You might not know it, but Cincinnati’s hip-hop scene is on the rise. Local artists consistently sell out smaller clubs such as The Mockbee, and household names are appearing at big local venues with surprising frequency. One of the groups responsible for the surge in popularity is Soul Serum, a local multimedia music collective with a finger in every pie: music videos, web content, merchandise, promotion, documentaries, artist management, and especially live music production. The company’s cofounder, owner, and project manager, Tanner Moeves, a Northern Kentucky University graduate, has been planning for live music’s full return since the first COVID case hit stateside.
How did you get into the music business?
I’ve been into rap since elementary or middle school, and I fell in love with the music of Lil Wayne and then Gucci Mane and all the Atlanta guys. Once I got to NKU, I was able to really start traveling to live shows. Over time, I caught myself looking at the behind-the-scenes stuff about how shows are produced and all of the people working backstage; I even started following my favorite artists’ managers on Instagram. I ended up going to [Miami music festival] Rolling Loud in 2017, which really opened my eyes. I was like There are 40,000 people here for the same music I love, but people back home don’t listen to any of this. I told myself I wanted to be part of something like this back in Cincinnati, if possible.
What was the first show you produced?
I got all the most creative people I knew from the local area—photographers, videographers, graphic designers, musical artists—together to start up something. Our first show was with one of my friends from high school, Pangeaux. I came up with the name Soul Serum in his basement, actually. After his show, we did another one with a few more artists at The Mockbee, and it sold more than 250 tickets. That’s when I was really like, Wow, maybe I could do something with this.
How did you keep going through the pandemic?
At first, we were strictly throwing live shows and doing an online blog. That’s it. I’m not a writer by any means, and I kind of got burned out on that because I don’t have a passion for writing. Then the pandemic hit, and I knew we needed to shift our direction and triple down on visuals—we aimed to put out two music videos a month, and that’s what we did. We stumbled upon [acoustic rock artist] Jack Kays, and I knew there was something there, so we shot a video for him. I had him post it everywhere, and the song ended up going viral on TikTok. A month after that, he had every major label in a bidding war and ended up signing to Columbia Records. That was really mind-blowing to me.
So now music videos are our bread and butter. We shoot videos only for music we would actually listen to on our playlists; we’re not your regular local production company that’s going take any $500,000 budget and shoot the most trash song. It’s a passion thing for all of us. We try to stay super authentic. I think that’s why we’ve stood out.
How excited are you for live music’s full return?
It’s awesome. I’m not gonna lie, it was kind of depressing not having live music during the first year-plus of the pandemic. I just took it for granted for so long, because I was able to go to a show at any time. Live music is the heartbeat of why I started Soul Serum. Being able to contribute to the scene again in Cincinnati and being able to bring national artists to the area who people actually want to see is a good feeling. And there’s a huge appetite with younger kids, especially, to go out to concerts.
How did you keep the spirit of live music alive during the pandemic? Did you have shows ready to go or anything where you thought, I can’t wait until we can do this again?
Yeah, the whole time. The entire pandemic, I just felt a tension, not only with music but with everyone cooped up in their houses—people were dying to get out and do things again. We didn’t want to come out of the gate and force a show, though, because even when things were opening back up, the pandemic wasn’t really over and COVID cases were still rising. So I said I was just gonna chill for a year and see if it cools down and then maybe come back in 2022 with a huge show.
I’m close with the talent buyer for venues like Bogart’s, Top Cats, the Andrew J Brady Music Center, and he’s a big fan of what we’re doing, so he offered to collaborate on some shows. He was like, You tell me who the poppin’ hip-hop artists are, and I’ll try to book them, then you can fill in the openers with your artists and we’ll call the concert series “Soul Serum Presents.” I gave him a list, and we ended up landing on the Baby Keem show in March as our first concert back, and it sold out Bogart’s in nine minutes. I’ve been to plenty of shows at Bogart’s, and I’ve never seen it that packed. There’s really an appetite for this music around Cincinnati; hip-hop shows sell more than almost any kind of music. That’s promising for us when we’re trying to build up a scene again after a worldwide pandemic.
How does it feel to go from working with your high school buddies to national stars?
Man, it’s crazy. I’m such a forward-thinking person, and I get so caught up in what’s next that I hardly look back on what we’ve accomplished so far. It’s insane to think about, like, Oh yeah, Baby Keem is Kendrick Lamar’s cousin and we’ve all been listening to and looking up to Kendrick for a decade. I really can’t put it into words how thankful I am to be working with artists like this.
It hasn’t been all butterflies and rainbows—there are a lot of highs and lows, and I don’t have health benefits or a 401(k), so this business is a huge risk. But the stars just kind of align sometimes when you take risks. There are literally just five of us trying to make it happen and doing it for the love of the music. I used to have to travel out of state to see my favorite artists, and now they come to Cincinnati.
What’s been the hardest part about bringing back live music?
Now that we’re working with a talent buyer, it’s gotten easier because we don’t have to put up as much funding and take all of the risk. The problem now is that everyone is touring. There are so many tours going on right now, more than ever before, and there’s a ton of overlap. Unfortunately, Cincinnati is still kind of a “pass-through” city, and you’ve got to make a really good offer and make it a good opportunity for them to stop here. This fall, especially, is crazy with all kinds of tours from artists of every genre. So I feel like the logistics and picking from the overwhelming amount of tours are probably the biggest challenges right now.
It sounds like an embarrassment of riches. You don’t have issues getting people in the door, you just have to decide who you want on the other side of the door.
Oh yeah. With the current state of music oversaturation, there’s literally so much new stuff out every day it can be kind of overwhelming. As a consumer and a fan, people only have so much money and time to choose the shows they want to go to. That’s why we don’t do concerts every month now; we try to do one every two or three months and avoid going back-to-back months unless it’s someone we absolutely can’t pass up or who we know is just going to pack a venue no matter what. Every time we do a show, I want it to be better than the last one.
What does live music mean to you?
I don’t really know what I’d do without it. I get so bored. Just hearing live music through loud speakers zones me in, and I forget about all the other issues I have going on in my life. It doesn’t have to be hip-hop. Even if I’m just at a local bar and hearing something I wouldn’t normally listen to but is fun to hear, it revalidates why I do what I do. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of live music.
Soul Serum’s next show is with Jack Kays at Top Cats on November 22. Doors open at 7 p.m.