For the first time in his career, Kanye West’s controversial comments have not only landed him in another public relations nightmare — they’ve led to nearly all of his brand partners divesting from him as they’ve determined his volatile behavior is more trouble than it’s worth. Talent agency giant CAA dropped him this week, and Adidas ended its years-long partnership with West and his Yeezy brand, tanking the rapper’s net worth and revoking his billionaire status in the process.
As much of the entertainment and fashion industry has cut ties with him following a string of virulent antisemitic remarks and false claims that George Floyd died of a fentanyl overdose, there’s still a question regarding one of the most lucrative aspects of any musician’s career: What happens to his touring business? Who would be willing to book or promote his shows after this, and would a music festival invite him to play?
To say West has no live options would be a stretch. As long as he has his listenership and ability to grab attention whenever he speaks, as several live music insiders tell Rolling Stone, someone could still choose to capitalize on his music — and controversy — whether that’s a record label or a concert promoter. But that support won’t likely be coming from the most powerful institutions anytime soon.
“It won’t be a Live Nation or an AEG, no,” says one industry executive, referencing the two biggest promoters. “I think he’ll be compelled to do something live at some point. He could go try and go to a venue directly, and put up the money himself. He would hire freelancers willing to work with him. Or if a promoter worked with him, it would be somebody desperately trying to buy some buzz and some market share.”
Meanwhile, it seems that Kanye’s erratic behavior had already discouraged some industry players before the latest controversy even started. The same source says Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the world, had already ceased communication with West before his recent spate of hateful comments. The company hasn’t been in contact with him since a February event in Miami, the source says, in part because of the difficulties of working with the rapper.
Another source with knowledge of the matter confirms that Live Nation hasn’t done anything with Kanye since the Miami event, adding that the company has had no contact with his team for over six months.
Live Nation, which also puts on major festivals including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, didn’t comment on whether it would book Kanye for a tour or give him a festival slot again, but a spokesperson for the concert giant confirmed that it doesn’t currently have any business with him in development. “Kanye worked with other promoters on his last few shows, so nothing active with him on our end,” the rep said. (A rep for West did not respond to a request for comment.)
West hasn’t been a particularly reliable live booking over the past several years; unexpected cancellations from him aren’t new, but until now, companies continued to book him on the belief that he’d be a surefire sellout if all went smoothly. This year alone, he pulled out of Coachella less than two weeks before the festival, then abruptly canceled his Rolling Loud Miami headlining set three months later. It’s unclear, however, how much those events hurt West’s chances of booking further festivals. (AEG Presents, the parent company to Coachella, declined to comment.)
“We’d never had a headliner pull out until Kanye did, and we don’t take that lightly,” Rolling Loud’s co-founder Tariq Cherif previously told the Los Angeles Times. “The platform we built deserves respect, and we didn’t like it. We understood he wasn’t prepared to perform in a headline capacity, so we had to respect it and find a replacement. It’s unfortunate, and we did the best we could.”
Beyond the question of who could promote his shows or help plan dates, another major challenge for West would be finding a venue willing to work with him. “He could try and find a venue owned by a cowboy somewhere,” the first source says. “This is a big country, there’s lots of places to try and go with.”
A booker for a regional concert promoter that oversees several venues tells Rolling Stone he expects that much of the live industry won’t book West for the foreseeable future.
“I think there are venues that would accept him, but they would be few and far between. Whatever happens at that point would be the flashpoint, the canary in the coal mine for what comes next,” the booker says, pointing to the backlash that First Avenue in Minnesota faced when it booked Dave Chapelle this past July before canceling the show.
As the booker says, any venue that takes on West would have to be prepared for further blowback. “Whether or not it’s intended, by booking Kanye at this point in time, you’re endorsing his words,” says the booker, who also expressed concerns for West’s mental wellbeing. “He needs to walk away from what he said before most venues would work with him.”
It’s rare for an artist facing this kind of controversy to continue to double down on their dangerous statements the way West has, and it isn’t clear how much any level of attempting to repair his image will work. And given that Kanye’s comments have already emboldened others to publicly share hateful, threatening rhetoric against Jewish people, there could even be a question of how safe it would be to put on a show by him.
Still, given the music business’ long history of embracing redemption stories, if West does take any actual steps toward change, it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that he could win back some form of support from the industry.
As the concert booker notes, one of his venues recently hosted a show for Ryan Adams, and they’ve got Louis C.K. booked in the next few months as well. (Both Adams and C.K. have been accused of sexual misconduct; Adams denied the allegations against him, but later apologized for having “mistreated people.”)
The booker is far from the only live music rep to take those two on. In the past six months, Adams has played storied venues including Carnegie Hall in New York and the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. As Adams’ team told Variety in June, the singer has managed to sell out most of his concerts without doing any press. C.K., meanwhile, has more than two dozen shows across Australia and the U.S. from November through January, including a show at Madison Square Garden. Dates at several of his stops, including the Chicago Theatre, Los Angeles’s Dolby Theatre, the Moody Theatre in Austin, and the Factory in St. Louis, are already sold out.
Whether or not these artists should get a platform to perform is a subject of much debate. But that hasn’t stopped venues from taking them on, and it certainly hasn’t stopped customers from buying tickets. Right or wrong, the industry has long given second chances to problematic figures in the name of their art and the profits that come with it. How many chances will Kanye get?
“The reality is, you need to look at this through the lens of time,” the booker says. “Time is part of what helps put calluses on what’s obviously a very deep wound right now. Kanye’s [road back] will be even greater, because he has the ability to incite violence in people, and he’s not recognizing that. He has dug himself a deep hole, and it’ll take a much longer time to have anyone be comfortable enough to know he can be trusted again to do this.”
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