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The ‘R&B is Dead’ Narrative is Rampant, But Ticket Sales Are Proving Otherwise

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Boardroom unpacks the ongoing controversy of the state of R&B featuring insight from managers, industry experts, and more.

Oftentimes when a buzzword or saying circulates across social media, the root of where and when it started gets lost in the mix. I took it upon myself to look into the origin of the popular — but also tired — phrase, “R&B is dead.” With a hit from a Google search, I discovered an article from as far back as 2009. 

While the R&B debate stretches back to the late 2000s, it continues to find its way back into today’s conversations. In August 2022, Diddy tweeted “Who killed R&B?,” which in turn created an uproar on social media. Although the tweet sparked online controversy, it did something that typically isn’t the norm — it brought forth a conversation between the older and younger generations.

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During Diddy’s Instagram Live revolving around his tweet, he opened the floor for artists to share their thoughts on the current state of the genre including former Bad Boy signee and singer Mary J. Blige.

“You can’t kill something that’s in our DNA,” the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul said. “It’s gonna keep transitioning from generation to generation to generation to generation.” To Blige’s point: How can something be dead that laid the foundation for your favorite genres of today?

Kehlani performs during their “Blue Water Road Trip” tour at Oakland Arena (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

As legends such as Blige, Monica, Faith Evans, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, and Brandy have paved the way, today’s R&B artists have found their own rhythm — literally and figuratively — to carry on the genre. And the demand for what they’re releasing is evident in their feats.

Numbers Don’t Lie

One of the arguing points of R&B’s “decline” in the aforementioned article from 2009 is that it’s not as prominent in the mainstream as it used to be. However, if we want to talk numbers about how R&B is holding up to hip-hop, then we can talk numbers — especially when it comes to touring.

In 18 tour stops alone, SZA’s SOS Tour raked in $34.5 million from selling 238,000 tickets in North America, according to Billboard. Kehlani is yet another prime example of R&B bringing in whopping ticket sales. After taking a five-year touring hiatus, their Blue Water Road Trip tour grew in both the size of venues and sales. According to Billboard, a standout stop for the tour was two sold-out nights at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, which saw a sale of over 11,000 tickets and generated $813,000. 

“You can’t say something is dead that is obviously thriving in everyone’s faces,” Kehlani told the outlet when asked about their take on R&B’s status.

Apart from being one of today’s top R&B artists, Ari Lennox is a D.C. girl through and through. So much so that for her sold-out “Age/Sex/Location/” tour, the “Waste My Time” singer dedicated four shows to her hometown of the DMV.

Age/Sex/Location is Lennox’s second album under J. Cole’s Dreamville — a body of work that the Fayetteville, NC rapper praised across social media. Initially receiving Cole’s official co-sign-in 2015 not only marked her as the R&B First Lady of a label stacked with emcees but also opened the door for more R&B artists to rock Dreamville Fest’s stage. For this year’s festival — which brought in 100,000 attendees, according to Boardroom‘s own Randall Williams — its lineup featured some of R&B’s biggest stars including Lennox, Summer Walker, 6LACK, SiR, and of course, Usher as the day one headliner.

There are a plethora of reasons behind what sustains the drive of R&B ticket sales but here are a few: Top-notch artist development, the support of social media, and less supply equating to more demand.

Top-Notch Artist Development

Masego’s career trajectory has evolved at the same speed as his sound. The Jamaican-American musician is one of management and label company EQT’s non-traditional R&B artists, including singer Berhana. Initially coining his own sound as “TrapHouseJazz,” the “Mystery Lady” crooner has gone on to infuse elements from Caribbean and African music into his genre-bending discography. From his 2015 The Pink Polo EP to his self-titled sophomore album, elevation has been at the forefront of his artistry.

“A lot of it echoes off of the organization side of it being able to just take the creative side of an artist and be able to translate that to a model that’s functioning and evolving over time,” Masego’s manager, Justin Scarbrough, explained to Boardroom. A key driving factor for an artist’s evolution is their management’s ability to market, build upon and put an “exclamation point” on pivotal moments from earlier stages in their career, according to Scarbrough. “We’re gonna bring in the label team to figure out the best way to step up or maximize on a given moment.” 

Along with the collective support of his EQT team, Masego is hands-on in elevating the concert experience for fans. As he’s on the road for his sold-out “You Never Visit Me” Tour in North America (as of this writing), he is constantly “self-editing” when it comes to improving his shows, according to Kazz Laidlaw, EVP of Management & Special Projects at EQT. 

“He and his band are always working through the set list and adding different moments to enhance the fan experience, and just understanding as the rooms and the audience has grown a lot, how we can make the shows more engaging,” Laidlaw told Boardroom. As the venues where Masego performs have grown in size, so has his team, which initially began as just him, his manager, and a DJ.

“The tour team is pretty big and seeing as that grows how to make sure that’s streamlined and moving properly,” Laidlaw emphasized.

The impact of top-notch artist development can also be seen in a rising girl group. In April 2022, UK-based girl group FLO, who consists of Jorja, Stella, and Renée, took the music scene by storm with their debut single, “Cardboard Box.” Now, nearly just a year later, the breakout British trio has exponentially elevated right before our eyes and has even managed to collaborate with hip-hop icon and multi-hyphenated creative Missy Elliott

Ahead of their debut album, they are embarking on their first North American tour, which is sold out. What’s more, music listeners are now tuned in more than ever as their latest single garnered over two million streams in just four days after dropping, which the group celebrated via TikTok.

The Support of Social Media

Coco Jones is one of today’s most promising R&B artists who has had a remarkable breakthrough in the industry. The former Disney star’s new era initially picked up steam from her covers on TikTok. Taking note of Jones’ virality, her management team were strategic in leveraging it during her reintroduction to the world and pursuit to one day be a legacy act.

“That was a conversation we had right away because she does do really great numbers on social media, but it was also about not looking too perfect,” Jones’ manager and co-founder and CEO of 10Q Management Lydia Asrat told Boardroom. “Not having this persona where it’s unattainable. Your fans need to feel like they know the real you and feel like, ‘Okay, this is my home girl.’ Not some outer space character that I don’t ever feel like I can relate to.”

Cognizant that it’s the fans who ultimately keep an artist’s career running, Asrat and the rest of Jones’ team work to ensure that the growing group feel a part of the ride. However, most importantly, the objective behind her social media content is to keep her authenticity at the core.

As a boss and hard worker herself, the South Carolina-born and Tennessee-bred singer has always been dedicated to creating top quality work throughout her music journey. Now, she has a top-tier team she trusts that’s backing her every step of the way.

“I’ve learned regarding management that passion is important, but execution is even more important,” Jones explained exclusively to Boardroom. “Especially in an industry where there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of action. You always need somebody who’s going to execute what they’re promising.” 

“I feel like I’m only as good as my team, so having support has changed the trajectory of my success completely,” the 25-year-old songstress emphasized.

Jones and her team’s relentless run and social media strategy have proven immensely effective as the 25-year-old has hit a hot streak of wins including scoring her first placement on the Billboard Hot 100 spot with her breakout single “ICU.” In regard to Jones’ stacked line-up of upcoming shows at both venues and festivals, Asrat credits her sold out show for her EP, What I Didn’t Tell You, at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. in March — the Bel-Air star’s first headlining show since she was 16-years-old.

Asrat shared that hitting that milestone was the catalyst for promoters to recognize that Jones has a fanbase that isn’t only ready to get their hands on tickets but also to sell out venues at a higher level.

(Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage)

Less Supply Equals More Demand

Following the success of his debut album, Trapsoul, Bryson Tiller solidified himself as a sought after R&B act. Although the Louisville artist dropped True to Self and Anniversary shortly after his 3x RIAA-certified Platinum album, he didn’t take the music on tour. Now, after five years of not touring in the U.S., Tiller is set to be back on the road. In March, Tiller shared on Instagram that he is kicking off his “Back and I’m Better Tour,” which will hit 25 cities, in May. 

The announcement sent his fans in a frenzy as the pre-sale tickets sold out in a matter of minutes, according to REVOLT. Tiller’s ability to be mainly off the grid yet have an upcoming sold out tour on his hands is a testament to how loyal R&B supporters oftentimes are.

The notion of whether or not R&B is dead all dials back to the beginning of my findings from 2009. The article posed the consideration of whether it was “premature” to make the declaration. As today’s R&B artists from Ella Mai and Victoria Monét to Leon Thomas III, Lucky Daye, Brent Faiyaz, and R&B duo dvsn continue to make groundbreaking strides in their career from album sales to touring — all while taking on the constantly changing music industry — I believe it would behoove people to give R&B a similar level of grace as other genres have received in their transitionary periods.