Rock The Bells: How A Hip Hop Festival Became Too Big To (Not) Fail

Rock The Bells Canceled

Lack of ticket sales.

That was the reason why the Rock The Bells travelling hip hop festival was forced to cancel the second half of their four city run, shutting the doors on Washington DC, and New York (by proxy, as the event was to be held at the Meadowlands Racetrack, in New Jersey). Thousands of ticket holders were left waiting to be refunded, but apparently, not enough ticket holders to have kept the shows going in the first place.

Reaction was as expected, ranging from disappointment to a few who focused in on what perhaps might be the bigger picture.

Some reasoned that high ticket prices, upwards of two hundred dollars for the two-day affair, were to blame.

Some weren’t impressed with the lineup.

Many comments about holograms.

Most who were left high and dry however, were simply bummed, wondering, “How could this happen?”

It was in a May, 2013 editorial where I called out Rock The Bells for their treatment of our media organization the year earlier, detailing the painstaking manner in which our outlets attempted to help promote and cover the event, while being almost completely ignored.

In that piece, I posited that, despite the difficulty in tending to the massive amount of media requests an event like this receives from outlets both legitimate and not, this type of response (or lack thereof) may have been indicative of a bigger problem.

I hesitated to use the over-used term “sellout.”

Instead, I stated, “I believe it is insulting and shows a callous lack of concern when so-called grassroots organizations, who have built giant hip hop operations on the backs of fans, eager participants and media, turn their backs on that same support network.”

I had initially held back that editorial, publishing it only after the 2013 lineup was announced. At that time, I felt there were some inclusions (and exclusions), and several other details regarding the 2013 tour which spelled out, to me at least, that Rock The Bells was continuing down the same questionable path that I had raised in my letter to them.

To be fair, I eventually, (after publishing that editorial), received a response and a subsequent apology from Rock The Bells. We decided to keep tabs in 2013, to determine if we would continue to support and cover the organization and festival, fully planning to preview the show at length on the upcoming episode our radio program, The NY Hip Hop Report.

Meanwhile, we watched.

We noticed people complain about high prices. But that always happens.

We saw as the first show was marred by technical difficulties. Also to be expected. But it did cause some bad press.

The lineup was huge, true. Varied. A couple of good headline choices. But no KNOCKOUT. More hype over holograms than headliners.

Nothing too appealing for an East Coast crowd that just saw J. Cole and Wu-Tang over the summer. New Yorkers just saw Kendrick in Williamsburg Park. We can see A$AP Mob folks all the time…

Girl Talk?

Maybe it was all just too much. As NY-based artist/actor/host/personality D-Stroy tweeted, “You know when you have too much stuff on the menu, you don’t know what you want? That’s probably how fans took the RockTheBells bill.”

So what seemed to be missing, certainly in comparison to years prior, was electricity.

Plus, as someone in New York mentioned on Facebook, “I didn’t even hear about it until the other day. I don’t listen to Hot 97.”

This is a major point. When an extremely high percentage of your lineup is more likely to be followed by Redditors as opposed to Hot 97 listeners, this type of marketing disparity, which may also have been an issue in other cities, cannot be underestimated.

So when I heard the rumblings early Thursday morning, a mere two days before the Washington DC show, that the remainder of the tour was going to be canceled, I can’t say I was very surprised.

When asked if I thought the A3C Hip Hop Festival, a large gathering of music industry and fans in Atlanta, scheduled for the same weekend as the New York leg of Rock The Bells, had any affect on the low sales figures, I replied as follows, which best summarizes some of the issues I believe are at play:

…in part, but A3C didn’t interfere with DC… and I’m hearing there was already a loss out West… So I just think it got too big. Too many artists. Too big. To be honest, greedy. With no real knockout headliners like when Lauryn & Nas were on the bill… (Yeah, Wu, but Wu was at Summer Jam, plus, they were incomplete out West which prob scared off some…) I suspect that overall, even out West, they were not packing them in how they hoped and I think part of that is by becoming too big, trying to be all things to all people and, in the case of my particular gripe, turning their back on indie/underground supporters. I heard a LOT of Hot 97 advertisements, but do you think they sent any money to indie media? Like, oh I don’t know, the largest NY-area hip hop online mag that actually caters to an audience that would appreciate this lineup?? Nope. Is a Hot 97 listener interested in these headliners? Especially when they coulda seen Wu or J Cole at Summer Jam, Kendrick in Williamsburg Park.. And the rest, the bulk, are underground artists. No Hot 97 listeners checking for them. So imagine the amount of ad dollars they wasted targeting the wrong audience… There are a hundred reasons why this didn’t go well for them…

Essentially, I believe, as I did in 2012 when I first called out Rock The Bells to Rock The Bells, that this organization and this event had outgrown itself. That the desire to be bigger and better actually worked against them.

This is all too familiar a theme in many areas of entertainment, the underdog finally wins, and then, gets too big for his britches.

Rocky III taught us what can happen next. Knocked out after two shows… er… rounds.

It is another in a series of unfortunate events the live hip hop entertainment industry has had to face recently, including a not-so-glamorous end to a high-stakes rap battle, a random shooting in a New York nightclub, and now this, the crumbling of an iconic festival in front of our very eyes, an inglorious end to a 10-year celebration in the making.

But all of these things do not point to a sorry state of affairs in the hip hop world. In fact, quite the opposite, if organizations can learn from these things, realize what is happening and not be blinded by the fake glitter and fabricated façades that permeate the music and culture that once prided itself on keeping it real.

They must realize that hip hop culture is fighting back against the rampant bastardization and corporatization that has plagued it in recent years.

There is room for mainstream rap music. There is room for getting turnt up. There is an audience for Summer Jam. But there is an audience for underground hip hop festivals. There is an audience of middle-aged rap fans. There are huge audiences waiting to be marketed to that are being ignored, aside from the few media outlets, ours included, who recognize them.

There needs to be balance.

It appears as if perhaps Rock The Bells became horribly unbalanced, spiritually and financially.

They can come back from this. But for now, as was the case against Clubber Lang, the distance they have placed themselves from their humble beginnings have rendered this “Rock” down for the count.

Join us to discuss – What The Rock The Bells Cancellations Mean For Hip Hop – on this week’s episode of The NY Hip Hop Report, airing live on Sunday, September 29 at 10pm.