Dishing out $250,000 to get up close with your favourite band

From Friday’s Globe and Mail
November 16, 2007 at 9:48 AM EST

If you missed seeing Celine Dion during her five-year run in Las Vegas, fear not. The chart-topping Quebec chanteuse may be coming soon to a living room near you.

From $1-million personal concerts by Ms. Dion to a rousing backyard set from aging rockers Trooper or Loverboy, big-name musicians are showing up at intimate gatherings of deep-pocketed Canadian fans.

Burton Cummings pounded out classics this summer to celebrate an investment bank chief executive officer’s 50th birthday at his cottage in Lake Simcoe, Ont.

Blue Rodeo crooned at the wedding reception for an up-and-coming money manager, staged atop a skyscraper at Toronto’s Canoe restaurant. There’s a delicious, but unconfirmed, rumour that U2 banged out a few hits at a mansion on the city’s Bridle Path last year.

Okay, Neil Young is still a holdout (as is Bruce Springsteen). But any other Canadian act that tours – the Tragically Hip, Rush, Great Big Sea, Holly Cole – likely does six to 12 private concerts a year.

They’ll perform 45-minute to hour-long sets at a mixture of corporate gigs, charity concerts and an increasing number of events for individuals.

The ticket price on these one-night stands typically ranges from $10,000 to $250,000. An event producer, along with sound, lighting and catering, will add anywhere from $2,500 to $50,000 to the bill.

“You’ve seen more of these private events, such as concerts in homes, every year for the past decade,” said Shaw Saltzberg, Vancouver-based senior vice-president of S.L. Feldman & Associates.

He says artists recognize that music is a business, and are now comfortable with playing these smaller venues.

When it comes to audiences, Mr. Saltzberg says: “Baby boomers have both the resources and the interest to continue their love affair with music as they grow older and wealthier.”

Given the boomers’ affection for the tunes they grew up with, it’s no surprise that classic rock draws the greatest interest at private parties, along with acts that have cross-generation appeal.

The wife of one financial executive is trying to recreate teenage years spent rocking in arenas by hiring eighties band Styx to play her husband’s 40th birthday – a $200,000 (U.S.) proposition – and said: “For a landmark occasion, you want to stage a real event, and a great band can be the centrepiece.”

As audiences come calling, bands are becoming increasingly interested in private gigs that pay serious amounts of money and help build fan loyalty.

“Artists tend to keep it quiet, but private engagements have become a big part of the business,” said Steve Herman, CEO at The Agency Group, which represents Nickelback, Great Big Sea and a host of other talent.

He says musicians are selective, but generally open to approaches, explaining: “You have to realize that the artists look to live performances for at least 75 per cent of their income.”

The times they are a changin’ in part because of the popularity of downloading, which puts far less cash into musicians’ pockets than traditional record or CD sales.

Artists are realizing they need to take advantage of every opportunity to be paid for performing and build bonds with audiences.

Bob Dylan did a corporate show in the 1990s for California chip maker Applied Materials that swept away the last industry taboos around artists playing to select crowds.

Acts that fit intimate surroundings also get frequent calls. Jann Arden and Diana Krall occasionally do an acoustic show for about 25 people in upscale living rooms. Agents are loath to discuss the price of such appearances, but these shows would probably cost $20,000 (Canadian) to $30,000 to stage.

More typically, private concerts see 100 to 200 friends gather in hotel ballrooms or a bar that’s been rented for the night. Such events require three to six months of lead time, and are easier and cheaper if staged when the band is already touring.

Mr. Herman says the price of an event can easily double if an otherwise idle musician has to assemble a backup band and entourage, then rehearse for just one show.

Front-row seats at these sessions bring special privileges. Hire the Barenaked Ladies for a 50th birthday, and they’ll work funny riffs on your advancing years into one of their songs.

Just don’t get pushy on requests or ask for covers of that chicken dance song. “You can have input on the song list, but the artist maintains control,” Mr. Saltzberg warns.

He adds: “For the artists, the downside of these events is that not everyone who attends is likely to be a fan, so the atmosphere isn’t always what they might like.”

At the top end of the private-party circuit are a handful of Canadian bands capable of commanding fees of up to $500,000, acts that could also fill an arena.

And as she departs Caesars Palace casino after a five-year run, Ms. Dion is alone among domestic talent at the $1-million mark. However, move outside Canada and it’s easy to spend far more to set the night to music.

Prominent musicians can’t make money touring in countries such as Russia, said Mr. Herman, who is based in Toronto but does business in foreign locales such as Moscow.

But Russia’s emerging billionaires will drop huge money to stage concerts for friends: George Michael was paid a reported $3-million (U.S.) by an oligarch for a 75-minute New Year’s Eve set.

In the United States, a defence contractor in Long Island, N.Y., dropped a reported $10-million in 2005 on his daughter’s bat mitzvah at New York’s Rainbow Room by hiring an all-star lineup that included rapper 50 Cent, Aerosmith, Don Henley, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks.

Another $10-million night reported in The Los Angeles Times featured the Rolling Stones, John Mellencamp and comic Robin Williams playing for a private-equity billionaire in Las Vegas.

If a billionaire fan can entice Mr. Young or Mr. Springsteen to pick up a Fender and drop by their living room, that eye-popping fee might just get topped.