Playing private, corporate gigs — no longer music's biggest taboo: Alan Cross

The woman was an event planner on a very chi-chi Caribbean island, a place where the ultra-rich go to play.

“Maybe you can help me,” she said. “I have a client. Very wealthy. From the Middle East. He wants to celebrate his 50th birthday with a private concert aboard this yacht. His price points for a performer are $250,000, $750,000 and a million-plus. Plus costs and a per diem, of course. Can you suggest any names that might be available? Just don’t say Elton John because we asked and he’s already booked.” (I think the client ended up with an acoustic Lenny Kravitz performance. He was in the million-plus bracket.)

I also had a conversation with someone from a big software company. “We want to throw a party for the employees and our biggest clients. We’ve got about a million-and-a-half bucks to spend on musical talent. Gimme some options that I can take back to the boss.”

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Then there was the guy who wanted a big pop star to perform at his daughter’s bat mitzvah. He was willing to drop a million on her daughter’s favourite singer — and he did.

With music sales cratering, performers can no longer depend on big royalty cheques arriving in the mail every six months or so. Today, the big money is found playing live. Traditional tours are fine, but the best gigs are private and corporate engagements. Why? Because (a) they’re done on the down-low and fairly hassle-free, and (b) they pay well. VERY well. And almost everyone is available for the right price.

For example, Pearl Jam used to be powered by pure idealism. Screw Ticketmaster! Make a music video? To hell with MTV! Save the oceans! We’re pro-choice!

Now, though, everyone in the band is a lot more pragmatic. Singer Eddie Vedder recently performed for the employees of NetJets, a company that makes private jet travel available. Chances are none of us will ever be Netjet customers, but that’s beside the point. Eddie obviously has no trouble with the way NetJets does business. And something has to be done to replace all the lost revenue from record sales. Why not take the gig? And tell me that if your company booked Eddie for your next Christmas party that you wouldn’t lose your mind.

When Research in Motion was awash in money thanks to the BlackBerry, the company booked the Air Canada Centre in Toronto for a private function featuring Van Halen and the Tragically Hip. Then-CEO Jim Balsillie was and remains a huge music fan and just wanted to share his love of those bands with his employees.

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In 2016, U2 performed at a Salesforce.com event, following up a similar gig by Metallica, which happened partly because the founder was a neighbour of drummer Lars Ulrich.

With weed soon to be legal in Canada, some cannabis companies have hired groups like Queens of the Stone Age and Wu-Tang Clan for private shows to raise awareness of their brand and product. Is that legal? Health Canada isn’t so sure, but never mind.

Performers will play weddings, parties — anything — if the offer is right.

Drake has appeared at a couple of bar/bat mitzvahs. Back in 2013, the Red Hot Chili Peppers played an off-the-grid event for Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon. He wanted to do something nice for his wife’s 40th birthday, so he invited the Chili Peppers to play at the house in Kitsilano. It’s rumoured that this gift cost more than $1 million.

Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, Dave Matthews, Third Eye Blind, Modest Mouse — they’ve all been booked for private shows.

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Things can get a little unsavoury, too. Sting has played everything from an Oracle event to a private show for the daughter of the dictator of Uzbekistan. Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil oligarch and close associate of Vladimir Putin, holds a New Year’s Eve bash on his 80-acre compound on the island of St. Barts every year, an event that attracts A-listers from around the planet. Over the years, musical entertainment has been provided by everyone from Kings of Leon to Lady Gaga.

There was also a party at an Italian hotel hosted by the sons of Muammar Gaddafi. Don’t bring that up with Nelly Furtado, although she deeply regrets accepting that booking. Beyonce, Usher, and Mariah Carey were also Gaddafi hires.

So how much does it cost to hire an act for a private event? Well, how badly do you want them?

There’s also an unofficial price list that’s been floating around for the past couple of years.

  • Imagine Dragons: $400,000-$600,000
  • Foo Fighters: Starting at $500,000 (probably much higher, though)
  • Green Day: $500,000
  • Coldplay: $750,000 (although I think that’s too low)
  • Drake: $1 million+
  • Justin Bieber: $1 million+
  • Elton John: $3 million+

But let’s say money is no object and you want The Rolling Stones to play your wedding reception. Will they do it? Absolutely — if you meet their price. Ten years ago, they’d deign to perform for 90 minutes in front of drunken Aunt Olga for a mere 5 million pounds.

I’m not sure if they can still command a fee like that, but if you’d like a quote on the Stones for your next event, go here. Good luck — and if you’re successful, remember to give me a call, okay? I’ll be there in a jiffy.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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