Days before the Friday launch of the second annual BET Experience, L.A. Live was packed with workers feverishly getting ready for the three-day festival.
Outside the smaller Nokia Theatre, a red carpet was unfurled for Sunday's telecast of the BET Awards, and bleachers were erected at the carpet's edge for fans to see their favorite stars.
At the Los Angeles Convention Center, another team was hoisting video screens and banners for an expo that will offer dozens of free acts, a sneaker convention, a celebrity basketball game, a dance competition, fitness classes, a beauty lounge.
The cable network BET (Black Entertainment Television) is once again hosting an event that was once believed to be logistically impossible — a multi-tiered music and entertainment festival in downtown Los Angeles built around an award spectacle.
Last year, its inaugural launch featured concerts from superstars such as Beyoncé along with comedy shows, celebrity panels, a free fan expo, a film festival and, finally, an awards show telecast.
More than 100,000 people flocked to L.A. Live, where the event took over the multibillion-dollar complex downtown for a weekend in June.
Since its inception in 2001, the BET Awards has routinely been one of the network's highest-rated programs, and its first year broadcast from Nokia Theatre resulted in its highest ratings in four years.
Now, BET is hoping to best itself.
"Last year we didn't know what to expect," said Debra Lee, the network's chairman and chief executive, of the festival's inaugural year. "Now having gone through it we know how great it was. It's such a great way for our audience to touch our brand and to see our talent. That's the unique thing that we bring to this. It's not just a music festival."
Yet so far, ticket sales have been slow compared with last year.
When BET initially signed a deal with Anschutz Entertainment Group in 2012 to launch the event, promoter Goldenvoice (a division of AEG Live) helped curate a bill that sold itself.
Beyoncé used the event to launch the U.S. leg of her 2013 world tour, and the rest of the lineup was packed with chart-toppers across R&B, soul and hip-hop such as J. Cole, R. Kelly and Kendrick Lamar.
AEG confirmed that the fest has yet to sell out (last year had already sold out by this point), and a few weeks ago single-day ticket and bundled packages at multiple price points were lowered. As an example, $100 was slashed off the lowest three-day Staples Center bundle.
Initially, single-day tickets to the Staples Center concerts ranged from $59.50 to $149.50, with bundle packages going for $199 to $399. The only way to get into the awards show is through VIP packages, which are priced between $1,095 and $4,395 and include access to the Staples Center series and a host of perks.
"Ticket sales are pacing behind last year, by not much though," Lee Zeidman, senior vice president and general manager for Staples Center, Nokia Theatre and L.A. Live, admits. AEG is planning on additional marketing and eleventh-hour campaigns running through the week to move additional tickets. "Obviously when you have Beyoncé as your tent pole you're going to be able to sell more tickets, especially with her coming back like that."
The idea for the BET Experience wasn't just about the network expanding its highly rated awards show. It was an attempt to turn L.A. into a destination for urban music fans searching for a big-ticket event. What last year offered was a worthy alternative for black music fans, particularly in the Southland.
The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival deftly covers several genre lines, but it's a pricey one-ticket-fits-all deal that requires a commitment of not knowing acts beforehand. Rock the Bells, which almost exclusively caters to hip-hop fans, has struggled in recent years (dates were canceled last year due to weak ticket sales).
The Essence Music Festival has held the spot as the preeminent summer showcase of black music, but not everyone can make the pilgrimage to New Orleans.
This year at the BET Experience, R&B crooner Maxwell and singers Jill Scott, Marsha Ambrosius and Candice Glover will kick things off Friday at Staples Center.
A reunited OutKast topline Saturday's hip-hop-focused bill alongside Rick Ross, ASAP Rocky, Ty Dolla Sign, August Alsina and Rich Homie Quan.
Mary J. Blige, Trey Songz and Jennifer Hudson will close the festival.
Future and the Roots (who will be joined by Warren G, Redman, Method Man and Doug E. Fresh) will continue the party with late-night gigs on Friday and Saturday.
"Our main goal this year was to have three nights of great talent that appeals to our audience — solid, accomplished artists in the R&B and hip-hop space. And I think we've done that," Lee said. "We try to make the lineup as compelling as possible."
The BET Experience at L.A. Live is expected to be here for at least three years. Lee said discussions beyond that will likely begin after this weekend.
Ticket sales aside, the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton are already at capacity for the weekend, and the Fan Fest, which moves from the adjacent surface lots to the comfort of the convention center, can now accommodate three times the capacity of last year (25,000-30,000 compared to 10,000).
And to drum up hype in the weeks before the festival, BET and AEG sponsored a free weekly concert series at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza to preview the talent coming.
"We really have geared it to be an amazing three-day experience," Lee said. "I think those people who came last year felt that it was really worth it. We're hoping to have more people, and new people, this year."
2014 BET Experience at L.A. Live
Where: Staples Center and Club Nokia
When: Friday through Sunday
Events: Los Angeles Convention Center will host a free fan expo Saturday and Sunday. Events include talks with Mike Tyson, Common, Floyd Mayweather and others as well as a film festival, a celebrity basketball game and more.
Tickets: Single-day tickets to Staples Center series are $39.50 to $149.50, bundle packages are $99 to $349; Club Nokia tickets are $29.50 to $79.50; VIP packages, $1,095 to $4,395, include access to the awards show and the Staples Center series.