Childhood friends Matt Zingler and Tariq Cherif passed the time in South Florida by throwing parties. Soon, those parties turned into scrappy live music events, which then became well-oiled monthly showcases featuring now A-list artists like Kendrick Lamar. In 2015, the duo organized the inaugural Rolling Loud festival, which filled a vacuum left by floundering rap fest Rock the Bells and, in just eight years, has become the world’s biggest live hip-hop event.
This year, Rolling Loud is making big moves — and taking a big bet. The fast-growing rap brand is not only expanding its global reach, with new events in Germany and Southeast Asia, it’s also putting its money behind Travis Scott, who will headline all the 2023 dates that have been announced thus far, including Munich, Rotterdam, Portugal, Thailand — and Los Angeles, taking place this weekend (March 3-5) at the brand new Hollywood Park festival grounds (the L.A. show has not yet sold out but is expected to).
The pairing doesn’t come without liabilities for both partners. Scott’s public status is still recovering from the Astroworld Festival tragedy, where, in November 2021, 10 people died and hundreds were injured in a crowd crush as Scott performed his headlining set. In its wake, he went from one of the world’s most celebrated hip-hop acts to something of a pariah. Coachella pulled him from its 2022 lineup; Nike and Dior paused its collaborations with the rapper; and Anheuser-Busch nixed his hard seltzer brand, Cacti. Not least, Scott — alongside promoters Live Nation, Scoremore, XX Global and others — faces a myriad of lawsuits totaling north of $2 billion in potential damages.
Rolling Loud, also a Live Nation-affiliated festival, has suffered reputational damage as well. In 2019, a 23-year-old attendee died after being brutally attacked at Rolling Loud L.A. Several performers, including Kodak Black and Fetty Wap, have been arrested on the festival grounds. And the event has been early to re-platform artists who have been disgraced. While Lollapalooza and Governors Ball dropped DaBaby after he launched into a homophobic rant during his Rolling Loud Miami performance in July 2021, the rapper appeared onstage at Rolling Loud New York just months later.
Zingler and Cherif tell Variety that Scott is an “integral part” of the festival’s history. He performed at the first edition in 2015 and headlined every year since 2017 except for 2022, because, according to Cherif in a since-deleted Instagram comment, the venue wouldn’t allow it “because of Astroworld deaths.” Indeed, an insider describes their relationship with the rapper as being “deeper than money.”
The structure of Scott’s deal with Rolling Loud is unclear — Zingler and Cherif affirm he is not a profit partner in the festival — but sources tell Variety the rapper is currently landing $1.6-1.8 million per show in the U.S. and is being paid nearly $6 million for an upcoming performance in Saudi Arabia.
“We’re proud to have watched him go from that small stage to headlining our shows around the U.S. and now the world,” says Cherif, adding that they’ve seen “nothing but a positive reaction” from the public regarding Scott, who did not respond to Variety’s interview request.
While the rapper has gained a reputation for inciting crowds — he was sued over a stampede that broke out during his 2019 Rolling Loud Miami performance — the fact that Scott is under a microscope could mean his show is “the safest place to be on a Saturday night,” says Kevin Lyman, founder of the longrunning Vans Warped Tour.
Lyman tells Variety that at this point, betting on Scott is “probably the least amount of risk you could possibly take,” adding, “All eyes are going to be on Travis and his performance, because there’s still outstanding lawsuits.”
Yet Zingler and Cherif are vague when asked if Rolling Loud has adopted any specific safety measures in the wake of Astroworld. “We learned from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others,” Zingler says. “We take everything into consideration and we’re constantly growing.” He adds, “safety is our top priority,” but when repeatedly asked to cite specific actions, the Rolling Loud team will only say, “We’re always adapting and bettering ourselves.”
Rolling Loud’s website totes a detailed bag policy, along with an extensive list of what attendees can and cannot bring to the event, and in-app and onscreen safety messaging will also be active throughout the festival. But the only publicly stated safety update since Astroworld, posted on the fest’s social media and website, was a temporary 18+ age policy, enacted in November 2021 “in light of recent events.” Rolling Loud has since reverted back to being a 16+ event. It’s worth noting, however, that other major festivals have also been coy about whether they’ve adopted specific safety policy changes post-Astroworld, no doubt due to liability concerns.
While booking any headliner, let alone one who was recently cut from major festival lineups, results in countless behind-the-scenes conversations, Cherif and Zingler frame their worldwide partnership with Scott almost as a no-brainer.
“We’ve been booking Travis Scott since 2015. From the way he captivated the crowd on our second stage, we knew he was going to be a star,” Cherif says. “He’s our most demanded artist and we look forward to bringing him back on our stage.”
It’s a bold bet from a festival that has always followed its own path, and resists comparisons to industry mainstays like Coachella and Lollapalooza: “A racehorse wears blinders for a reason. We’re just in our lane, and we’re sticking to it,” says Cherif.
Zingler and Cherif pride themselves on becoming the world’s premier hip-hop festival, but the pair’s plans extend far beyond that. “Rolling Loud is a lifestyle brand,” Zingler says. “I envision the name and the IP to be used on everything, including hotels, resorts, airplanes.”
The two have come a long way since meeting in elementary school. They boast longstanding relationships with today’s hip-hop royalty; a successful international franchise; and visions of one day being the “first festival in space,” says Zingler. “Rolling Loud to the moon, baby!”
But first, they stand to face reality back on Earth: will Rolling Loud go, if not quietly, at least without major incident, into the night?
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