Beyonce, Usher, Furtado's Gigs For Gadhafi Raise The Question: Which Private Shows Are Unethical?
Beyonce, Usher, Furtado's Gigs For Gadhafi Raise The Question: Which Private Shows Are Unethical?

Moammar Gadhafi
Moammar Gadhafi (Photo: Salah Malkawi/Getty Images)

As revenues from recorded music and other sectors dwindle, corporate and private shows are welcome income for artists at all levels. But given the negative publicity artists including Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Usher, 50 Cent and others have received for playing parties for the sons of embattled Libyan dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi, it's a safe bet that agents and managers will be giving more scrutiny to private gigs in the future.

"I played a private concert [in Moscow on New Year's Eve] with Amy Winehouse," Kesha says in the new Rolling Stone. "I don't even know who the show was for. Russia is so shady."

Private gigs pay well, frequently much more than an act would be guaranteed for a public show. Often requests come in with short notice, bumping the price even higher. The buyer may be hosting a debutante ball or bar mitzvah -- or in some cases it might be a party for the clan of a ruthless dictator or a Russian mob chief. As one manager who wished to remain anonymous puts it, "This is what artists do: they get paid to perform. We don't do a litmus test of [the buyer's] politics."

Published reports in the New York Times and elsewhere say Carey was paid $1 million to perform for Gadhafi's son Saif at a New Year's Eve party on St. Barts in 2008, and Beyoncé and Usher performed for Gadhafi's other son Muatassim -- also his national security advisor -- in St. Barts in 2009. Representatives for these artists declined or had not responded to Billboard's requests for comment at press time.

In fact, most acts don't talk about these shows, and they don't end up in Billboard's Boxscore chart. But in the wake of the Gadhafi news, three of the performers have commented this week.On Thursday Mariah Carey said she was "embarrassed" and "unaware" who she had performed for but admitted that artists need to be held "accountable" for such things; she also promised to donate royalties from a future song to charity. Beyonce's rep said Wednesday that the singer donated the $1 million she received for her performance to Haiti relief, and Nelly Furtado admitted on Twitter that she played for the Gadhafis, and seemed to express regret. "In 2007, I received 1 million from the Qaddafi clan to perform a 45 min. show for guests at a hotel in Italy," she tweeted last week. "I am going to donate the $." At press time Furtado had not named the charity to which she's donating her fee.

At least one manager believes donating fees from the Gadhafi gigs sends the wrong message. "I absolutely believe it is a mistake and an over-reaction to a trumped up press story to give back the money that any of the artists received for doing their jobs," says Randy Phillips, CEO of AEG Live and manager of Lionel Richie and Usher (though not for the latter at the time he played the Gadhafi show). "Most of the names I have read about, including Beyonce, Nelly Furtado, Usher, and Mariah Carey -- all have active foundations and are philanthropists," Phillips says. "They should continue in those endeavors and not single out fees they received for these play dates as if they were admitting to doing something wrong. If asked to perform for Gadhafi's kids today, with what is happening on the ground in Libya, the answer would obviously be a resounding 'no way!' The press has a tendency to try to make us all Monday morning quarterbacks."

Current events notwithstanding, to say money isn't the primary factor in whether an act takes a private or corporate gig would be misleading. "Without sounding crass, the number one criteria is the size of the fee; second, the timing of the date; and, lastly, that it is not for a company or individual that could prove potentially embarrassing for one of my clients," says Phillips, regarding corporate and private shows in general. "Once a date is accepted, the only red flags are whether the deposit is on time and the buyer is sophisticated enough to handle the rider requirements for a quality show. Since a significant segment of an artist's earnings are from performing live, I am not only open to these types of bookings, but encourage them."

Richie is one of the most in-demand acts available in the private/corporate sphere, so popular in the Arab world that GQ dubbed him "Lionel of Arabia" in a 2006 article. Richie's popularity in the Middle East "emanates from the streets, not the palaces, and we have often mixed public with private performances when he goes there," Phillips says. "[Richie's] fame in the Arab world is not necessarily elitist-driven, it is popular-based."

In retrospect, it is more than possible that the artists are not even aware of the political and social implications of certain shows they play. Often the buyer is a middle agent representing the person inquiring about the show, and the U.S. was seeing its relations with Libya and Gadhafi improve at the time of the shows in question.

Still, it was Gadhafi, and the nature of the shows did raise eyebrows for one agent. "I did get contacted by that Gadhafi thing and I ran like the wind," says Greg Janese, who books corporate and private shows for Paradigm Artists; the company's roster includes such major acts as Black Eyed Peas, Aerosmith and Dave Matthews Band. "It sounded like a cluster to me."

Phillips says buyers aren't vetted based on political affiliations, but he will "turn down any offer for an event that might appear to endorse a regime or a movement unless it is one that the artist is passionate about, like many were for Senator Obama during his campaign for the presidency. Entertainers are in the business of entertaining for enthusiastic audiences, wherever they may be. [But] as artists reps, it is our job to avoid any 'Richard Nixon hugging Sammy Davis Jr.' moments."

With such acts as Billy Joel, Rod Stewart and Metallica on the roster, Dennis Arfa, president of Artists Group International, sees many offers for private performances come across his desk. He says he asks a lot of questions. "Most of the time, [the artists] care," he says. "They are sensitive to what is going on, and to some degrees different people are sensitive to different things. But you always present who a party is for. Most of the time it's a non-factor."

Janese acknowledges how important corporate and private dates are to artists today, and says potential clients always ask about the agency's strength in that particular department. In short, acts count on these dates and agents look for them. "Usually the buyer will go through some kind of an event-production company that will give the agency some level of comfort that the show really will be produced right," says Janese. "And if they have the right budget and there's a production company in the middle of it that is competent, usually an act is going to do it."

As for the acts who play for events that later become tainted, Arfa says, "You can't use today's current events to say what you should or shouldn't have done six months ago. That's not a fair rule." He adds that he believes the artists are taking too much heat for the Gadhafi gigs. "It wasn't like they're going in there now and entertaining the Libyan army."

As for taking the money and giving it to charity, Arfa says, "They should do what they feel in their hearts they need to do, but I don't think they should be pressured to do that. They did what they did, I don't think they necessarily owe society anything for it. That would be more pushing the guilt button. You can be sensitive to what's happening, but I don't think you have to relieve yourself of what's already happened."