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What Private Gigs Tell Us About the Music Industry

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by Dan Runcie

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Corporate private concerts are often seen as a mysterious underworld, where closed doors and NDAs breathe life into a sector that’s distinct from the rest of the business. But these gigs have more in common with broader trends in live entertainment.

Attending a superstar artist’s show can seem like a luxury, especially post-pandemic. Their concert production value has increased, demand for their shows is often sky-high, and the supply is limited. That leads to higher prices, which makes attending much easier for richer fans with access to tickets.

The same has been true for private gigs for decades. The nature of these shows can be a leading indicator of where the music industry is headed.

Music as marketing for other businesses

Las Vegas residencies have a lot in common with private gigs. Decades ago, both were reserved for legacy acts. Contemporary artists looked down on them because they were seen as something your parent’s favorite artists did. But when album sales declined in the 2000s, things picked up. Today, we’re just as likely to hear about current and legacy stars doing these smaller and more intimate shows.

Both private gigs and residencies have become marketing expenses for their respective buyers. Corporations that hire artists for private shows want to entertain employees and clients, which can improve retention and help them land more deals. Similarly, Las Vegas casinos are less concerned with ticket sales. What they really want is the drop: the increase in nightly gambling profits from the artist’s fans, plus the added publicity the casino gets from the artist’s show.

It’s less about the revenue generated from the event. It’s more about the products that the event helps sell.

This is the same trend in recorded music. Companies like Apple and Amazon use music and entertainment content to attract more customers to sell their higher margin products like Apple’s hardware devices and Amazon Web Services.

Even at the highest levels, music is used as a means to generate revenue elsewhere.

The real fans? Or the rich fans?

Last fall, I attended a private event where a well-known R&B artist performed. I’d guess that 20% of the people were into it and singing along to the concert. But in these types of shows, that 20% may be higher than most.

The lack of engagement at private shows comes with the territory. These wealthy corporations’ private audiences are less likely to know the artist’s songs word-for-word. And even if they do, the clients in attendance may be more interested in closing deals and networking than sitting in attendance. I know first-hand I’ve done it myself at events like this! While it’s easy to feel bad for the artists, they accepted the higher-than-usual payments in exchange for a less-engaged audience.

With the way live concerts are trending, this may happen more often at regular concerts too. The growing demand and limited supply of concert tickets have led to higher prices and richer fans attending those shows. Unless a superstar artist wants to tour year-round, that demand will likely outpace supply. The fans in the nosebleed seats (or the ones who couldn’t get tickets) may know the lyrics better than the fans with floor seats.

Look at Taylor Swift’s Era’s Tour. She’s “diving into a pool,” has 16 outfit changes, and performed a three-hour set. The production value is elevated. There’s now status in seeing her show, much like Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour. Corporations can now woo clients simply by attending one of these shows! They are luxury experiences.

These high-demand superstar tours are products for people with money. It’s like attending the Super Bowl. Sure, you’ll find fans of both teams in attendance, but you’ll find a lot more corporate seats. The most passionate fans of each team are likely watching in front of a TV, or would rather attend a less expensive regular season game.

Controversial decisions

A growing trend in private gigs is the questions surrounding money that comes from regions where their human rights and politics and customs don’t line up with the artists and their fans. There was pushback on Beyonce’s private show in Dubai, Jennifer Lopez’ show in Turkmenistan, and others due to the home country’s policies and treatment of those who identify as LBGTQ+. Nicki Minaj canceled a 2019 concert in Saudi Arabia due to similar reasons.

As more corporations from across the world want to partner with entertainers, we’ll likely see these moral debates expand to other areas. Outside of music, we’ve seen it in sports. The LIV Golf Tournament has been quite controversial due to its Saudi Arabian backers. And while a professional golf tournament takes numerous golfers to participate, music is quite fragmented.

Each artist and their teams make their own decisions. But lower streaming revenue has led them to do more live shows, with some easily doing 150+ shows per year. An artist who’s always on tour may feel pressure to take the easier, yet controversial, money from elsewhere.

For years, artists like Lionel Richie, Lenny Kravitz, and John Legend have cleaned up with private shows. They’re “easy listening,” a high-demand segment for corporate buyers. But as the profile of corporate buyers increases, and the interest in live entertainment increases, we’ll see a much wider range of artists, companies, and fans who are willing to pay.

Historically, artists made most of their money through the music industry. Their albums were bought by their most passionate fans. Today, it’s the corporations outside the traditional industry that drive the revenue, including events promoters, corporations with music streaming services, brand partners, investments, and corporations that hire artists for private gigs.

For musicians, there’s less correlation than ever between “who pays me the most” and “who loves me the most.”

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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