When money's no object, rent a rocker

Superstars used to turn up their noses at birthday parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs; not anymore

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John Heller, Post-GazetteChristina Aguilera sings "Happy Birthday" to Joe Hardy, the owner of 84 Lumber, as he celebrated his 84th birthday at a part at his Nemacolin Woodlands resort near Farmington, last Saturday.
By Geoff Boucher
Los Angeles Times

Tycoons trying to impress will pay millions for a Picasso or Pollock, so why not splurge on a living, breathing Jagger? Or hire 50 Cent to drop by the mansion and perform "Get Rich or Die Tryin' "? Now that will get them talking down at the country club.

That's the loud and lavish sensibility behind the hottest party accessory around -- the rentable rock star. Superstars of every stripe are available these days for holiday parties, weddings or bar mitzvahs, whatever, just as long as there's a boatload of money waiting for them. Actually, make that a yacht-load of money.

On New Year's Eve, for instance, British pop star George Michael was in Russia making about $3 million an hour singing for a few hundred guests of Vladimir Potanin, a mining and lumber magnate. The gig was 75 minutes, and he was home in London by lunchtime.

Last Saturday, pop diva Christina Aguilera, Oscar winner Robin Williams, and singer Bette Midler were at the Nemacolin Woodlands resort in Fayette County outside Pittsburgh as the hired entertainment at the 84th birthday party of Joe Hardy, founder of 84 Lumber. Both stars are veterans of the lucrative circuit.

Ms. Aguilera took a reported $1.5 million to serenade a Russian businessman, Andrei Melnichenko, at his September 2005 wedding. Mr. Williams, who reportedly fetches $1 million for a night's work, joined the Rolling Stones and John Mellencamp in Las Vegas in 2002 at the birthday soiree for David Bonderman, co-founder of Texas Pacific Group, a private equity investment company. The reported price of the affair: $10 million.

And check out these stars that David H. Brooks, a defense contractor in Long Island, N.Y., hired for his daughter Elizabeth's bat mitzvah at New York's Rainbow Room in 2005: 50 Cent (who had that year's best-selling CD), Aerosmith, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and Ciara. Again, the bill came in at a reported $10 million.

Robert Norman, who heads the corporate and private events division for Creative Artists Agency, said last year that his division handled 500 events. Many were $100,000 to $200,000 corporate events with acts such as Seal, Hall & Oates, Styx and the Go-Go's. But about a quarter of the CAA bookings were private social events, many with staggering budgets. The volume of business in that sector has surged dramatically in recent years. It's quietly commonplace for A-list stars to sing to middle-aged billionaires as they blow out candles.

"You have a lot of people who want to celebrate their 40th or 50th birthday party and have someone there whose music meant a great deal to them during a part of their life," Norman said. "They have the money, and if they are willing to spend enough of it, they can get the Rolling Stones. Their wives might also say, 'I love Green Day, and I want them for the 30th birthday party.' You can make that happen these days."

The notion of Grammy-winning artists moonlighting as wedding singers at the peak of their careers would have been scoffed at just a decade ago. But times and taboos change. Now, according to Norman, it's rare to find an artist who won't at least peruse the offer sheet.

"It's common knowledge that Bruce Springsteen and U2 won't do it, and really, there are very few others," he said. "And some people that have said no then watch that offer go up and up to such heights that they finally decide they will go ahead and do it but give a chunk of it to a charity. Then everybody is happy."

It's hard for artists to say no when they get to dash off to exotic locales to do low-sweat, secret shows, said Jim Guerinot, the manager for Gwen Stefani, Nine Inch Nails and the Offspring.

"It's quick cash for the artist, that's what it comes down to," Mr. Guerinot said. "It can be these unbelievable amounts of money offered by someone like the sultan of Brunei or some sheik somewhere who's willing to pay what you what you make for being on tour for three weeks. ... You really have to evaluate each one the way you would any corporate opportunity."

Sammy Hagar, who will be inducted in March into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Van Halen, said that when he heard about Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and other "real artists" doing the shows, he was shocked.

"I mean, we used to make fun of Huey Lewis for doing all these corporate shows, but he would just shrug and say, 'It's a good life. Forty-five minutes for a couple hundred thousand '... but I just hated the idea, doing some big arena show in some little corporate building or something," Mr. Hagar said. "It felt cheesy to me. But then when Dylan did it, I started thinking, 'Who am I to be so uppity about this?' "

Still, Mr. Hagar refused at first when Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, called several years ago to hire him to sing "There's Only One Way to Rock" at the billionaire's birthday party. Then Mr. Cuban mentioned the private plane, the plan to stage the show at the arena in Dallas and, of course, a particularly large sum of money.

"The money," Mr. Hagar said, "was very good. I won't say how much, but it was good. But I didn't do it for the money. ... Well, maybe I did."

Mr. Hagar had to earn it, though. He describes the show as one of the most awkward stage experiences of his three-decade career.

"There were 70 people in the audience, so we have this huge, empty arena," he said. "But we did a full-blown, 45-minute show, lights and everything. The front row was filled with Mavericks players, and half of them, you know, they didn't know us or care about our music. And they were so tall they were looking me right in the eye. The whole thing was just plain weird."

Rock stars and rappers can be rented, but that doesn't mean you can order them around. Mr. Norman, the CAA executive, says one of his duties is to make sure that these famous stars aren't treated like a show pony or hired help.

"They are not jukeboxes," Mr. Norman said. "These are artists."

And that's artist with a capital "A" in the case of the biggest names. In other words, you can't hire the Eagles and then hand them a must-play set list or suggest they polish up on "Twist and Shout" and "Macarena." Likewise, just because you pay six digits for a brief set, don't think that means your rent-a-rocker will linger for hours by the buffet table to sign autographs and regale your guests with backstage tales.

More modest paydays for journeyman artists as diverse as Los Lobos, the Chieftains, Ziggy Marley, Earth, Wind & Fire and Kenny Loggins help pay bills during tour breaks.

  
More on the story
Happy 84, Mister 84 ... and the week in review   


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