Is Jay Z Hip-Hop’s Biggest Rock Star?

05.06.14 4 years ago 48 Comments

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With Hip-Hop still very much in its infancy as a genre it has always been a wonder of mine how Hip-Hop stars would age. There is very little history to reflect upon to examine the latter part of the career arc of a rapper or producer, and predict what will become of a star several decades after his or her debut.

Aging Rock stars have found second lives even after commercial success begins to evade them and time passes them by, usually by touring. Their music remains, and the initial fan base–as well as new ones–create a market for such a tour. A quick gander at the Rolling Stones website shows tour dates for arenas and festivals booked well throughout the fall.

The Stones formed over 50 years ago, and with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ both being 70, they still somehow perform annually on multiple continents. In fact, they are the owners of the second highest grossing tour of all time, with their 2005-2007 “A Bigger Bang” tour, bringing in a whopping $558 million, 42 years after their debut album.

Another wizened rock group would surpass this number a few years later when U2’s “360°” tour also crossed over the half billion mark, grossing over $736 million, nearly 30 years after their own debut. For Hip-Hop acts that have enough work behind them, we are beginning to discover that a similar path awaits them if they choose to follow it.

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Enter Shawn Carter.

Last week, nearly 20 years after his debut album, Jay Z and his wife Beyonce announced that they will be co-headlining the On The Run Tour, and it appears that Jay Z has become the first to wisely emulate The Stones and U2. It is a particularly shrewd move, the type that we have become accustomed to Jay making, as critical acclaim has lately escaped him, but his throngs of followers have remained nonetheless. Whether or not you like the current album (or product, or business venture) that he is promoting, you can rest assured that there are still a slew of hits in his back pocket that you will enjoy.

Its also a very necessary move, seeing as the climate of the music industry has made it such that generally all material released by an artist is nothing more than a glossy flier for where the real money is, the live show. Whether he likes it or not, and as he continues to expand his ever-developing empire, his biggest promotional vehicle, and money maker, will always be his music.

And the Jay Z traveling show is big business. He famously signed a monumental 10-year, $150 million deal with Live Nation in 2008, more than the company gave to Madonna (owner of the fifth largest grossing tour of all time) for a similar deal. The deal, which is more like a merger between Live Nation and the Jay Z brand, was centered around future tours from Hov, but included startup money for his new central hub for all his business ventures, and new branch of Live Nation, Roc Nation.

Live Nation was willing to include Jay in its spending spree because of the extremely bankable nature of his live show, from which Live Nation receives a cut. His Barclays Center date in January brought in over $3 million in gross sales, and that’s for just one date. If he chooses to sign another deal with Live Nation in 2018 when the current agreement expires, the increased magnitude of what a Jay Z concert has become during the life of the current deal could raise the price tag to the quarter billion dollar range he memorably asked for on “3 Kings.”

Plus, Jay has an ace up his sleeve that he is wisely whipping out this summer. His wife is one of only three females to crack the 20 highest grossing tours list, along with the aforementioned Madonna and Cher, and is the only contemporary act. Bey’s might in the industry is clear, but it is touring that is her bread and butter. Her latest tour, the 132-stop The Mrs. Carter Show world tour grossed more than $200 million (this, too, was a Live Nation venture). Now Jay has integrated all of that advantageous Beyonce and Beyhive might into what is becoming his summer tradition of hemorrhaging money with his traveling live show.

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And it’s working already.

The ticket prices for the On The Run tour on the secondary market are some of the highest ever. The $342.67 average ticket price is 90 percent higher than that of the Magna Carter tour tickets and 51 percent higher than the similar co-headlining tour from Eminem and Rihanna later this year.

Like Jay Z, Eminem is not the only rapper to capitalize on both his vast array of devotees and sizable catalog and turn his act into a lucrative spectacle well into his 40s. But as the numbers show, when Jay does this it is simply just bigger. Currently Jay is the only one to do it on this magnitude, touring in stadiums and large arenas, and often. Em has done his share of stadium and arena dates, but they are few and far between, the aforementioned co-headlining tour with Rihanna only being six shows.

Right after finishing his 15-stop Legends Of Summer tour with Justin Timberlake, Jay went right into the Magna Carter World Tour, a globe trotting extravaganza that spanned six months and saw him perform in 11 countries. Now here he is right back at it announcing another stadium tour, with only 16 dates currently announced but that list is expected to grow.

Not that a short tour won’t be profitable. In March of last year, Forbes reported that Jay, alongside Timberlake, made $1.5 million nightly compared Timberlake’s even $1 million, plus a split of the remaining revenue with the promoter, Live Nation. The Legends of Summer tour went on to gross nearly $70 million.

While the name sells the tickets, when you attend it’s not necessarily the name itself, or the absurdity of the live show that offers the entertainment value that drives the ticket prices so high. Jay does not dance like Michael Jackson or play instruments like the members of The Stones. He doesn’t even sing for the most part. The rapper’s instrument has always been his pen, and that is the selling point of the show. Artists with such stature have become novelty acts in a sense, and have an atmosphere akin to a big fight, “I get to see Jay Z perform tonight!”

It’s only when you see the show, often with runtimes up to or longer than two hours that you realize the sheer enormity of the list of hits that he can call upon at any time. This is the selling point, a Jay Z, an Eminem, an Outkast or a Snoop Dogg can fill an entire set with nothing but chart-topping singles.

A number of stars that came to prominence in the 2000’s look to be next in line to travel the road that Jay is now paving (with others like Em, Outkast and Snoop Dogg painting the lines and doing minor maintence). Kanye West and his captivating live performance and vast catalog of hits and critically acclaimed material is surely a shoe in if he chooses to do such. Lil Wayne and the volume of hits he has released in the last decade makes him a safe bet as well. Drake, too. Smaller acts like Mac Miller and Tech N9ne have the devoted fan bases necessary to have similar long-term tour-driven success, albeit on a smaller scale.

As Hip-Hop continues to develop, and evolve, we get to see its artists travel into unpaved territory, and break new ground. As this process continues there is potential that the artists that follow will continue to augment these ideas, and expand upon the ever changing norm for the genre.

Only time will tell if Jay Z has a half a billion-dollar tour on the docket 40 years after Reasonable Doubt, but he is undeniably laying the foundation now.

Remember: he’s a business, man.

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