Last year I hosted a great Rock The Bells giveaway. And after hosting the giveaway, I went to the Miami show, wrote a big review, and had a ball. I even randomly wound up meeting the ticket winner, who was so overjoyed to win that we took photos together on the lawn. It was a LOT of fun and I loved every second of it… but I noticed a few odd things. Event organization was kinda quirky, especially regarding backstage passes and meeting the artists. (What do you mean we’re not allowed back there? Isn’t that what my media pass says?) And attendance was surprisingly low. Truly great concerts in Miami are at a premium, and this one should have been sold out to capacity. A Tribe Called Quest? The Pharcyde? Meth and Red? Fuhgeddaboutit! But nonetheless, the crowd remained comfortably sparse throughout the evening.

Let’s put it this way – I was super psyched for next year’s Rock The Bells, but it didn’t exactly surprise me that the Miami show got canceled. Sorry, Miami friends. Here’s hoping there’s enough impetus to bring it back next year.

But to be perfectly honest, I doubt it.

Look, I love Rock The Bells. I love the concept of picking the creme de la creme of what’s now old school hip hop, and making an ultimate nostalgia tour for Eighties and Nineties babies. It’s a guaranteed good time, and a way to remind us all what hip hop used to be before it became entirely about flashy labels and hollowness.

But this year’s experience gave me, and a few others quite a bit to chew over. And so, with great respect, I’ve got some helpful suggestions for Chang Weisberg and the organizers of Rock The Bells.

#1 – Work with the media. The new media.

Last year, I helped to promote RTB and wrote about it for both my blog, and for the Miami New Times where I worked at the time.

This year, I got straight up dissed on a media pass. And I had planned to do even better coverage than I did last year.

Oh wait, I could get a media pass but even if I did, I couldn’t actually watch the show, and I’d still be expected to buy tickets if I wanted to see the concert itself. What??? That makes no kind of sense. And it certainly wasn’t because the event was sold out or packed to capacity. I saw that with my own two eyes.

I say this not to complain or get on some blogger’s entitlement high horse — I know how this must read to folks who paid money to attend the show. “Waaa waaa waaa, media pass denied! Buy a ticket like the rest of us!” And I did wind up paying like, $77 for my husband and I to go to the show. I couldn’t miss it, not after last year’s stellar experience.

But here’s just a thought — if the folks behind Rock The Bells knew how to work the media a bit better — the new media, we who aren’t laying people off like crazy, or taking those very same free tickets and not writing a review just because they can (and I know quite a few old media folks who do that) — they could guarantee greater grassroots knowledge, word of mouth, and consequently success for their concert.

Don’t ask me, the proof was in the empty stands. I’d never been to this particular venue, but my husband had. He was dumbfounded.

“I’ve never seen a show here that was this empty,” he declared.

I shouldn’t be able to attend Blogging While Brown — a conference comprised of some of the most influential black bloggers in the country, ask said influential black bloggers in the key demographic if they were planning to attend Rock The Bells, and get the response, “what’s Rock The Bells?” Or, “Oh yeah…when is that?”

That happened not just more than once, not just more than twice. Several times. From well known, well read bloggers of color.

With a lineup as impressive as Rock The Bells has been able to put together, this should be a concert experience as renowned as Lollapalooza, or Bonnaroo, or Pitchfork. Instead it was half (or in some cases, a quarter) of the size of any of those shows. And that’s a damn shame.

If I worked Rock The Bells PR, I’d be reaching out to media of all kinds, including and especially to blogosphere — placing ads, offering media passes, trying to host giveaways, sending video clips of performances, building relationships, doing everything to drum this concert into the public consciousness.

Instead, I’m hearing stories like that of excellent photographer Tafari Stevenson-Howard, who shared his RTB disappointment with me:

“From a media perspective, I have very little to offer on the Rock The Bells Detroit in terms of concert content. As a photographer & blogger covering the music, sharing my experience is going to be difficult because when you’re shooting, you cannot focus on anything other than getting the shot.

With that said; 1st off, I was able to photograph through the first 3 songs of each performance, which is pretty standard. However, after those first 3 songs I was escorted out of the venue with several other photographers. The only way we could go back in was if we were to put our gear in out cars between acts. This would have been a complete hassle
a) because of the distance
b) breaking down gear & having to put it back together is time consuming.

So basically, my whole purpose for going & driving 95 miles each way mostly a waste. I got great photos but cant report on any music.

Then there was the fact that Busta Rhymes canceled his performance. Thiswas a huge let down! The acts got shuffled around & I missed two performances because of BRs cancellation & subsequently tweaked artist line-up.

Annnnnd then, there was the fact that I was not able to photograph any of Damian Marley’s performance because he came on after Nas’ 3rd song. The media contact at DTE Music Center was not movable or willing to let any of us to capture Damian, so I just left at this point disappointed & wondering if I should have bothered to even attend.”

Point #2 – The on-the-ground staff needs to lose the attitude, and the ticket prices need to be affordable for one and all.

I’m not surprised Tafari had the experience he had which he blogged about here — there are some straight up music gestapo who work these concerts. There’s an infamous one in Miami who I butted heads with many, many times — the less I say about him, the better. It sounds to me like Tafari encountered something similar in Detroit. A self important keeper of the concert who struts around barking at people like they are subhuman, and wielding their power to revoke your good time at a moment’s notice. These people’s salaries are paid for quite comfortably by the powers-that-be of Live Nation and/or Ticketmaster. Well guess what? Times have changed. Now money’s short, times are hard and people aren’t as willing to shell out $40, $50 bucks for a concert ticket anymore. So we all need to check our attitudes at the door, and work together to make the experience worthwhile and fun for everyone.

There’s a reason Live Nation is now offering No Service Fee Wednesday, complete with parking, hot dog and a soda, and it ain’t because there’s a glut of hot dogs on the market. The music behemoth needs to feed the beast with your hard earned concert ticket money, and having exorbitant fees for shows is not the way forward. Lose the exorbitant fees, and work with the artists to bring the overall ticket costs down.

Affordable tickets to quality concerts will ensure a greater turnout across the country. Of this, I am certain.

#3 – Organization and artist cooperation is key.

I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it is to put on a concert of the magnitude of RTB. Cannot. Freakin’. Imagine. Dealing with a bunch of rappers who maybe haven’t had a radio hit in a while but still have the entourages and inflated egos they earned in their hitmaking days would be nightmarish. I don’t know how they can improve things at these big music festivals behind the scenes, but I can tell you as an audience member the disorganization is palpable. A GREAT start would be hiring some incredible DJ’s to bless the 1’s and 2’s between sets and keep the momentum going. As it was, the lull between sets proved to be a big energy buzzkill.

Another suggestion, let the headliners play for the longest sets. That should be obvious, but still at RTB Chicago, Tech N9ne performed for way longer than The Roots. By the time I got out of the insanely long funnel cake line, The Roots played 2 songs and that was it. From what I understand, they played like 5 songs tops. That SUCKS if you came hoping to see The Roots away from the set of Jimmy Fallon.

So there’s the issue of disorganization apparent to the crowd… apparently it can be even worse when you get backstage. K’naan had himself a little Twitter meltdown about the Chicago crowd’s apathy towards him. Then my amiga FungkeBlakChik and Shabooty waited outside Talib Kweli’s dressing room for almost 2 hours while reportedly he could be heard yelling and berating his manager, all in the hopes of landing a promised interview. So. Unprofessional. Not a good look for your favorite MC’s.

Having said ALL of that, I will go to Rock The Bells next year, wherever I am. There’s something awesome about vibing with hip hop heads on your wavelength, and watching the crowd go crazy for a killer performance.

The few tracks I saw of The Roots proved that filming a TV show every night hasn’t sapped their energy. 30 minutes was NOT enough. KRS-One is an MC extraordinare, and did a great job as host. I thoroughly enjoyed Big Boi’s set.

Busta Rhymes absolutely KILLED it in Chicago, and I’d never seen him perform before. Busssa Buss is a monster on the mic. OMG, if they have Busta, Meth and Red on the lineup next year it would be insane!

It was utterly amazing to see Nas and Damian Marley rip it up on stage together. I’ve seen Damian Marley quite a few times, but never before can I recall him singing so many of his father’s songs. It gave me chills, as a lifelong Bob Marley fan. And then watching him and Nas come together, man. It was incredible. I can’t wait for their album.

Next year, I plan to spend more time at the second tent — I missed Raekwon and GZA and all kinds of amazing performances out there.

I say what I have to say about RTB with love and respect. I want to see the show survive and thrive, and in this bleak economic climate, I seriously believe a change has to come to avoid cancelling even more tour dates. Otherwise, the future of RTB will be like Lollapalooza — going from an experience that brings your favorite artists to a city near you, to a static experience that you’re unlikely to attend if you live far away and can’t afford a show ticket, much less a plane ticket.

If you think I’m the only one with Rock The Bells issues, check out the reviews from Alarm Press, Lords of Apathy, Ebony, and The Smoking Section.
We can’t all be wrong.



[fung'ke][blak][chik] says:
July 14, 2009, 11:01 am
You are so on point! After the DM's from the other day, I can definitely agree 100%! I also understand what Tafari said as well. With having a photo pass, the security made sure you got your 3 songs and rushed you away. Thankfully, the event staff was a little more understanding, and let us roam somewhat free backstage. The 2nd stage is definitely where you WANT & NEED to be! It was interesting to see the acts they considered 2nd stage?? No diss to Tech Nine, but why must I have to see Wu-Tang on a 2nd stage or Slum Village? I also noticed that the crowd wasn't the size previous shows have been, there were sections of seats that were empty, which correlates to the ticket prices, that ranged from $50-176!
nexgrl says:
July 14, 2009, 1:13 pm
I have not been to a RTB because of the prices. I am willing to pay the high price, but I can't say the same for my friends. I'm said to hear about the disorganization, but I'm not surprised.
ceecee says:
July 14, 2009, 1:34 pm
I'm traveling to Seattle for Bumbershoot, a music festival. I hope I don't get a Rock-The-Bells experience :\
Martamique Ngozi says:
July 14, 2009, 2:02 pm
wow, this is very dissappointing to hear. I have never been to RTB but I have known about it for a few years and I hope that I will be able to go one year I love artists like The Pharcyde Tribe and De La. Those artists are amazing and they deserve packed concerts I hope that the powers that be are not the reason for {god forbid}the end of the tour. Good Luck to those going this year -PeAcE
BK says:
July 14, 2009, 3:20 pm
you aren't wrong at all.. it has continued to dwindle year after year..
puff says:
July 14, 2009, 6:26 pm
aaaw snap, i'm seeing rtb in new york this weekend :/ my sister saw it in maryland and said it was hot, so i'm hoping maybe it won't be too bad here... great tips on how to improve though, bella! they need to hire you to be on their production team :)
Los Angelista says:
July 14, 2009, 7:34 pm
I 100% co-sign on EVERYTHING! It's a strange world we live in when a company like Ringling Bros. knows how to treat a black blogger BETTER than these folks!
LE says:
July 15, 2009, 1:24 am
wow, even though I live in Toronto, I was planning on going to RTB in Miami next year...but based on your experience, I'll pass. searching for reviews of the show from my city, I found this: http://getjanet.com/blog/2009/07/06/event-pix-rock-the-bells-in-toronto/ it shows a packed crowd, hopefully they were treated right... PEACE
Brit says:
July 19, 2009, 2:49 pm
I had no idea this festival even existed until 2 days ago. I plan on being there next year though! It's unfortunate that they don't have their stuff together, but maybe with time they will.
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