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Pop Stars, Private Shows And Political Consequences

Usher (left) and Beyonce (right) performed at private concerts funded by the family of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi. Gadhafi's son Hannibal is at center. (Getty Images)

The stage is tiny. That's the first thing you notice. In the video, you can see the singer dancing in a black leotard, strutting back and forth while she performs chart-topping songs. The audio is loud and distorted, taped through a camera phone or hand-held video recorder. This could be a particularly tight wedding band, or a shockingly good performance at a karaoke bar, but it's not. The singer is actually Beyonce. The venue is an exclusive supper club in St. Barts, and the crowd is tiny, and just feet away from the singer. The man footing the bill for the whole affair? Hannibal Gadhafi, the son of the Libyan president.

In the past few weeks this scene and others like it have brought pop and politics into an uncomfortably close relationship. After Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi and his government responded to an uprising with violence and an insistence that they would "fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet," word started to emerge that Gadhafi's sons had booked exclusive performances with pop stars for millions.

On February 28, Nelly Furtado revealed via her Twitter feed that she had been paid $1 million by the Gadhafi family to perform for 45 minutes at a hotel in Italy and insisted that she would donate the money, though she did not say where. Two days later, Beyonce confirmed that all the money she had received for that private performance — at a party on New Year's Eve 2009 — had been donated to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti in early 2010. Later, Usher and Mariah Carey both admitted that they had been paid to perform under similar circumstances and said that they would donate the money they received.

Though it's a nice — and unexpected — result for the charities that will benefit, the situation is awfully embarrassing for the artists. So we wondered, given that these are all musicians who have booked large and profitable tours, why would they do it? And — from the other side of the coin — if you've got the funds available, how do you go about booking Beyonce for a show like this in the first place?

1) The huge amount of money.
The going rate for private gigs — from Elton John at Rush Limbaugh's wedding to Beyonce at the Gadhafi New Year's party — is $1 million/hr. "It's inherent in these situations that the act doesn't want to do it," industry analyst Bob Lefsetz says. "So the person who has the gig always overpays. The question is, how much do I have to pay you so you will overlook your inhibitions and say yes."

2) They pick you up at your house.
"Usually they send a private plane; you perform for an hour; you get paid a million dollars; you can be back in your bed that evening," Lefsetz says.

3) It's a storied part of the business.
The agencies who represent these stars usually have an entire department devoted to booking gigs like these. It's part of the business model. You don't do that business, your agency won't make money. This is the commodity that department is selling: access. They provide access to the stars that only the ridiculously wealthy can afford.

Ray Waddell, who covers live entertainment for Billboard magazine, says of the stars who perform at gigs like these: "They come to count on it. It can be 10 to 20% of their touring revenue."

In 2005, reports leaked out about artists like 50 Cent and Aerosmith earning millions to play at a bar mitzvah. As we've explored on this blog before, pop artists are increasingly reliant on big, highly produced shows to make money. Those shows are very expensive. They need gigs like this to supplement the fireworks their fans expect.

4) There's no advertising.
Because exclusivity is a major attraction for those who can afford to attend, nobody but the invited parties know about shows like the Gadhafi New Year's party. Which means artists can pocket their big paycheck, come right back to New York in two weeks, do a big show (with actual tickets), fans won't ever be the wiser and the market can bear it.

5) There's no ethical litmus test.
All types of potential patrons inquire about private parties, so musicians are essentially forced to set their own standards. Some bands won't do shows for beer companies or tobacco. Thomas Cookman, who manages artists like Manu Chao and Ozomatli, tells a story about Ramon Ayala, a very famous Mexican accordion player. He was playing at a show for Mexican drug lords; the show got raided and Ayala spent a few weeks in jail. "It would be like if Willie Nelson got caught at Al Capone's party," Cookman says.

Another manager, Danny Goldberg of Gold Village Entertainment (he manages artists like Steve Earle and The Cranberries), says that just because a show looks controversial in hindsight doesn't mean artists should apologize and give the money away.

"At the time that people did shows for Gadhafi, he was friends with the American government," Goldberg says. "I'm not sure if any of my clients would have been interested, but I don't think I would have had the clairvoyance a year ago that he would be dropping bombs on his own people today."

Did Beyonce and Mariah Carey and everyone else know Gadhafi son was footing the bill? It's hard to imagine that they didn't. The venue is small, and the Gadhafis have a notorious history of throwing ridiculous parties like the one Beyonce headlined. Either way, when the next offer comes — and there definitely will be a next, and a next, maybe they will ask some more questions — and instead of vetting the money, start vetting the buyer.

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Over the past week, stars like Mariah Carey and Beyonce have publicly apologized for playing parties for members of Moammar Gadhafi's family. That got us wondering: How can I get Beyonce to play my private party? And why are stars playing secret shows for dictators' families, anyway?

NPR's Zoe Chace has some answers.

ZOE CHACE: This is a place you will probably never be.

(Soundbite of song, "Baby Boy")

BEYONCE (Singer): (Singing) Baby boy, you stay on my mind, fulfill my fantasies.

Mr. SEAN PAUL (Rapper): (Rapping) Come on, girl, tell me how you feel.

CHACE: The stage is small. The dancers are few. Beyonce's in a black leotard, performing her chart-topping songs with the kind of production you expect at Madison Square Garden. But instead of an arena audience, it's a small crowd at an exclusive supper club, sitting at tables, popping bottles. And the person footing the bill for this affair: Hannibal Gadhafi, son of the Libyan president. If it sounds a little sketchy to you, you're not the only one.

Mr. BOB LEFSETZ (Music Industry Analyst): It is inherent in these situations that the act doesn't want to do it. So the person who has the gig always overpays. And the question is: How much can I pay so that you will overlook your inhibitions and say yes?

CHACE: Bob Lefsetz is a music industry analyst. He says private concerts like the one Beyonce played for the Gadhafi kid are going on all the time - for dictators, oil barons, big corporations, heads of state. The agencies who represent these stars usually have an entire department devoted to booking gigs like these, selling a valuable commodity.

Mr. LEFSETZ: The number one thing that a fan wants with a star is access. So they're providing that access.

CHACE: Frequently, these shows are in out-of-the-way places. St. Barts seems to be popular.

Mr. LEFSETZ: Usually, they send a private plane; you perform for an hour; you get paid a million dollars; you can be back in your bed that evening. It is very easy money.

CHACE: There is no ethical litmus test for such shows.

Mr. RAY WADDELL (Reporter, Billboard Magazine): One manager told me that we don't vet the buyer so much as we vet the cash.

CHACE: Ray Waddell covers live entertainment for Billboard magazine. It's so declasse to talk about money, especially if you're very, very rich. But nonetheless, the manager will often ask for a major deposit before the gig happens, to make sure the money's good. Waddell says the top artists really do need that money.

Mr. WADDELL: They come to count on it. You know, it could be 10 to 20 percent or more of their overall touring revenue.

CHACE: With musicians running out of reliable ways to make money, Waddell says, top-flight artists with heavy expenses need gigs like this constantly coming in, even if they produce pangs of conscience. Beyonce gave a million dollars to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, and her handlers have suggested it was the profit of the Gadhafi show.

Danny Goldberg does artist management for Gold Village Entertainment. He doesn't think that artists who did shows that later look controversial should feel obliged to donate the profits.

Mr. DANNY GOLDBERG (Artist Manager, Gold Village Entertainment): At the time that people did shows for Gadhafi, he was friends with the American government. I'm not sure if any of my clients would have been interested, but I don't think I would have had the clairvoyance a year ago to know that he would be dropping bombs on his own people today.

CHACE: The Gadhafi New Year's bashes are probably over for now. Usher, who reportedly did the New Year's countdown at Beyonce's party, pledged to give his fee to charity. So did Mariah Carey, who performed for a different Gadhafi son the previous year. Nelly Furtado made the same pledge for a show she did in 2007. But the shows will go on, as long as there are buyers.

Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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