It’s not hard to believe that Kanye West tends to get what he wants. According to Terrence Henderson, president of Top Dawg Entertainment, when Kanye personally asked Kendrick Lamar to open for the Yeezus tour, Kanye’s people “weren’t taking no for an answer.” What is a bit hard to believe is that saying, “No, Mr. West, I don’t want to accompany one of the biggest artists of our generation on his first solo tour in five years,” is even a consideration. However, according to The New York Times Magazine’s piece about the backstage happenings that enveloped the Compton rapper while marauding about the country with the Yeezus circus, that’s exactly the answer TDE had for Kanye when he first presented the opportunity.
“Believe it or not, we were actually trying not to do the tour,” Henderson told the NYTM—something that sounds ill-advised, considering the seemingly obvious benefits of opening the Yeezus tour. Yeezus, set to span three legs, 53 shows, and three countries, would expose Kendrick hundreds of thousands of new fans, and associate him with the one and only Kanye West. That’s the type of gig most other artists could only dream of landing, and surely a huge honor. “It’s a different kind of thrill when an actual artist asks you, when Kanye asks you,” said Lamar. “Now I know he’s really interested in what I do.”
“Believe it or not, we were actually trying not to do the [Yeezus] tour” – Terrence Henderson
So what is that had TDE’s black hoodies all in a bunch? According to Henderson, “We wanted Kendrick to be recording that whole time.” It makes sense. As of mid-2013, when he was presented with the decision whether or not to join up with Kanye for Yeezus, Kendrick had been touring non-stop for nearly two years. He’d dropped a few post Good Kid M.A.D.D. City buzz-generating tracks here and there, most notably “Control,” but the demands for new music were pressing, and to remain relevant in today’s market, new material is a must.
TDE were able to solve their problems with a studio bus, allowing Kendrick to record while on the road, but the whole saga brings up an interesting question: Are tour opener slots still as valuable as they once were? For Kendrick, that wasn’t an easy question. The role of a tour opener is not as clear-cut as it once was.
Once upon a time, exposure was everything. Live shows and the radio were the only way to get your name out there. There was no YouTube on which to go viral, there was no iTunes store, no Spotify. Landing a gig as an opener for a well known artist was an opportunity that could not be passed up. Thanks to the internet, exposure isn’t as hard to come by as it once was. The list of YouTube starlets grows by the hour, and you don’t even need a record label anymore to distribute your album to as wide a reach as you twitter followers will cast it. Exposure is no longer the Holy Grail. The name of the game now, according to Oakland’s own tour-opener veteran G-Eazy, is association and positioning.
“Obviously Kendrick is big enough [to do his own tours]—he’s been doing his own tours for years now. But opening on a tour as iconic as Yeezus is something you can’t pass up. There’s a value of cool there.” That’s association and positioning. Sure, Kendrick’s album was huge. It won almost all the plaudits a hip-hop album can garner, and if it weren’t for Macklemore, it might’ve won a Grammy. People know who Kendrick is, people like Kendrick—but knowing that Kanye likes Kendrick too? Priceless.
Back in 2010, while he was while still enrolled at Loyola University New Orleans, G-Eazy got the opportunity to open for Drake. “We kinda got snuck onto that tour,” G says. “[Drake’s] tour manager was one of my best friends, and part of my management, and he kinda just brought my music to him, and was like, ‘Look, there’s this open space after doors open, can G just come on and do a 10 minute set—for free?’”
Yes, for free. Despite the fact the he was participating in a multi-city, big money tour with one of the industry’s biggest artists, G-Eazy wasn’t getting any of that check.
You’re not famous enough to negotiate a decent fee for the performance, but doing the performance can help you get famous enough to negotiate a decent fee.
There’s a huge value swing present for an opening slot. For that same slot opening for Drake, an artist further along in his or her career would get paid. Although the figures aren’t available, there was most certainly financial compensation for the part Kendrick Lamar played in the Yeezus tour—but for other artists, it’s a catch 22. You’re not famous enough to negotiate a decent fee for the performance, but doing the performance can help you get famous enough to negotiate a decent fee.
There’s more than money at play here though. For G-Eazy, a college kid on the road for the first time, being a part of a mega-tour presents an invaluable learning opportunity. “I would watch Drake perform,” G says, “and just take notes as a student of the whole craft. Both of them [Drake and Lil Wayne] are really fucking good live. You just learn the little tricks, how they move onstage and how they put their shows together, everything that goes into their tours—the production, the writing, the band, everything. You’re being influenced by the best, and you’re being inspired by them.”
When you’re first starting out, you’ve got no chance to play in front of 10-20,000 people, and even if they’re not there to see you, getting out in front of them is vital to an artist’s growth. G-Eazy puts it this way: “When you’re starting out, you need to open any tour you can, because you just need to be in front of people. You need to win over strangers, and convince them, and make sure they leave being fans of you. That’s how you get the ball rolling. It’s not like you make music, and instantly you’re in front of millions of people.”
When you’re starting out, you need to open any tour you can, because you just need to be in front of people. You need to win over strangers, and convince them, and make sure they leave being fans of you. – G-Eazy
So you’re not there to make money, you’re there to learn, you’re there to make fans, and you’re there to associate yourself with another act, but what kind of image and brand are you creating for yourself as a tour opener? There’s a type of de-facto concession of worth in opening for another artist. It’s as if to say, ”I know I’m not on this guy’s level, but check what I can do.”
G-Eazy remembers his time on that Drake tour in 2010, “There was this weird dichotomy of being a part of this hugely successful tour, but then being an absolute nobody at the same time, security giving me shit, feeling cool but still feeling uncool at the same time.” That’s the type of secondary-citizen complex that can weigh on you if you’re not careful. Sometimes it’s time to headline your own tours, not only because that’s when you can actually make money, but as G-Eazy puts it, “It feels good to be at your own party.” He adds, “If you go to a movie theater to see a funny movie and it’s packed full of people who are dying laughing at every joke, then you’re gonna think it’s a way funnier movie than if you went and saw it by yourself like a weirdo.”
“You have to build your own brand, and that’s what headline tours do,” G explains. “Those are my fans, my culture around the music… [As a fan] it’s so much easier to be convinced when you’re surrounded by a sold out show full of people who are all stoked. It’s easy! I walk on stage and I’m like, “Make some noise” and everybody goes crazy. When you’re the opening act and the venue is half full, you just have to work so much harder.”
So what’s the verdict? Did Kendrick make the right call when he hopped on the Yeezus boat? Well it’s not that simple. G-Eazy says it’s all about keeping a balance: “You have to spend enough time in the studio creating content so you’re not irrelevant online. You have to be on the road enough, maintaining relationships with your touring culture and fans that come to the shows in order to keep them engaged. All the different sides are different steps forward and you just have to balance them.”