For nearly two decades the Essence Music Festival has been the premiere destination for black music fans from around the country. Now, BET is hoping to change that.
The Black Entertainment Television network has built a formidable competitor to Essence's event by transforming its own annual award spectacle into a three-day destination festival in Los Angeles.
The BET Experience will kick off June 28 and feature concerts by headliners Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg, Miguel and R. Kelly as well as wellness seminars, celebrity panels, a film festival and, yes, an awards show telecast on June 30. All combined, the event will attract more than 100,000 people to the city, according to the network.
"The BET Awards are like the Super Bowl of black entertainment," said Debra Lee, the network's chairman and chief executive. "It's the biggest thing out there, so we always asked ourselves how we make it bigger and better. [Creating the festival] allowed us to touch many more people than are able to come to the awards."
The location — L.A. Live's multiple venues downtown — is significant given that Southern California has had a limited hold on the urban music market. While the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has long been a major event for music lovers across several genre lines, festivals dedicated to core urban music listeners have been limited in the Southland to Rock the Bells and Paid Dues, which cater to hip-hop fans.
The BET Experience, more than two years in the making, is a way for the network to expand its highly rated awards show and make L.A. a destination for urban music fans in search of a big ticket event.
"This will be really great [for the network]," said music executive and Grammy-winning songwriter-producer Kerry "Krucial" Brothers. "Essence has been doing this for a while, and BET expanding out definitely helps the brand. The festival gives a renewed factor to the awards show … and this lineup shows how much respect the artists have for BET."
The network signed a deal with Anschutz Entertainment Group in 2012 to launch the event, and promoter Goldenvoice, a division of AEG Live, helped curate a bill of top-tier R&B, soul and hip-hop artists. There are already plans to hold the BET Experience at L.A. Live for at least the next three years.
"It's an amazing thing to see how the BET Awards has evolved over the years," said Snoop Dogg, who will also lead a panel with rapper T.I. and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) on eliminating gun violence. "This year, they are really doing it big with the whole program of events outside of the awards show."
Since its inception in 2001, the BET Awards has routinely been one of the network's highest-rated programs — 2012's attracted 7.4 million viewers — and is one of the few shows of its caliber in which black entertainers take center stage. But eventually the production outgrew its space.
Last April, the network announced it teamed with AEG to move the show from its former home of the Shrine Auditorium to the Nokia Theatre, in the glitzy L.A. Live complex. The festival will be housed at several L.A. Live properties including Club Nokia, Conga Room, the Grammy Museum, J.W. Marriott hotel and the adjacent Staples Center.
"We knew the demand was there," said BET Awards executive producer Stephen Hill. "People were coming to L.A. whether they had a ticket or not. There is an energy around the weekend. This is a great way to throw an envelope around the awards."
What will the BET Experience look like? Staples Center will feature three nights of performances from Beyoncé; Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, J. Cole and Miguel; and R. Kelly, New Edition and the Jacksons immediately after the BET Awards. The smaller Club Nokia will host comedians Mike Epps, Cedric the Entertainer and a Kirk Franklin-led gospel showcase during the day, and Erykah Badu, the Roots featuring MC Lyte and Too Short will have late-night sets.
Said singer Franklin of the opportunity to perform at the inaugural BET Experience: "This festival is truly like no other. With so many great artists performing, the BET Experience will definitely be a time to celebrate great music."
Beyond the concerts themselves, the festival will include tapings of BET's video countdown show, "106 & Park," in L.A. Live's courtyard, after parties at the Conga Room and a massive free "fan fest" expo at surface lots surrounding the complex.
Unlike Coachella, AEG and BET wanted fans to be able to customize packages to do as much or as little as they were willing to pay for. Keeping with the exclusivity of the award show experience, those wanting to rub shoulders with the stars at the awards show can buy one of the three VIP packages the network created — if they're willing to shell out between $995 and $3,995. Each package offers a different access level but guaranteed entry to the awards and seats to the Staples Center series.
But fans can purchase single-day tickets to shows or bundle the Staples Center series of shows for $199 to $399. Access to fan fest and seminars are free with registration.
"This is not a one-ticket-fits-all festival because we have different shows at different venues. We can't sell 15,000 tickets and try to fit everybody into a 2,000-seat club. There wasn't a great opportunity to bundle them at great value because the shows were so diverse in what they are," admits Goldenvoice executive Rick Mueller, who helped orchestrate the deal. "The only thing we felt made sense to bundle was the three-day package for Staples Center."
The BET Experience has already had a major impact on the neighborhood. The J.W. Marriott and the nearby Luxe Hotel are booked for the weekend. BET has already sold most of its VIP packages, with the $1,995 "Platinum" and $3,995 "Diamond" packages already gone. The festival has attracted fans from 44 states, according to sales data from AXS, AEG's still relatively new ticketing site. And more than 60% of registrants to the free fan fest will be coming from outside the city, according to BET's database.
The BET Experience is only the second event of its scope to set up at L.A. Live, behind the X Games. Though the Los Angeles Convention Center and Expo Hall wasn't secured for the inaugural festival (there are plans to use it in future years), the adjacent surface lots can hold up to 10,000 attendees, and will likely attract as many given that it will be free and packed with exhibits, a Chris Brown dance-athon, celebrity basketball game, a truncated version of the Taste of Soul and free performances from buzzy acts like Mateo, Ab-Soul, Bridget Kelly and Austin Brown as part of the network's ongoing Music Matters initiative to break emerging artists.
"The festival shows BET giving more props to the art," said Brown, who will also have a small performance slot on the awards show. "Not just it being a festival for music and for black artists, it's all around showing that they are a cultured network and company. What's cool about it being BET is a lot of times black artists don't get a lot of the shots that other artists get. They are really stepping up their game and showing their place in culture."
Beyoncé will use her slot at the BET Experience to launch her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour, but the other Staples Center shows are supervised by the network and Goldenvoice. Mueller said he hopes artists build their performance schedules around the festival, much like acts do with Coachella.
"I want the event to constantly evolve so if there are tours out there from artists like Beyoncé, who are just so popular, of course we want that," Mueller noted, "same way Coachella wants Radiohead or a huge core artist. There's always a place for that, but we also want to be able to curate it to a certain degree."
But how much of the BET Experience will viewers at home get to see? Not much, this year. Hill, who also serves as the network's president of music programming and specials, said they are still in discussions on how to build footage into programming to air later.
The network will, however, live stream some of the events including one of the seminars, the celebrity basketball game and a special episode of "106 & Park." Viewers tuning into the actual awards will get a brief glimpse of what they miss when R. Kelly closes the show from Staples Center before his concert.
As for those unavoidable comparisons to Essence, which sets up in New Orleans just a few days later — Beyoncé and New Edition are on both bills — BET isn't concerned.
"We recognized they are two very different targeted markets in different parts of the country," Lee said. "There aren't a lot of [urban-geared] festivals nationwide. They have their audience, and we are going to appeal to a different audience. I think the marketplace can support both."Copyright © 2015, RedEye