivals, they're very hit driven. That's where fans go to see their favorite artists perform their biggest hits.
According to a Citigroup report, artists only made 12-percent of the $43 billion in revenue the music industry earned in 2017, with most of the artists' earnings coming from live performances. Have you seen any ramifications of this reality? There used to be a very specific distinction between an artist that was considered a touring act, and an artist that was maybe getting more club bags, or just didn't tour that much, or wasn't a festival act. There are certain artists that, even though they were huge, you'd never see them on festival bills. Now there's less of a distinction because so much of the money is made on tour, so many artists are understanding that they kind of have to be a touring act. I was talking to our agents at WME (William Morris Endeavor) about it. There are so many tours being put out nowadays. Whereas, back in the day, it was a more concise thing. It's not a great thing, to me, that some artists feel like they have to tour, instead of touring because they love to tour. I think that's something that needs to be fixed in this industry, in terms of what's the next wave looks like. Streaming helps the music industry a bunch. But what is it going to look like going forward so that the artists don't have to feel like they have to tour? I don't know what that answer is yet.
Do you think if streaming royalties and live performances become a 50/50 split of what an artist makes, it will mean a decrease in live performances? I think it could. If that were to happen, there would just be less of a need and that could lead to more people spending more time with their families and less time on the road. I'm not sure, though, because regardless of whether other avenues of income arise in the next few years, touring is still a huge source.
Now that LVRN's artists have experienced a bit of touring and Billboard success, how have DRAM and 6LACK's riders changed as they've become bigger? [Laughs] That's a fire question. When I first started tour-managing Raury, I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. One of the things I did was have a meeting with Ludacris' longtime tour manager, a guy named JP. One of the things he did was send me Ludacris' rider. I remember looking at the shit like, "Yo, this shit is crazy." 6LACK is a very calm, very chill person. His rider is less specific. Even though he's grown leaps and bounds in his career, his rider is pretty much the same as it was on the 'FREE 6LACK Tour.' DRAM's rider is more specific, but I wouldn't say their riders have become a lot crazier. Maybe they haven't realized they can ask for more shit [laughs]. They both have the regular alcohol-type things. DRAM is a Bulleit whiskey person, strictly. 6LACK doesn't really drink that often, but when he does he's a Jameson person. He has it on there for his crew. There's a lot of different things for vocal stamina, for both artists. Different cough drops and humidifiers for the room. They don't really get anything crazy.
But when those East Atlanta Love Letter numbers come out and they read this interview, 6LACK is going to be requesting all types of shit. [Laughs] Facts. Facts. I expect some new shit. We'll see, though.
How much did you guys use streaming data when planning out the tours? How did that factor in? It's huge. We look at data across everything from the different music providers: Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora, Tidal. Also, different social media accounts, data from the record labels, YouTube streaming data. We use that to try to pinpoint where we think we can really kill at, and also where we think we can do some work at. Somebody that we kind of look to a lot for guidance and advice from a touring perspective is J. Cole and his team. J. Cole's touring history is fucking amazing. One of the things they did was make a real concerted effort to not only hit the major [markets], [but] also hit college towns. That's one of the reasons he'll tour forever and that he's the type of touring artist he is now.
Well, 6LACK has four songs with guest appearances on East Atlanta Love Letter that people would love to see happen live. Are those planned beforehand or spur-of-the-moment? That's something that depends. Sometimes it's well-known in advance. Sometimes it's spur-of-the moment of, "Oh, you're in town? Let's get it." So, you never know. You never know.
Come back next week for another installment of 'Tour Tales'!
More from Keith Nelson, Jr.: