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At local stops, hip-hop just flops

TAMPA -- Kanye West was snubbed here twice. Beyonce played to more empty seats than occupied ones. And now Alicia Keys has joined the Cold Shoulder Club.

It's sad but true: Tampa Bay is a brutal market for major R&B and hip-hop concerts. West, Beyonce and Keys are multiplatinum superstars that have fans of all ages, genders and races. I want them to come back. But do you?

On Saturday, the 27-year-old Keys — who's had four consecutive No. 1 albums — played to 7,201 people in the St. Pete Times Forum, a Tampa venue that can seat about three times as many. The show was a dazzler, but it would have been better with a full house cheering her on. Tickets started at $39.50, a relatively good deal these days.

You could blame the recession, the price of gas, the price of life. But other major tours are doing great in the Tampa Bay area (Radiohead, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen). Plus this is a trend that tracks well before 2008.

In July, Beyonce played to a smattering of fans in the Times Forum, probably no more than 4,000. Final figures were never released, no surprise there. Minutes before the show — in a move I've never seen before — people in the upper levels were invited down to grab a seat in the lower level. Even more amazing? There weren't enough people in the pricier seats to complain.

The last two times rapper West set up shop in Tampa Bay, a widespread case of couldn't-care-less broke out. In October 2005, as he was selling out consecutive nights in Madison Square Garden, West drew a measly 3,572 in the USF Sun Dome, which has a capacity of about 10,000.

A few weeks ago, West came to Ford Amphitheatre with a hit-making supporting cast of Rihanna, Lupe Fiasco and N.E.R.D. They drew just 9,200, or about half of the venue's capacity.

The very next night, at Miami's American Airlines Arena, which holds 19,600, Kanye & Co. performed for a sold-out crowd, according to the Miami Herald.

Granted, we're not Miami, and we're definitely not New York. But something's going on here.

DJ Trauma, an on-air personality at Wild 98.7, one of the few local stations that play West and Keys, says there are two major reasons why R&B and hip-hop shows are tanking. First of all, "They don't have the proper promotions behind them," he says. "They don't know how to get the word out to the right people." Much has been made of Tampa Bay's dearth of urban radio choices, which could also be part of the problem.

But DJ Trauma also points to the success of Wild's two annual hip-hop festivals: Wild Splash and the Last Damn Show, multiact events that cost about $20 and routinely draw huge crowds.

But "all these people around here don't have $40 to spend on a concert," he says. "There's a lot of money in Miami and Dallas. This is different here."

A few R&B and hip-hop acts do well here: Mariah Carey drew 16,493 fans to her 2006 Times Forum show. Gwen Stefani, whose biggest hits are hip-hop collaborations, drew 16,500 at the amphitheater last year. Not as good, but not awful, were crowds for a double-bill of Eminem and 50 Cent (13,593, Times Forum, 2005), and R&B belter Christina Aguilera (11,538, Times Forum, 2007).

Overall, Tampa Bay is considered a good, if unreliable, concert market. Country acts always fill the seats. Veteran performers (a la Neil Diamond, coming Oct. 24) are slam-dunks. And '80s acts (such as Cheap Trick, Heart and Journey, a triple-bill coming July 30) are money in the bank, too. Those sales numbers are reflected in the local abundance of country and classic-rock radio stations.

But hip-hop shows? Not so much. And that's too bad, especially since West, Keys and many more have made hip-hop the most creatively daring genre in popular music.

According to Billboard magazine, one of 2008's hottest tours is the tandem of rapper Jay-Z and "queen of hip-hop soul" Mary J. Blige. Tickets start in the $30s, and nightly grosses in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Oakland have topped $1-million. There are no plans for Jay and Mary to come to Tampa. With our attendance records, why would they?

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

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Why do major hip-hop and R&B shows draw poorly in the Tampa Bay area? Give us your opinion at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

At local stops, hip-hop just flops 05/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 29, 2008 5:52pm]

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