With the internet hyper-accelerating the average artist’s life cycle and “democratizing” the already overcrowded market to the point of a constant blur of white noise, it can get a little tricky for rising stars to separate themselves from the pack. Where in the past, there was a long lead time of artist development before artists were thrown into the deep end to sink or swim, nowadays, your make-or-break moment as a potential star can come just weeks after your initial breakthrough on the back of a viral hit. For the modern generation of rising rap stars, that moment is often their first festival performance, which has come to be the ultimate proving ground separating the future kings and queens from the one-hit-wonders.
In fact, the festival performance — and the fact that there are so many festivals that cater to hip-hop, not to mention so many facets of it — is both a gift and a curse. Rather than plugging away for months, years — heck, decades — at a rap career, refining your performance skills in half-empty dive bars and 300-cap theaters, you can play for many times that number at even the smallest stages at festivals like Rolling Loud or Day N Vegas, even in the least desirable time slots, getting the kind of exposure that it used to take a whole regional tour to acquire. Now that you’ve got a viral hit, this is your chance to capitalize on the curiosity of fans at your stage and prove you have enough material to fill a solo set and pitch your real product: Your personality, your energy, and your unique story.
However, this can be a double-edged sword. While a standout set can earn you fans for life — or at least, for the duration of the ride home from the festival venue — a lackluster one can torpedo any forward momentum you’ve managed to earn for yourself. While streaming numbers can be faked and industry relationships can be leveraged to “get on,” you can’t fake a live reaction. This is why so many of the artists that draw so much attention early in their careers can seemingly fade over time. Plus, bad sets tend to stack up on one another; the first bad set leads to skepticism for the next, and so on, meaning each new performance can bring back diminishing returns. Also, if fans don’t see your name moving up the lineup and getting bigger, they can assume it’s because you have very little to offer with your live show.
We’ve seen these principles in practice over and over again but for the most extreme example, we can look at someone like DaBaby, whose raucous festival performances played a huge part in his building such a dedicated fanbase so quickly. Even before he blew up in 2019 with “Walker Texas Ranger,” when he was still going by Baby Jesus (yikes), Jonathan Kirk was an expert at drawing attention, walking around festivals in a huge diaper, and delivering energetic performances that endeared him to fans early in his career. When he finally got that name thing sorted out, it seemed like he blew up right away, right? None of that success would have been possible had he not positioned himself for it with his stellar performances early on.
DaBaby also helped make the downsides to a bad performance more clear this year, ironically at Rolling Loud, the hip-hop-centric festival of which he’d become a fixture over the past two years. Thanks to livestreams of festivals, performances both good and bad can be broadcast to even more viewers at a time, making the stakes more precarious than ever. Even as DaBaby delivered his usual action-packed set, his between-song call-to-action to fans came across as less-than-enlightened and has drawn plenty of complaints of insensitivity and hate, marring his public reputation seemingly overnight (his repeated doubling down didn’t help). Bringing out Tory Lanez as a publicity stunt further disrupted any positive perceptions his performance may have picked up, sparking the viral moment he wanted, but bringing the opposite response he likely expected.
Kirk’s woes, though, are extreme. Some other examples might be the way newer rappers like Polo G, JID, or Guapdad 4000 were able to convert new fans after a festival season, growing their followings to the point of intense fervor. I personally watched Kyle unexpectedly pull in hundreds of curious observers on the big stage at Coachella a couple of years ago, overhearing conversations to the effect of “Who’s that?” “I don’t know but I like him!” Aminé packed out a tent at that same Coachella, the spillover crowd sparking increased interest from passerby and growing it by the second. By the same token, at the most recent Rolling Loud, breakout sensation Coi Leray mystified attendees who realized they didn’t know any of her catalog past “No More Parties,” but seemed to be engaged by her enthusiastic performance, even if they didn’t quite show it on the livestream.
Even the choice of the festival to perform at makes a huge difference for a rising artist. A Camp Flog Gnaw set can attract one sort of fans (Tyler fans are hella loyal) while something like Soundset can benefit a more heady-sounding rapper. Back in the day, I knew if an artist was on Paid Dues or Rock The Bells, they were my kind of artist — and that was where I saw groups like TDE and Slaughterhouse make their bones. Since then, a good festival show has only become more important to any artist’s strategy. It’s a shame so many are tossed into that fire without getting the practice they need to deliver an impressive set. In the future, maybe artists, their labels, and their managers will realize that importance and dedicate more resources to ensuring they are ready to take on that challenge.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.