Pop Stars, Private Shows And Political Consequences

Bryan Bedder (l), Juan Barreto (c), Koichi Kamoshida (r)/Getty Images 

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.


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.