How many people are you bringing tonight?
Those words from the owner of a bar where my band and I were booked to play made me churn. I have been asked this on more than one occasion; I’ve also been asked to sing for free — lots of times.
“Hmm,” I thought. “You did not hire me to do your PR and bring people into your establishment; you hired me to sing with my band.”
Which brings me to the subject of the Super Bowl. The NFL does not pay musicians for their appearance. They pay for expenses, which by some measure might get as high as $10 million. Beyonce, Madonna and last year’s Bruno Mars played their shows with the understanding that they will see a bump in their career from the exposure.
But who is really winning and, more importantly, who did all of the work? The Super Bowl used to broadcast a marching band, theme-based half-time program until all hell broke loose on Jan. 26, 1992. That year Gloria Estefan sang a program to honor the year’s Winter Olympics. It is also the year that Fox decided to counter-program in the form of a special live episode of “In Living Color.”
For those who don’t remember, that show featured the genius of the Wayans clan, and then-unknown series regulars — Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier and Tommy Davidson with Jennifer Lopez and Carrie Ann Inaba dancing as “The Fly Girls.” The half-hour foray caused a 10-point dip in the Super Bowl ratings and sent NFL execs reeling and accountants on both coasts adding up the losses.
The following year, the NFL would have none of it. They promptly secured none other than the King of Pop — Michael Jackson — for a ground-breaking performance that had everyone watching, even viewers who cared nothing about football or Michael Jackson. It remains one of the most-watched television broadcasts in history and Fox would never counter-program again.
In 1992, a 30-second commercial cost around $1 million. After the 1993 game, prices escalated quickly to a record high of $4 million this year. That’s a lot of cash and the suits that sell ads know that a half-time ratings dip crushes ad rates.
So why are the big-name musicians asked to play for free?
Local musicians are routinely asked to play for free at restaurants, bars, weddings, parties and funerals because “It’s no big deal, is it? Just sing.” As if it is so easy.
Let’s face it, most people are lucky if they can belt out a tune in the shower and not make the dogs howl.
I’ve been given a gift, and so has Katy Perry, Chris Martin and Bono. Maintaining that gift means preparing for every performance; it means voice lessons, scales, practice, proper diet and exercise. It means not going out on Saturday night if we have to sing early Sunday morning. It means staying in when viruses are rampant and not cheering too loudly for a favorite sports team because if our “instrument” doesn’t work, we can’t pop into the music store to purchase a new one.
Leontyne Price is one of the greatest singers ever. In October 2011, the legendary soprano was called upon to come out of retirement at the age of 74 to sing in a memorial concert for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. She sang “God Bless America” a capella at Carnegie Hall. Her voice comforted a nation because of her lifetime of dedication to caring for her gift.
Instrumental excellence is also no small feat. It takes dedication and practice to be the dazzling Bruno Mars or Prince in a Super Bowl halftime show.
Trumpeter Chris Botti told the National Post in 2013 that he practices three hours a day, every day. Same thing for trumpeter Sean Jones, who is so disciplined that he keeps a journal of his practices, which are broken into three 90-minute segments daily.
Are these routines any different from the practice hours put in by football players? Absolutely not. Both types of performers have worked for years; it’s their job. The difference is that society glorifies the athletes and here in Pittsburgh Steelers scrimmages get time on the evening news while students get air time only if they are doing charity work.
The National Football League is an unincorporated nonprofit 501(c)(6) association and the league office is not subject to income tax because it does not make a profit. The NFL considers itself a trade association made up of and financed by its 32 member teams. All teams with the exception of the non-profit Green Bay Packers are subject to income tax. According to Forbes Magazine, the last year’s revenues for the league as a whole were somewhere north of $9 billion.
So, I urge you, Katy Perry, Rhianna, Chris Martin and others, to tell the NFL to hit the road. Draw a line in the sand. You didn’t work your whole life to play a “freebie” for one of the richest business enterprises in the world. You should be charging for your services. The Super Bowl halftime show is a gig like any other. If fans discover you and buy your work, it is because you have quality work to sell.
In the meantime, the NFL should go old school and book a university marching band. Make a donation to fund an academic scholarship program. After all, it is these universities from which it gets its multi-billion-dollar-a-year product, isn’t it?
A little payback never hurt.
Rosa Colucci is a features writer by day and singer by night. Rcolucci@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1634, Twitter, PGRosa_Colucci.