The Roots Grow Their New Hip-Hop Business Model, a Year Into NBC's 'Late Night'

Last weekend, just 24 hours before the Grammys' pop and circumstance, the industry got busy with a night of pre-party schmoozing and posturing. But the hardest-working band in hip-hop was preparing to do something unusual: playing a live gig.Then again, not much about the Roots is ordinary -- the way it plays music, or the way it runs its business. The eclectic ensemble from Philadelphia, together since 1991, has toured extensively and will release its 16th album this year. And it's just a month shy of its one-year anniversary as the house band (and, to some viewers, the main attraction) on NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

Long before NBC-Universal's Conan O'Brien–Jay Leno dust-up, the network arranged the Fallon-Roots marriage to beef up its late-night lineup. For the band, that's meant some grueling daily hundred-mile commutes from Philly to New York City. (Apart from drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson -- pictured, at center -- bandmembers now live in Brooklyn and New Jersey.) And until recently, the Roots had a standing gig at Manhattan's Highline Ballroom, hours after finishing a Late Night taping.

A Five-Year Commitment, an Eight-Week Bonanza

In taking the nightly NBC gig, the Roots traded a stressful tour schedule for a slightly less stressful nightly grind. Each season of the band's five-year deal with NBC will net the Roots about as much as its grueling 220-date tour in 2008 – which Forbes calculates to have cleared $2 million, on $10 million gross.

The deal is already paying dividends -- at least theoretically, says drummer Thompson. "The silly thing is, now that we're on TV, we're more valuable then ever. But we can't really cash in on it." Concert promoters, he says, offer the band 25% more per show than they did a year ago, which breaks down to an average of $55,000, over $44,000 last year. The Late Night commitment forces the group to turn down most requests.

The band's eight weeks off every year, however, are a bonanza. A month-long tour could gross $2 million, on top of the group's salary from NBC. "For every week we have off, we take advantage and do shows," Thompson says. "It's like that extra board on Mario Bros., where it's just a room full of gold coins, and you have, like, 15 seconds."

Social LIfe, Social Causes

Not every venue the Roots play is filled with gold coins. The Roots have a long tradition of supporting causes like vegetarianism and groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and its annual pre-Grammy jam session doubles as a soapbox for nonprofit and social-justice campaigns. This year's concert plugged Green Music Group, a coalition of musicians and industry leaders dedicated to spreading the gospel of sustainability. Rock the Vote was the cause of choice in 2008; a Darfur-awareness movement was the focus in 2006.

"Basically, it's an alternative to the other events," Thompson says. And the four-hour concert, staged this year at West Hollywood's Key Club, featured appearances that surprised the band as much as they did the audience. Guest stars included crooner John Legend, rapper-actor Mos Def, performer Jay Electronica, and flamboyant producer Scott Storch.

"High-profile attendees spontaneously hop on stage," says Kevin Seldon, the event's producer. "The jam started as an underground alternative to the stuffiness surrounding award season, but through the years it has become one of the industry's most celebrated nights."

Brought to You by Downy?

In a gyrating music industry, Thompson is keeping his eyes on other sources of income. He even recently suggested, lightly, that the band might even seek out advertisers: "Maybe the next Roots album will be brought to you by Downy, or Raid roach spray."

Regardless of fabric-softener come-ons, or any other other lucrative opportunities afforded by its year-old business model, the Roots exepct to be back in L.A. for another pre-Grammy jam session in 2011. "It's a little hard, because we have to be a karaoke machine for the night," Thompson says. "But I'm certain that we'll always have this event, no matter what."
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