Sacramento’s music by the numbers

How data factors into local shows and taste


A line of teenagers wraps the 28th Street block leading to the doorstep of Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub at 5 p.m. for an early, all-ages rap show. The claustrophobic smoking patio of Ace of Spades looks like an unregulated herding pen filled with heshers and black leather. Material from the Starlite Lounge ceiling cascades onto the downstairs pool table—downstairs, it’s a brightly lit rockabilly lounge, upstairs, a packed-house metal show.

These are just some of the signs of a thriving music scene.

The local music scene is not data driven. Most local talent buyers say they book based on personal taste foremost. And yet, data—ticket sales, streaming data and other forms—is playing an increasingly significant role in sussing out Sacramento’s identity as far as what locals listen to and what shows they attend.

In this age of data-driven listicles, two recent pieces help tell the story of Sacramento’s music scene: a Noisey article, “How Metal Is Your City?”, and a Spotify list, “Sacramento’s Top 10 Most Distinctive Artists,” which calibrated the most listened-to artists in our region versus the rest of the world.

Two factors stand out: we’re hella metal and we prefer our rap regional.

Photo by Jorund Foreland Pedersen/Wikicommons

According to the graph from Noisey, a subsidiary of Vice, Sacramento ranks 33 of 100 cities in the country with 243 documented metal bands. Justin Isaacks, of Shuffle Six promotions and bar and entertainment manager at Highwater, says that traditionally it’s a lot of death metal and thrash metal here. The death metal is mostly a suburban sound, while downtown is more punk. But the most popular shows that draw all walks of metalheads are the doom metal shows.

Isaacks booked post-punk and metal in venues like Press Club and Midtown Barfly before Starlite Lounge became this year’s unofficial metal sanctuary. He looks to Metallica playing Tower Records’ parking lot in the ’90s and Slayer playing Memorial Auditorium in 1998 as indications of the lingering, and immense metal crowd.

“I think it’s always been here bubbling up under the surface,” Isaacks says. “The ’90s was a heyday in Sac and those people never left.”

But don’t begin to think Sacramento is a one-dimensional town, strictly hailing Satan.

Spotify’s “Most Distinctive Artists in Sacramento” list analyzed our listening habits, removing artists that are unanimously popular worldwide and teased it down to the top 10 streaming artists that only Sacramentans played. Atop the list was Oak Park’s Mozzy followed by nine other Sacramento and Northern California-based rappers like Philthy Rich, Nef the Pharaoh and Iamsu!.

“Sacramento is really into hip-hop and that’s undeniable from this list,” Spotify editor Eliot Van Buskirk says.

Van Buskirk stresses that we also listen to Adele, Beyoncé and Drake much like the rest of the world. But, our support for regional rap is unique data. Fornati Kumeh of ENT Legends agrees. He carved his niche as a talent buyer with rising talent in hip-hop and R&B. Before Kumeh founded his own company, he tested the waters by booking Oakland’s Young L of the Pack at a community center. He’s also booked many of the artists on the Spotify list.

“Sacramento is undercover a big hip-hop city,” he says.

If a chart-topping rapper graces the stage in Sacramento, chances are Kumeh booked it. Recently, he brought two artists selected from XXL magazine’s Freshman Class of 2016 issue, which selects the next generation of significant rap artists. This included Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert, who Kumeh booked at Harlow’s and Ace of Spades, respectively. Both shows sold out.

But Kumeh and Isaacks agree, along with every talent buyer in town, that Sacramento’s handicap is the absence of a midsize 1,000-to-3,000 person venue. It’s the reason booking agents overlook this city for larger, more popular acts.

Still, ticket sales data proves we’re a worthwhile market. Maybe we’re not paying close attention, but booking agents in New York and promoters in the Bay Area are aware of the hard data. These numbers produced one of our biggest music festivals and shapes various efforts to embed a hip-hop festival here.

Bay Area promoters don’t like Sacramento’s thriving scenes. They count on our dollar. Isaacks knew he was on to something when he began getting calls claiming his shows violated radius clauses. A typical radius clause includes noncompeting shows for 60 days within 60 miles of the contract. Sacramento is 88 miles from San Francisco.

“San Francisco and the Bay Area depends on Sacramento for ticket sales,” Isaacks says. “They wouldn’t even have to work for our dollar.”

He says he overpaid guarantees, knowing a large band in a small venue like Press Club or Starlite would require sold-out sales to recoup. He was also selling Sacramento on the idea that an intimate show was a better experience than driving to San Francisco to see them in a larger setting.

“Once the agents saw the numbers of the shows and the enthusiasm, the roles reversed,” he says. “We started getting contact from the agents. They saw Sacramento as a worthwhile market for small-club shows.”

Isaacks booked Eyehategod, for example, at Midtown Barfly in 2014. He says the last time they played Sacramento was likely on tour with White Zombie and Pantera in the 1990s. When Kumeh wanted to bring a young Kendrick Lamar to town in 2011, he reached out to the Sunrise Events Center in Rancho Cordova: a beige, one-story building on a corporate avenue of warehouses. Not exactly the cultural epicenter of greater Sacramento.

“I remember passing out fliers for Kendrick and nobody knew who he was,” Kumeh said.

Now, it might require Golden 1 Center for Lamar, one of the most popular artists in the world, to return.

How a scene becomes a festival

A thriving scene also looks like 17,000 strong in Discovery Park dressed in all black, a sea of longhairs in synchronized headbanging. It’s a megapit resembling a medieval battlefield of battered bodies. Talk to any talent buyer in Sacramento, they’ll point to Aftershock Festival as an indication of the region’s metal population. Since its inaugural year in 2012, Aftershock has swelled in size and increasingly molded its lineup in favor of the metalhead demographic. Founder Danny Wimmer isn’t even from Sacramento. His company Danny Wimmer Presents is Los Angeles-based. He observed the ticket sales data and placed Aftershock in our lap.

“I’ve been looking at this market for years,” Wimmer wrote in an email. “These fans are very loyal, and this is a community. It’s not about one song. It’s about the lifestyle and culture. The fans are committed through an artist’s career, unlike many other genres, where it’s only about the song.”

Isaacks looks at this year’s lineup and its diversity and sees an adaptation to the scene. “I think the rep Sacramento had was more radio-rock kind of metal,” he says. “It was a bad stereotype of that kind of metalhead. The thinking man’s metalhead, that person is here, too. You can tell whoever is in charge of booking Aftershock has seen that is a market they want to get.”

Kumeh believes Sacramento is prepared for a hip-hop festival. That’s already been proven true, actually: KSFM’s 102.5 Live festival has been held for three years at Discovery Park. In May, it drew 17,000 people—2,000 over the permit limit—with headliners such as Tyga, Fat Joe, Remy Ma, Desiigner, and E-40. It’s telling data of a desire for hip-hop.

Now Aftershock’s success has Kumeh thinking bigger.

“What hip-hop artist can you really put on City of Trees to make it flow well?” he asks rhetorically. “It takes somebody to create a new lane. Maybe it’s in my hands or someone else’s hands to create a new event that showcases hip-hop. It would let everyone know in and around Sacramento that we can … be successful.”

It might be #HOF Day on September 24. Robbie Metcalf of Hall of Fame, an events and entertainment company, partnered with Kumeh to make this year’s day party bigger than last year. Metcalf is hesitant to brand #HOF Day as strictly a hip-hop event, but securing famed hip-hop producer Young Metro as a headliner sends a loud message.

#HOF Day’s first two years only capped between 2,000 and 3,000 people. Metcalf is aiming for 6,000 this year.

What has Wimmer of Aftershock learned about Sacramento in the five years of booking the city’s most successful festival? He says the ticket sales, merch sales and fans on social media all cried out for a heavy festival.

“But not only that,” he says. “The data was telling us they wanted more of it, too.”