How to Book Big-Name Bands

Want Green Day, Aerosmith, or Gwen Stefani to perform at a corporate event? Here's how to pull it off.

March 30, 2006, 12:00 AM EST

Gwen Stefani performed at Condé Nast's Fashion Rocks event in September 2005.

Gwen Stefani performed at Condé Nast's Fashion Rocks event in September 2005.

Bon Jovi started out singing about givin' love a bad name, but the band also recently performed for a technology conference. Sir Elton John has entertained tiny dancers and, recently, C.E.O.s at an automobile trade show announcement.

These days it's not just oldies acts entertaining at sales meetings and business conferences. “Back in the day, corporate events were shunned by artists. It wasn't cool,” says Noel Grey, founder and owner of Grey Entertainment, a New York music booking and production company. “The music business has changed a lot in the past ten years. Bands are going to capitalize any way they can. If they make a lot of money doing it, then why not?”

But money isn't all you'll need. So if you've never dealt with the likes of Norah Jones or the Rolling Stones, here's how to keep from missing a beat.

Start Me Up

“Booking the act is the easiest part,” says Ted Fass, president and owner of Entertainment Unlimited, an entertainment company that books talent for events, in Rockville Centre, New York. In addition to securing a date on the act's schedule, there's drawing up the contract and arranging for sound and lighting equipment, staging, hotel rooms, transportation, and the crew. If you aren't familiar with coordinating things like rehearsals, soundboards, and rider provisions, you probably don't want to book a musical act on your own.

Pamela Norwood, executive director of creative services for GQ, has a couple of staffers on her team who are well versed in producing musical performances. For lesser-known artists, she says, her department sometimes works directly with a recordlabel. But for big names, she goes to a producer such as Grey. Through him, she has booked Mos Def and the Brazilian Girls to perform at GQ events; she's also worked with Sugar Ray and Gwen Stefani. “It's just more efficient to have somebody doing it for you,” Norwood says.

And using a talent booker doesn't have to add much to the cost. “Talent specialty firms...typically charge 10 percent to 20 percent of the cost of talent,” says David Yamner, copresident of full-service event production company Empire Entertainment, which has booked bands like Aerosmith for clients. But that fee is often offset when agents—who generally prefer the smoother booking process of working with specialists, Yamner says—make their artists available for 10 percent to 20 percent less than they would charge an end client.

A good production firm can also handle the lighting, sound, and other production elements. “You can't specialize in everything,” says Harriette Rose Katz, founder of Gourmet Advisory Services and Liaison Unlimited, who recently managed a corporate event featuring Billy Idol. “We're not caterers, florists, producers of entertainment—we are the overall designers and general contractor.“She partners frequently with Steven Scott Productions, a music, entertainment, and event production firm in New York.

When meeting with potential producers, ask how many years a company has specialized in entertainment production. Check which musical acts they've actually booked—not just the ones they say they can hire. See if they actually have relationships with artists' agents. Good producers will give you options for an event and investigate before they make promises.

Got My Mind Set on You
When choosing an act, sometimes you need to know more about an artist than her asking price or last hit single. Did you know that Aretha Franklin doesn't like to fly? And will the band behave well? Some performers are class acts—such as the musician who jumped off the stage to play acoustically among audience members when the power went out at a corporate gig—and others are divas who walk off the stage if something goes wrong.

Consider the ages and tastes of your captive corporate audience. “Young people who go out to see music all the time may welcome new sounds and songs,” Yamner says. But for others, “what is going to make [the entertainment] a pleasurable experience to them is some level of familiarity.” In other words, the Black Eyed Peas might work for some people, but booking them for a group of fortysomething sales managers might not be worth the money.

Money for Nothing
“First thing I do when I meet with a client, I ask what budget we're dealing with,” says Steven Scott president Stuart White. “One woman wanted to hire Diana Ross. I asked for her budget, and she very seriously said, '$15,000.' I very seriously said, 'That won't even pay for her limos.'”

The pricing structure for corporate events can be much higher than other performances. “I know for a fact there are certain bands that play in clubs for $15,000, but for a corporate [gig] get $35,000, $40,000—even $50,000,” says the creative director for a global marketing company. Indeed, big names often require big payments, which can range from thousands to well over $1 million. Folks like Lenny Kravitz and Sheryl Crow can start at $500,000. Jessica Simpson reportedly performed at a Cincinnati corporate event for $850,000, and Jennifer Lopez clears an estimated $1 million to sing at events. (Exact figures are difficult to come by because the terms of many deals are kept confidential.)

Those costs can cause sticker shock. “What a lot of people don't understand,” says Grey, “is that you can spend $125,000 on the artist's fee. Then there are all the expenses that sometimes can equal the fee.” Expenses include production requirements, instruments and music gear, travel, and transportation costs—these items are detailed on the artist's rider, which might be 50 pages long, and dictate that the client will provide items such as imported beer, red M&Ms, or a carpeted dressing room.

What's Love Got to Do With It?
Though it's generally easier to attract a well-known musician to perform at charity event (especially if it's her pet cause), or a televised gig (for the promotional factor), there are other reasons they'll appear. Sometimes an audience full of who's whos or celebrities can be a draw. Even letting the artist know that the
C.E.O. is a fan can help.

On the other hand, some performers will refuse to perform at a corporate event if they don't like the company itself. “No matter how much they're getting paid, if the company has a bad rap or they disagree with the company's mission,” they may decline, Grey says. 

Artists also want to have fun. “There is nothing worse than a pissed off artist,” Norwood says. She describes an event in Aspen when chattering guests drowned out a Grammy nominee. “We had shushers go through the crowd,” she says, “but some people don't want to shush.”

Before You Book

To smooth out the process of hiring a big musical act, prepare yourself with these essential items:

A Hit List
Come up with a selection of musicians or groups appropriate for your event. “A lot of times they're not available,” says Ted Fass Entertainment Unlimited. “It's better if you have two or three names as backups.”

An Agenda
Know the exact dates and the general time of day you'd like the act to perform (afternoon or late evening), as well as the length of the performance.

The Guest List
Get a clear understanding of the event's audience, including the group's age, gender, and sensibilities. Consider whether or not you need an act that will perform a “corporate clean” show without vulgarity or risqué material.

The Floor Plan
Determine what kind of performance the venue can accommodate. “Some acts come with huge back orchestras,” says Harriette Rose Katz of Gourmet Advisory Services and Liaison Unlimited. ”[When] you're having a party in there as well, most places don't have space for that.” An acoustic act won't be heard in a large, cavernous space, and a large backing band may overwhelm a small setting.

The Budget
Keep in mind that a musician's fee often makes up only half of the total costs associated with the performance. “The cost of the rider is often equal to the cost of the act and sometimes more,” says Stuart White, president of Steven Scott Productions. 

Any Special Requests
Do top execs want a meet and greet with the artist? Make sure to check with the agent to see if the artist is amenable to meeting the C.E.O. or important customers—and how many people the artist will accommodate.

Posted 03.30.06

Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

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