You too can rent a rock star

Times Staff Writer

TYCOONS trying to impress will pay millions for a Picasso or Pollock, so why not splurge on a living, breathing Jagger? Or hire rapper 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.

Grammy-winning 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 weekend, pop diva Christina Aguilera and Oscar winner Robin Williams were in Pittsburgh as the hired entertainment at the birthday party of Joe Hardy, founder of 84 Lumber. Both stars are veterans of the lucrative circuit. Aguilera took a reported $1.5 million to serenade another Russian businessman, Andrei Melnichenko, at his September 2005 wedding. Williams, who reportedly fetches a cool $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 firm. The reported price of the affair: $10 million.

And check out the lineup of 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, Aerosmith, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and Ciara. And during the pre-show cocktails, Kenny G provided some burnished background music. Again, the bill hit a reported $10 million.

That made Brooks and Bonderman the free-spending leaders of the pack, but don't be surprised if some other billionaire one-ups them in the next few years. Opulent affairs with rock heroes are regular occurrences now during the party seasons, especially in Russia and the Middle East but also in Manhattan and in the Bay Area, where the stock-option windfalls of the dot-com era are still being spent.

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 affairs 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, a good number of them with staggering budgets.

The volume of business in that rarefied sector has surged dramatically in recent years. It's now 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 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," 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 make for being on tour for three weeks.... You really have to evaluate each one the way you would any corporate opportunity."

THIS mansion-concert circuit can be traced to the 1990s era of corporate event bookings when the Stones, Elton John, the Eagles and even Bob Dylan plugged in for Fortune 500 companies looking to add major zing to their in-house gatherings.

There was hand-wringing at the time about a Wall Street buyout of Woodstock ideals, but as Madison Avenue television commercials featured more and more rock classics (and in the case of Sting and Aerosmith, the classic rockers themselves), the private event bookings became viewed as pedestrian offenses. If they were still viewed as a crime against the old ideals, they were usually downgraded from a cultural felony to a mercenary misdemeanor.

Meanwhile, companies such as Pepsi, Microsoft, Apple, IBM, General Motors and even Herbalife (it once booked "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" singer Rod Stewart) viewed the big-name events as a hip way to burnish their brand and wow their employees, as well as industry media and prospective employees that got wind of them.

In the case of Dylan, the show he did almost a decade ago for the semiconductor company called Applied Materials (now there's a name that must have spoken to the rock bard's poetic soul) became a watershed moment for many of his peers. The Silicon Valley company booked the 1960s hero as well as his son, Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers. It's the only show the father and son have done together. That wasn't lost on other stars that had been wondering if renting their services was the same as selling out.

Sammy Hagar, who in March will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Van Halen, said that when he heard about 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. It felt cheesy to me. But then when Dylan did it, I started thinking, 'Who am I to be so uppity about this?' "

Still, Hagar at first refused 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 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," 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."

Hagar had to earn it, though. He described 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. 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 may be rentable, but that doesn't mean you can order them around. Norman, the CAA executive, says one of his imperative duties is to make sure that these famous stars aren't treated like a show pony or hired help.

"They are not jukeboxes," 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.

Norman said it is common for artists and their representatives to investigate the background of potential clients to make sure the artists don't wind up serenading a real-life Soprano.

"The artists don't want to be singing for gangsters or someone who represents something they don't feel comfortable with," Norman said.

Some performers may still be leery of playing for corporate giants who may not be as reputable as they seem. Jimmy Buffett got $250,000 to perform at the $2-million birthday party that L. Dennis Kozlowski, former chief executive of Tyco International, threw for his wife's birthday on the Mediterranean isle of Sardinia. That 2001 Roman-themed event became an infamous symbol of excess when videos of it were presented at Kozlowski's trial on charges that he looted Tyco to pay for his lifestyle.

More modest paydays for journeyman artists as diverse as Los Lobos, the Chieftains, Ziggy Marley, Earth, Wind & Fire and Kenny Loggins help pay bills and fit in easily during dark dates on their tours. The surge there has made for heady days at companies such as the Grabow Booking Agency in Beverly Hills.

"This past year was an amazing one for us," said Carol Grabow, president of the agency. "There are great opportunities and special challenges in this area right now.

"For one thing, there are more millionaires alive now than ever before and, for special events, they are looking to create truly special memories. They don't want to just go to Las Vegas and have someone else decide what the event will be -- they want to tailor it, and they can."

Her company worked on a deal that brought the Beach Boys to the 50th birthday party of a New York man last January and, while snow piled up outside, guests frolicked in a faux poolside setting and sang along to "California Girls."

Then there was mountaintop wedding in Aspen where Joe Cocker serenaded the giddy bride with "You Are So Beautiful," and the surprise birthday party in Beverly Hills where an "undisclosed superstar" took a quick (and lucrative) break from recording sessions at a nearby studio to belt out a few hits.

"I can't tell you who it was," Grabow said solemnly. Secrecy -- or an attempt at secrecy -- is a big part of the business. The contracts for the gigs often include agreements that the shows will not be recorded, publicized or even photographed.

SOME of the shows are just too dazzling to keep secret.

In September, Genentech, a Bay Area biotech company, booked Dylan, the Eagles, the Foo Fighters and the Black Eyed Peas to entertain its employees on the occasion of the company's 30th anniversary. So in essence, the band with the bestselling album in U.S. history (the Eagles), the designated spokesman for a generation (Dylan) and two platinum-selling acts played a "company picnic," as Rolling Stone magazine labeled the show.

Guerinot, manager for pop superstar Stefani, also has worked for years with Social Distortion, the gritty, tattooed Orange County punk band that is about as fancy and flexible as a tire iron. But yes, even Social D has taken a private-show payday.

The band played "Ball and Chain" and its other brass-knuckle hits at an employee meeting for Hot Topic, a mall-based merchant of pop-culture clothing. Guerinot and the musicians talked it over and agreed that the payday didn't violate their punk sensibilities.

"For them, Hot Topic, sure, that's OK. But if it was for Viagra? Well, maybe not. That's the thing now. There are two questions: 'How much does it pay?' and 'Where does it fit in on my cringe meter?' "

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geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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