Coachella, one of the largest multi-day music festivals in North America, recently kicked off this past weekend in Las Vegas with headliners like Beyonce, Eminem and The Weeknd. After Coachella, Beyonce plans on jumping right into her second joint tour since 2014 with husband Jay-Z. The Weeknd is all set to headline the equally popular Lollapalooza Festival in August. Eminem is scheduled to headline several music festivals this year including Bonnaroo, Boston Calling and New York’s Governor's Ball. Festival season 2018 has officially begun.

Hip Hop and the multi-day music festival have been intertwined since the early 1980’s, spearheaded by events like Atlanta’s Freaknik. Freaknik started out as a picnic in the spring of 1983, organized by students attending the Atlanta University Center for members of “state clubs” from historically black colleges. “Members of the DC Metro club threw a picnic in Piedmont Park for students who found themselves stuck on campus over spring break,” recalls organizer Sharon Toomer. “It was a simple event—sandwiches, coolers, boomboxes, that sort of thing.”

The event gained its now-famous “Freaknik” moniker, and moved from spring break to the third weekend of April. It eventually evolved into a long weekend of escapism, defined by concerts and cars shows; attendees would roll through the streets of Atlanta, showing off their finest rentals. “I had a motorcycle just for Freaknik, just so I could ride around in the streets. You wanted to be in it. I had to have a convertible during Freaknik,” admits So-So Def mogul Jermaine Dupri. “I wanted to be seen, but I wanted to see everybody at the same time. It was the beginning of “flexing,” in every kind of way. The birth of riding around with your system blasting, with TVs in your car. All of that stuff came from people wanting to be seen at Freaknik”.

The 90's FreakNik Atlanta Story

Word spread throughout historically black colleges around America, and by 1993 Freaknik was attracting around 100,000 students “for all the reasons college students congregate anywhere: music, dancing, drinking, love, lust, and the chance to just hang out.” Unfortunately, the city wasn’t prepared to accommodate such large crowds of people, and the ensuing traffic delays interfered with the operations of white-owned businesses in downtown Atlanta. Disgruntled citizens and store owners urged city officials to step in and take control.

By April 1999, the increased police presence did not go unnoticed; hundreds of attendees were arrested and thousands were issued citations. The city’s interference transformed a weekend of indulgence and revelry into one of heavy surveillance and political intrusion, and by the following year, the buzz around Freaknik had diminished. HBCU students moved on to common spring break locations like Daytona and South Beach.  

In 2004, Rock the Bells emerged in Southern California, drawing in crowds of serious hip hop heads more concerned with lyrical mastery than trendy outfits. Unfortunately, Rock The Bells was plagued with problems since the initial launch. The promoters had disputes over finances and operational issues with equipment. Major scheduling conflicts resulted in artists showing up exceptionally late, if at all. In hindsight, it seems as this rap festival failed to invest the appropriate time and energy into creating an overall, lasting experience for ticket holders.

Now, hip hop fans can count on the Miami-based Rolling Loud to pick up where Rock the Bells left off. Currently billed as the largest Hip-Hop festival in the world, Rolling Loud is known for its ability to put together an impressive line-up of must-see hip hop artists. Last year’s lineup included Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Post Malone, Migos, Gucci Mane, ASAP Rocky and Future, to name a few. Not only that, but Rolling Loud provides a much-needed space for hip hop fans to invest in celebrating the culture.

The event caters heavily to the fans: in the sense that line-up is often a who's who of the hottest artists out at the moment, basically serving as any rap fan's wet dream. Although a 2015 article in the Miami New Times described the experience as “a shitshow from the very moment that doors opened at 1 p.m, with patrons waiting in outrageously long lines in the pouring rain to pick up tickets, while the venue, Soho Studios, flooded," that was in the festival's infancy, and it's granted that setbacks should be expected from a young festival, especially given the steep learning curve for aspiring promoters. As the festival continues to grow and expand, it's consumers have equally heralded it, with the 2017 experience leaving no room for detractors when it comes to the uniqueness of this hip-hop-focused hub.

That being said, we've seen it happen before-- why are urban Music Festivals like Freaknik, Rock the Bells and Rolling Loud so often plagued by racial tension, operational mismanagement, logistical and scheduling issues? Do festival organizers believe that hip-hop fans desire less than those attending “chic” festivals like Coachella and Lollapolooza? Or is it a result of poor planning and inexperience? Perhaps the hip-hop concertgoer is simply undervalued in today’s marketplace, which seems difficult to believe, given the sheer popularity of the genre. Yet even with the flaws, hip-hop festivals remain a vital part of the industry,  due to their ability to draw in record numbers, increase business for hospitality sectors, and launch various careers within the industry. Maybe hip-hop festival organizers could benefit from adopting some of the strategies used by top festival organizers in order to optimize the ticket-holder’s experience.

A conversation with the co-founder of Rolling Loud.

These days, the modern fan’s taste is as diverse as a festival’s line-up, with pop music headliners performing alongside up-and-coming rappers and indie rock bands. Ben Dickey, manager of the acclaimed band Spoon, previously told Rolling Stone that “festivals have changed the way music is experienced—and released. A fan with a Spotify account and a Bonnaroo ticket can sample hundreds of bands, live or on record, in one weekend.”  Not only that, but they’ve also become synonymous with fashion - for better or worse.

“Festivals are huge moments in the cultural calendar… [They’ve become] to fashion and beauty brands what the Super Bowl is to other consumer product categories”  reveals Deborah Yeh, senior vice president of marketing at Sephora. Various beauty and fashion websites offer multiple articles highlighting the current trends on the music festival circuit. YouTube influencers provide how-to videos to help concert goers achieve the most sought after bohemian-chic look. More and more retailers roll out their spring and summer lines to align with the beginning of festival season, maintaining a section dedicated to festival-goers well into the fall.

Event marketing experts have attributed the music festival takeover to several millennial-driven economic factors. Crowd Companies founder Jeremiah Owyang suggests that “the sharing economy” has played a role, describing it as “an economic model where technologies enable people to get what they need from each-other—rather than centralized institutions.” Social media savvy concert goers “freely share their data to let others know what they need, and big-data algorithms are applied to make recommendations based on where there’s ideal capacity available to meet needs”.

The official festival app is a crucial technological development in the outdoor festival industry, as it allows concertgoers to navigate festival grounds and plan schedules with ease. Instead of memorizing line-ups, attendees can simply refer to an app where all of that information is provided and GPS enabled. There’s even an option to set a reminder alerting you when your favorite artist has taken the stage. An article on Hackernoon about music festivals and the inclusion of modern technology reveals that “nearly every festival in 2017 [had] an official app for attendees to view lineups, personalize their schedules, access maps and more”. In return, festival organizers can use the data collected from the current years’ festival to improve logistics and make informed decisions for the following year. This ensures that the multi-day outdoor festival will continue to improve, while providing the best overall experience for every ticket holder.

Festival promoters also encourage attendees to document their experiences by posting photos and videos with festival-specific hashtags, which allows fans worldwide to engage with the experience. Retweeting, sharing and commenting on the most entertaining videos and photos is a source of universal pleasure for fans; even celebrities get in on the action. However, it’s not solely about the infusion of social media and the festival scene. These technological advancements actually make it easier for concert goers to roam the concert grounds freely without fear of getting lost or missing their favorite act. Social media enables attendees to connect with new people who have common musical interests -- what better way to get to know someone than recording an Instagram live video together, or adding them on Facebook or Twitter? Concert goers can easily search the festival’s hashtag to find out what other guests are doing.  Need some quick food suggestions? Simply tweet out what you’re craving, and fellow festival-goers will gladly help you out.

Depending on the sponsors, attendees can even be granted access to the latest technology, food or premium beverages on the market. At this year’s Coachella, Eminem took full advantage of the market by giving fans the opportunity to purchase his signature pasta at the pop-up takeout shop, “Mom’s Spaghetti”. He also launched the official Eminem Augmented Reality app, which activates different experiences coinciding with the first six songs of his set. For an artist known for his lack of technological capabilities, Em has somehow taken the augmented reality experience to the next level.  

So what does the future have in store for the hip-hop festival? It’s hard to say, but there are a few certainties. Hip-hop fans need to feel like valued consumers, while experiencing the carefree essence of what made Freaknik so successful amongst predominantly black concert goers. It would need to be properly executed, technologically advanced, and corporately financed enough to compete with festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, while remaining appealing to today’s diverse millennial. Rolling Loud appears to be up for the challenge, and only time will tell if others dare to venture in the same field.