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."
“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.”
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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.
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.
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.
Flo Rida is a firm favourite
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.
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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.
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.”
Which major acts are doing them? Well, the quicker question is who isn’t?
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.”
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!
Would you really say no to a fancy free holiday and a paycheck big enough to pay your bills ten times over?
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.@KyleMacneill