A few weeks before us mere mortals were spending our mornings and pay packets trying to get tickets to see Beyoncé, the Atlantis Hotel Dubai was haemorrhaging thousands of dollars per second to have her play its launch party. Bey reportedly took home $24 million for the hour-and-a-half concert, which would take anyone on an average salary a lifetime to earn – if they worked for 526 years, that is. But, hey, at least we might get to see her on the big screen on a rainy night in Sunderland and not heat the house for a week?
An invite-only affair, over a thousand sparkling stars of the glitterati (from the Jenners to, er, Liam Payne) popped to the playground of the rich for one night only. In her first performance for four years, Beyoncé ran through 19 of her biggest bops; made several nods to Dubai with a local orchestra, Lebanese dance troupe and outfits from designer Atelier Zuhr; then ended by levitating over the crowd for a firework-laden rendition of “Drunk In Love” – oh, and she didn’t perform a single song from her queerest project to date, Renaissance.
This created online buzz from the Bey Hive for all the wrong reasons: In the United Arab Emirates, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death. Considering that Renaissance is an ode to ballroom and the Black queer community – as Bey herself noted in her Grammys acceptance speech – it feels more than myopic to not only play in the UAE, but choose not to play anything from the album. Naturally, Atlantis Dubai’s PR team declined to answer VICE’s questions about the gig, so instead I spoke to the pioneers behind the whole concept – the bookers.
Jay Siegan, founder of corporate gig agency Jay Siegan Presents, was surprised at how public Beyoncé’s gig went. As someone who’s signed thousands of NDAs and thrown decadent corporate gigs for decades starring the likes of Coldplay, he’s used to private gigs staying, well, private. “There was a lot of leaking of it which usually doesn't happen,” Siegan tells VICE. “I don't know why but it felt intentional, like there was some sort of public branding."
As bookers like Siegan know, Queen Bey’s corporate gig is no anomaly: Tonnes of celebs are cashing in on corporate gigs, many prioritising money over morals. Everyone from Post Malone to Tom Jones, Lady Gaga to Dua Lipa have performed in UAE, even gay icon Kylie saw in the New Year at – sinking feeling – another Atlantis hotel there.
“Nations are picking up on the power of using sport and entertainment to connect with other communities and build their own brand,” James Massing, COO of global gig promoter Robomagic Live, tells VICE. Through Robomagic and his previous work with Live Nation and Aser Ventures, Massing has booked tours for big-shots including Lizzo, Black Eyed Peas, Duran Duran, and J-Lo. “We don't think of governments as brands but really they're consumer-facing," he explains. “You're starting to see governments who are seeing the power and the effectiveness of a collaboration with an artist.”
With unimaginable amounts of money at the disposal of central governments and lucrative corporations, stars with relatively clean PR images are being tempted to get a slice of the action. Just a couple of months ago, David Beckham got dragged online by comedian Joe Lycett for signing a £150 million contract to promote the Qatar World Cup, then Lycett actually got caught out for performing there himself in the past.
Siegan has noticed a huge uptick in clients coming from the UAE. “We're getting an abundance of inquiries from there asking for stars like The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys and John Legend.” Impressively, his team has dodged anything in the UAE as a matter of conscience. “I haven't taken on work in a few countries because it doesn’t feel right,” he says. “Our choice so far has been to decline.”
Of course, corporate gigs in general aren’t a new or unusual thing, they’re a common part of the game. Behind the cold, weighty doors of hotels, offices, clubs and stadiums, celebrities are making a killing by performing for corporations and private clients.
“House bands and celebrity DJs are familiar with the corporate gig circuit,” says Natasha Barlow, founder of PR agency House of 27 (Dua Lipa, Lana Del Rey, Years & Years) and a music supervisor for TV shows.
Booking Entertainment estimate Charli XCX at $75,000 but Gwen Stefani at ten times that
“In the 90s, a lot of musicians ended up in cover bands playing other people's material at corporate gigs,” agrees Siegan. “This funded their ‘quirkier’ artistic projects and created a fully-fledged live music ecosystem to pay bands, venues and managers.”
But which major acts are doing them? Well, the quicker question is who isn’t? “It's public knowledge that acts like Beyoncé, Steve Aoki, Snoop Dogg, Andrea Bocelli, Robbie Williams and Alice Cooper, to name a few, have all performed this corporate gig circuit,” Barlow says. “The majority of artists will participate.” Some artists get involved in corporate gigs but stay away from public brand sponsorships, though, she notes. Siegan can only think of three artists who haven’t done them: The Cure, Bruce Springsteen and Depeche Mode.
Specific bookers for corporate events and private parties, usually with a history in the record industry, are essential to get the stars on board. “If a client was to call a musician’s PR agency directly they'd quote them a ridiculous price or not call them back,” says Steve Einzig, founder of Booking Entertainment. Einzig pioneered the “turnkey” model which offers the full shebang of "staging, sound, lights, hotel, ground, flights and miscellaneous requirements” while also being the point of contact between client and talent. “We're kind of like that pilot fish on the bottom of the shark,” he says, humbly. “The shark can eat us at any time but they need us to help them."
Sites like Booking Entertainment and Jay Siegan Presents stack their website with a full, luxury hotel buffet of every artist you could possibly think of and more, labelled with an estimated, ever-changing price. Once you’ve taken your pick from the comfort of your penthouse suite, they do their best to get the star on board.
“Because of the way we go about things, pretty much any artist out there is willing to work with us," says Einzig. “I mean, we've probably made them hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars over the past thirty years." And if your chosen artist isn’t available? No stress, Einzig’s on hand to suggest alternatives – basically like a human Spotify station.
Certain artists have built up a proper reputation for these kinds of gigs. The likes of Usher, Pitbull, One Republic, Maroon 5, Fall Out Boy and Kelly Clarkson are the bread-and-butter of the industry – a Now That’s What You Call Music fever dream, if you’ve got enough cash.
Talking of money, fees vary wildly: Although most artists on Booking Entertainment are labelled call-for-fee, it openly estimates Charli XCX at $75,000 but Gwen Stefani, say, at ten times the price. A rough rule of thumb is; if you’ve got a couple of hits, you’ll be five figures; if you’re a household name with a string of big songs, you’ll be upwards of six figures; if you’re a stadium-sized act you won’t be getting out of your tour bus for less than seven digits. And, if you’re Beyonce, it’s eight.
Flo Rida is a firm favourite
Both Einzig and Siegan reference Flo Rida as a firm favourite: hitting the sweet spot of being relatively affordable but also recognisable, armed with a surprising number of hits and a feel-good vibe. “Flo Rida has got hits, is a positive guy and will do a 30 minute meet and greet after he plays at your event,” Siegan says. “He'll warmly look everyone in the eye and put his arms around your kid.” This is what makes an artist become a hero among corporate clients and organisers alike.
But why, as a large corporation, would you burn through your slump-quarter reserves for a Mr Worldwide performance? Well, it’s a little bit more than having a laugh at the expense of the CEO.
"It's about wanting to increase the strength of their brand by spending marketing money on a concert and inviting the industry as a whole to come down," Einzig explains. "People are like, 'Wow, so-and-so is having so-and-so play at their event, that's so cool!' Then there's a whole buzz about the company.” This, he says, increases business opportunities but also employee satisfaction by showing workers a good time.
Massing agrees: "It drives back to the power that music and artists have to communicate and drive interest. Similar brands differentiate by using entertainment, they're made sexy by the partnerships which include secret gigs, private gigs and corporate gigs for the employees.”
It's a motivational tactic often used as treats for top employees – like a Lord Sugar post-task treat. Usually you don’t want to make them public due to “optics”, though, notes Siegan, Succession-style.
It’s a good deal for artists, too, especially since touring is the most turbulent it's ever been thanks to Brexit, COVID-19, crew shortages and the worldwide cost of living crises. While some tours make peanuts, corporate gigs promise a nuts amount of P’s. So can we really blame artists for sandwiching public tour dates with dry corporate gigs?
“Ultimately live revenues are what makes an artist earn money,” Massing says. “And it's not just Beyoncé – corporate gigs provide stable income for smaller level artists, too.”
Siegan agrees: “Musicians are able to get so much money from these corporate events that they fund their home studios and can stop waiting tables."
Barlow remembers a 2012 performance with an up-and-coming band she worked with at "a lavish beach party” for a global ad agency. “They were fairly new and had a small fanbase, so record sales and touring wasn't breaking even for them yet. Getting a booking for a highly paid show like this was very welcome," she says. "The bonus to these kinds of gigs is that they're in beautiful destinations and the talent often gets put up in luxury accommodation." Would you really say no to a fancy free holiday and a paycheck big enough to pay your bills ten times over?
While some tours make peanuts, corporate gigs promise a nuts amount of P’s
Plus, it’s a neat way of filling in the gaps in a touring schedule. Just last week, says Einzig, One Republic were approached for a last minute gig in California. “These big artists have their own equipment, so they were able to do our show, then get up early the next morning and fly out,” he continues. “It's like free money for these people, because they're paying their people a weekly salary anyway,” he says. Siegan also notes that he helps this process proactively, scanning tour dates to find potential gaps for corporate clients.
But while the money might be arena-sized for the artists, it’s hard for fans to not feel more than a little let down – for us it’s an issue of artist integrity. Is it a real Beyoncé gig when she seemingly wasn’t allowed, or at the least felt uncomfortable, performing anything from her new album? Are you really still a headline act when you can’t even choose your own setlist? For the people who literally live to see their artist live, this realisation that they’re sacrificing morals for a high paying gig, while making you spend a month’s rent on a ticket, is a bitter pill to swallow. The rose-tinted glasses clear slightly when you realise they’d rather do a sad gig for suitcase wankers when many of their own diehard fans can’t even cop one.
It’s hardly enjoyable for the artist either to swap the limelight for the lowlights, hence the usual zest-free, positively unjuicy performance. “The audience isn't there to see you,” says Einzig. “Unless you have a huge universal appeal, people are going to be talking, going to the bathroom and not paying attention." Corporate gigs can dent egos and even create negative press.
The private party is another part of the industry, falling somewhere in between a gig with fans and a gig with finance execs. Remember My Super Sweet Sixteen? Well that happens in real life too, ranging from lavish Bat Mitzvahs with Drake to invite-only birthday bashes with Usher, to – as Einzig remembers – two-person gigs with Seal.
“This man had taken his wedding vows from a Seal song and the wife secretly called me on a Wednesday and asked if Seal was available for a show in Paris next Tuesday,” says Einzig. Ever the party planner, Einzig managed to coordinate Seal's upcoming London show with this gig. “They had rose petals on the floor, candles, this romantic dinner and the window had a view of the Eiffel Tower," he remembers. “There was a central area with a piano and two sliding doors. These were closed until after dinner, when she opened them to reveal Seal with a guitar.” Apparently the four-time-Grammy-winner genuinely enjoyed himself and stayed for hours after his performance, drinking and chatting.
Surely even the cold-hearted cynics among us can’t help but smile at that. Other private gigs, though, have shown the shadier side of the industry. Pop stars seem to have a penchant for performing for controversial dictators: J-Lo’s sung for the ruler of Turkmenistan, who’s overseen huge inequality and once banned lip-syncing, ballet and circuses; Sting performed at a festival put on by the daughter of Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov, condemned for torture and sham elections; while Nelly Furtado, 50 Cent, Usher, Mariah Carey and – yes – Beyoncé, have performed for the Gadaffi family.
Which major acts are doing them? Well, the quicker question is who isn’t?
Siegan recounts a time when a Russian oligarch got in touch offering $5 million for four songs from a major female popstar, plus (very expensive) expenses. "I asked him for his favourite songs and he didn't know any, then he said he wanted her on his yacht,” he says. “It fucking creeped me out.” Siegan voided the deal which led to a vexed billionaire and, likely, an artist’s credibility saved.
These kinds of corporate gigs are obviously the real risky ones. “Artists have a brand and a fanbase to maintain, so whilst it's great for business to take on a highly paid corporate gig, it's worth remembering that by performing for a company you become affiliated with them on an ambassador level,” Barlow says. “Artists should also be thinking about the cultural implications that a corporation and its shareholders are tied to, as well as what the destination represents.”
It’s these types of events that leave fans and progressives justifiably pissed off, especially when the artists plead ignorance after being found out. By nature, corporate gigs have some of the most robust, terrifying NDAs out there, but stories are slipping through the net. Despite phones being taped-over Berghain-style or put in Yondr pouches, like at Beyoncé’s gig in Dubai, it’s increasingly easier to find out about sustainable warriors Coldplay entertaining the Citadel CEO, Foo Fighters playing for Salesforce or the 1975 partying with the Barça FC players.
There’s actually something refreshing about the artists who are honest about it: Barlow recalls Cardi B tweeting about earning $1 million to perform for a US bank, which is way more badass than going all no-comment.
Realistically, corporate gigs will always be part of a major artist’s income, says Massing, but he’s confident they can be a good thing. "It's down to the rationale of doing things in the right way," he says. "I think using your talent or art to bring issues to the forefront – whether that's sustainability or female empowerment – is a positive step if done in the right way.”
Would you really say no to a fancy free holiday and a paycheck big enough to pay your bills ten times over?
It’s also hard to knock the endless zeal of bookers like Einzig, who tell me proudly about going above and beyond to give people the best time of their lives. Siegan’s love of music is genuinely endearing. Reminiscing about his own band in the past and his eclectic taste, he spins story after story about attending gigs he’s helped put on. One such yarn describes being moved to tears while Andrea Bocelli played to a room of very surprised guests. "That was a turning point where I realised these moments change lives," says Siegan. But let’s be real, of course the bookers think of these moments as semi-spiritual and transcending the mere transactional – they get to bloody be there!
Most of us will never get near the venue, let alone behind the curtain, of corporate gigs. It’s just more fun and games for the elite, a secret world where fucked-up directors chat each other’s ears off through a private set that the artist’s fans would all but all die for. Money might not be able to buy you happiness, but it can buy you “Happiness” by Little Mix – not that we will ever know. As long as demand continues from up above, supply will continue down the musical food chain below and us, even further down, not even a pilot fish, will still have to settle with watching a leaked performance of “Drunk In Love” on a cracked phone screen.