Hot Seat: Dwayne Cross – Supafest
Staging a festival is fraught with problems. Staging an international hip hop festival is another matter altogether. Just ask Dwayne Cross. The U.S.-born, Melbourne-based promoter is behind the four-city Supafest, whose fourth edition was recently postponed just a week out from the big show. Fans of bling and bluster were doubly-disappointed when Live Nation’s rival event Movement was cancelled. Supafest claims to be “world’s biggest hip hop and urban music festival.” And there’s some weight to that statement.
The first edition of Supafest in 2010 pulled some 61,000 punters, with a bill that included Akon, Kelly Rowland, Pitbull and Jay Sean. The next edition grew to some 90,000, Cross says, with a line-up including Snoop Dogg, Nelly and Taio Cruz. But last year’s event ran into troubles when P Diddy, Missy Elliott and Rick Ross didn’t show as advertised. The social networks erupted with disgruntled fans, and the final numbers through the gate slumped to about 53,000.
The problems with staging hip hop shows have been well-documented — and they aren’t Australia-centric. A glance at Billboard’s coverage of Jay-Z and R Kelly’s disastrous U.S. “Best of Both World” co-headlining tour drives the point home. TMN caught up with Cross – who started Roc Tha Block and was behind Summerbeatz and Winterbeatz — to talk about the future of Supafest.
So, what went wrong with Supafest 4?
We had contracted and deposited all the venues. We still had pretty decent numbers across the board. We were up to about 10,000 sold in Sydney and just over half that in Melbourne and Brisbane. So we were tracking along OK. Obviously there were stretches in the market from what happened last year, but in our second year with Snoop we did almost 90,000 people. Our inaugural year we did 61,000. Last year, with all the stuff that happened, we did 53,000. I respect and never want a promoter to lose money, because I know how hard this is. But we’re been compared to Heatwave. Chamillionaire compared to Snoop Dogg…come on?! I don’t understand that comparison because we’re not the same. For Movement festival to come out, it gives you an idea of what we’ve been doing for a period of time, and the level of success we’ve had and how hard it is. The Movement festival, which had Live Nation behind it, actually cancelled their event on its inaugural year. That’s got to show that it’s not an easy market. But we’ve been able to achieve those numbers. I suppose you’re only as good as your last game. But we’ve been at this for a long time. I created Roc Tha Block — the first ever multi-billed urban event to hit the country. We toured Jay-Z, Rihanna. We were doing that in 2005. From that point on, to this point, we’ve been doing those tours.
I’ve had three artists for whatever reasons not come here or not show up. Over a 9 or 10 year period, we’ve had three artists (not show). And it’s like we’re the worst thing ever. We’ve brought artists over here that, hey, there’s no way anyone would have got to see Fat Joe. Eve tried to come here and do a live show on her own and sold 18 tickets in Adelaide. But she played in front of 21,000 people here at Supafest. I do it as a serious passion. I’ve got a family like everybody else. I want to make a dollar, sure, but I really love the business and I want to see it grow until we have an urban radio station. I want to see urban artists from here make it in the U.S. I’ve got a vested interest in the business. It’s not just dollars and cents and a spreadsheet.
When I get hit with all these things…I’m not Live Nation, I’m not Gudinski, I’m not Soundwave, I’m not the Big Day Out. I don’t have any corporation, major, publicly-listed companies backing me. It’s me and three people in the office and we run one of the largest urban festivals in the world.
Your statement talks about “difficulty completing venue contract arrangements for the Melbourne and Brisbane legs of the festival”. What does that mean?
Outdoor venues obviously have huge costs and we wanted to be sure we could meet all those costs. We also wanted to make the event much bigger.
I have a statement from the RNA Showgrounds in Brisbane, who say their decision not to proceed with Supafest was “because the organisers failed to meet their contractual obligations.” They went on to say, “Time extensions were provided and every effort was made to negotiate options with the organisers, but in the end they still could not meet their requirements under the contract.” What do you say to that?
We met our requirements. I paid deposits and contracted everything. And we had a bond, but we disagreed on when that should be paid. I’m a smaller business, and I asked. But they weren’t willing to work with it. So, we looked at postponing it now.
The clash with the Movement dates can’t have helped at all. How did that happen?
I can’t speak for them. All I can say is I had those dates planned for a long time. I’d spoken to a couple of promoters, we were going to share some of the production with Aerosmith and the guys from Stone Festival in Sydney. So my dates were always there. I don’t want to enter into any argument with Live Nation or Movement. I respect what they’re trying to do. And I understand how hard it is to run a festival like that. Our dates had been set for six months in advance. We were working with other promoters this year on production to cut our costs. And we’d also implemented a plan to cut our costs by not going over two weekends and capitalising on the Anzac Day long weekend.
Now you’re talking about rescheduling the shows in November, which puts you in competition with John Denison’s Hype.
I don’t want to say too much about John Denison and his exploits. But, I suppose yes. He’s an ex-partner in the business and I think he goes around telling people he sold his shares when that’s actually not the case. He left the business because he actually had nothing to add to it, both financially or operationally and left me with a huge amount of debt and carrying all the backlash of the business, which I’m happy to do. He’s moved on as if it’s not a problem. I’m passionate about the actual genre. And I’ve got a vested interest in it.
How likely is it that these November dates will actually happen?
It’s one thing to line-up the venues, and another to get the acts and their crew on those dates. Absolutely. I’ve got great relationships with the artists and management. I’m optimistic that the bill will be the same. Everybody has said to me, providing their scheduling is the same, they’ll look at the new dates. That’s from top to bottom. Nobody’s negative on the postponement. And I’ve been very transparent with wanting Supafest to be exactly where it was. Contrary to popular belief, people in the U.S. do know what it is, and they actually like to play on it.
It seems very ambitious to do four-days-straight in four cities. There’s no space for mistakes.
We did it the same way on the very first Supafest — four days, back-to-back.
Why are tickets for Perth more expensive?
They had a transport fee in the ticket price.
Is it a mistake to think an Australian hip hop festival tour could work?
Australia is predominantly a rock and dance market. Hip hop has its place. But R&B and hip hop always sits on the charts, it’s always popular. Even the likes of Big Day Out, they celebrated their 20th year with Kanye West headlining. People will always play to it. I think it will grow. I’m not sure it will grow to that size, 200,000 people across (the country). One of the things we do, people who like this music like to see their stars. So we don’t have seven stages and rides. It’s about the music. I’m sure (Supafest) has the capacity to grow a little bit more. We think we can probably get, in a perfect world, over 100,000. It wouldn’t have taken much more a couple of years ago. Two hundred thousand — I’m not that ambitious. The market is dance, rock, indie. What Soundwave does (hard rock and heavy metal), it’s a huge market. That’s the majority of what the country leans to.
Many fans of Supafest will be dubious about the show’s future.
We had ups and downs last year. Chris Brown closed it last year. It was an amazing event. This year, yes, I’m sure there could be a level of skepticism in the marketplace. But all you have to do is look at Roc tha Block in 2005 and come all the way to Supafest and study that. I tell people to look at that, look at all the Supafests, all the Roc Tha Blocks, the Akon, and T-Pain tours, the Summerbeatz tours, all those artists compiled, then ask themselves, all those things happened. All those events happened, win lose or draw. Some have been to our demise. But caring for the market, we’ve made them happen. And they have happened. What I say to that is, look at all the acts we’ve toured this country under the urban banner. Starting from 2003 to now, and they’ve all happened. Including last year’s Supafest.
Many ticket-holders for Supafest will think there’s little chance of it actually happening in November. What is the chance it will happen in November?
100% chance. It’s not about a chance. I’m working on putting together the dates and the run as we speak so I can come back with an announcement.