Hot 97 Execs Share Their Vision & Expectations For Summer Jam 2015

June 3, 2015  |  

With this year’s Hot 97 Summer Jam approaching, we reached out to talk to the arms and legs behind the annual hip hop concert at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. This year’s stadium stage lineup includes Chris Brown, Trey Songz, Kendrick Lamar, Meek Mill, Fabulous, and more. Behind the scenes, there’s Ebro Darden, on-air personality and the station executive responsible for all event stage management and production. And there’s Deon Levingston, SVP and market manager at Emmis Communications (Hot 97’s parent company).

In an era where music consumption habits are changing, live performances are becoming an even more integral part of artist strategy. “Music doesn’t sell anymore. If you’re an artist and want to be at the top of the game, you have to do live shows,” says Darden.

To that end, a spot on the Summer Jam roster can be critical to a music career.

“There are three different levels to hitting that stage. An artist that is an iconic artist has probably hit that stage before and thought, ‘I’m back!’ An emerging artist is going, ‘Whoa! This is the next step to me becoming an iconic artist.’ A new artist hits that stage and realizes, ‘I made it,’” adds Levingston.

MadameNoire (MN): What factors go into artist and stage selection?
Deon Levingston (DL):  We look at ticket sales, who’s coming out with new music, and what trends are happening. We do a lot of research and planning to come up with the best lineup that will be appealing to our listeners from a content and ticket selling standpoint.

Ebro Darden (ED): The stadium stage is generally picked based on time in the game and amount of content. You’ve got to be able to do a 20-to-30 minute set of hits. We also look at demand for a specific artist. Can you put together a show that is going to uphold the expectations of the Summer Jam  brand?

MN: What’s the most challenging aspects of planning Summer Jam?
Darden: One of the biggest challenges is artists having this expectation of Summer Jam that it has to be all about their guests or their new music. We’ve had artists that are afraid to do it because they don’t have any new material. We’re like, “The audience loves you. Come party with us.”

The other challenge is the amount of festivals around the world now that aren’t necessarily committed to making the music matter beyond that festival, but want to book hip hop acts. When Summer Jam happens that weekend, there are other big festivals going on in Europe. Those big festivals cut big checks. They are allowing artists to be exposed to another [demographic] and make another fan. Sometimes that’s frustrating because obviously we are just one station in New York City and we can’t afford to pay the big checks. For example, this year we wanted to have Future, but he had a contract somewhere else.

Levingston: Organizing and confirming the talent. People take that for granted. We spend a lot of time in the selection process of trying to figure out talent that works together and rounds out a show that is appealing to our whole audience and gives everyone something they will enjoy.

MN: How is the concert financed?
Levingston: There’s a specific station budget for the year. We have to  sell sponsorships and tickets to make it pay for itself. We have done that for the last 22 years. It’s a major outlay for a station to do every year. As the economy has gone south, fewer stations have done it. More stations will do it because it does give a way to touch their audience and have an additional revenue stream if they do it right.

MN: What are the top-line station goals for the concert each year?
Levingston: The goal every year is to sell it out, or as a minimum, exceed what we did the year before.This Summer Jam is on track to be the best Summer Jam we’ve ever had. We’re considerably ahead of where we were a year ago (a couple thousand tickets ahead in sales.) Our momentum is just getting stronger and stronger.

This is probably the most traditional Summer Jam we had in a long time. What we did this year was we took major artists that are staples like Chris Brown, but we added artists who are becoming the next roll of artists like Kendrick Lamar, Trey Songz, and Meek Mill. We have a great mixture of established iconic artists, with artists who are becoming iconic artists, with emerging artists. Our festival village is better than an arena show. Now you’ve got two incredible shows for one ticket and one day.

MN: The festival stage popularity and impact has grown over the years. Why?
Darden: We’ve tried to make sure there is a certain caliber on that stage as well. Last year you had Childish Gambino, Jhene Aiko, Iggy Izalea, Chinx, Mack Wilds… it was a show all by itself that would probably sell out Barclays. That festival pulls about 15,000-to-20,000 people.

We pick those acts based on people who have hits and have their own touring. Joey Bada$$ goes out and sells out shows. Travis Scott is f****** amazing on stage but he doesn’t have radio hits yet. We want to see him have radio hits for us so we want to expose him to the audience and get his name familiarized and keep building with him.

Levingston: My best moment of Summer Jam didn’t happen in the stadium. It happened when August Alsina was on the festival stage. You looked out and there were 20,000 people. It was jam-packed to the point you could not move. The idea started as something small with a couple DJs. To watch it grow from that within 10 years to 20,000 people…good gracious!

MN: Why is Summer Jam so important for hip-hop artists?
Darden: The importance of Summer Jam is being in front of hip-hop fans who are going to sustain your career and be fans of you longer than someone who is going to [another] festival and may just bump in to you for that moment.

The fans at Summer Jam are super-duper fans of the artists, music, hip hop and R&B. That’s important for an artist’s brand. Summer Jam is where you can reinforce your position in the hip-hop culture. You have people who you can count on. If you’re there for them, they are going to be there for you.

I don’t think people know that Summer Jam the largest show in the world focused primarily on hip-hop music. People take that for granted. We’re all about hip-hop culture. It’s a moment for us to celebrate that specific music. There’s some people who debate and say they would love to go somewhere that has more of a music variety. I would argue and say you have those all over the place (Coachella, Governor’s Ball, Lollapalooza.)

It’s special that in New York City, the birthplace of this music culture, you have a show, that is the biggest in the world that is catered specifically to the music that was birthed here.


MN: Why is the fact that Summer Jam is radio station-produced so important?
Levingston: Hot 97 is known for breaking artists. We do a show at SOBs that is called Who’s Next? That show has had everyone on there from Nicki Minaj to Kendrick, Kanye… Dej Loaf was just on there right before she blew up.

What we started to do with these artists who are upcoming artists is move them along in the process. It’s important because radio has been the traditional means to give those artists that outlet. Fewer and fewer stations are doing shows of this magnitude because of the costs.

MN: How does Hot 97 help featured artists post-Summer Jam?
Darden: We play their music, talk about their relevancy and talk about them. Even after Summer Jam we put events together. We promote their concerts, give away tickets, and play music for these artists to keep them a part of the conversation after it’s over. These other festivals cut a big check but they are not going to do that.

MN: How do you foresee Summer Jam evolving?
Levingston: I would not be surprised if Summer Jam becomes a two-day show where the festival stage is extended and grows into its own festival the day before. We’re just getting to the point where there is so much content and talent going on that if you don’t get out there at 2pm, you miss something.

MN: Who do you think will be the audience favorite this year?
Darden: At this point it’s all speculation because you never know who is going to have a great night. Chris Brown is up there doing back flips and he’s got mad hits. That’s obviously something that is very entertaining. Kendrick Lamar having an album that is a debatable classic carries a lot of weight with the hip-hop crowd. People love his content and perspective. Big Sean has hit songs and people love his album. We know for a fact that the reason those people are on stadium stage is because of their caliber, hits, and potential they have to put on amazing shows.

MN: At the end of the day, what is Summer Jam truly about?
Darden: I believe that music is all about life and memories. Summer Jam is part of that music memory. That’s where I get the most joy. That’s the most meaningful piece for people.

You can go on YouTube and see video of people from the 300 section smoking weed with their friends. They’ve brought their whole building and they’re just having a party while the artists perform on stage. You can hear their reaction of people on the stage coming out. Or, you can view people tailgating in the parking lot. One year, there were five cars on fire because people had tailgated and parked their cars over the hot BBQ pit. That’s s*** people remember for the rest of their lives.

If you’re [coming out for the day], wear comfortable shoes and something that you don’t mind getting a little dirty. Come with two or three of your friends that you like having a good time with that aren’t too annoyed to walk, stand up and have a great time.

For  more information and full concert lineup, click here.

Rana Campbell is a freelance writer and marketing/branding strategist. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin or visit

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