Plenty of artists offer the standard meet-and-greet or backstage selfie for a price these days. But what about a more up-close-and-personal moment with your favorite artist? What if, say, you could sit just a few feet away from Justin Timberlake during a Man Of The Woods Tour date and have him dance across your stage-side bar on the arena floor? Or get a fresh cut from G-Eazy's barber in a tricked-out Airstream trailer backstage while listening to a brand-new, unreleased track from the "No Limit" rapper?
That's the one-of-a-kind experience offered by Wonderful Union, a 12-year-old one-stop-shop that offers everything from fan club and e-commerce management to digital marketing, merchandise fulfillment and a wide range of VIP experiences. "Having it all linked together is what makes what we do different," says co-founder Eddie Meehan, who got his start in the music business at age 13 breaking down boxes for amp maker Mesa Boogie. A stint in the marketing department at San Francisco's Live 105 radio station, where he built websites during the early years of the commercial internet, pointed Meehan in the direction he's been blazing ever since. "The business came together organically, starting with websites, then fan clubs, then merchandise... then the fan club needs tickets, then we need a ticketing platform, meet and greets, a VIP package," he says.
After befriending Papa Roach in the early 2000s and building their official website, Meehan began adding clients, launching the precursor to WU with partner Greg Patterson in 2006 and growing it into a powerhouse with gross revenues of between $18 million and $24 million a year and more than 300 clients, including Drake, Dead & Company, P!nk, Fleetwood Mac, Brantley Gilbert, the Eagles, Camila Cabello and many more. "Some people think of us as the VIP guys, or the store guys, but some look at us as doing it all for them," Meehan says. "When we started out there were some artists doing meet and greets and at that time VIP packages were given to radio stations by labels to guarantee more radio play. But we were lucky to have a client or two who said, 'Why don't we sell these things?'"
Meehan spent the next five years convincing other artists to give him a shot and go beyond charging fans for a few seconds of backstage attention, at around the same time that other companies -- including Philadelphia's CID Entertainment and Live Nation's VIP Nation -- had similar ideas about expanding VIP experiences to include travel packages, tricked-out backstage lounges and as-close-as-you-can-get seating with a long list of perks.
Lindsay Cooper felt the heat from Timberlake at his June 2 show at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia when a friend hooked her up with Wonderful Union's "Stage Bar" VIP experience, which scored her a bar stool up against the stage and access to the pre-show Man Of The Woods Lounge. The radio ad sales rep has seen Timberlake at least 10 times dating back to his *NYSNC days and has done the VIP thing before, including with CID, but the Wonderful Union upgrade immediately jumped to the top spot on her all-time list.
"When we got there we didn't really know where our seats would be and we were so amped [that] we kept walking further and further down, and then basically right above the bartender's head was the stage," she tells Billboard about the experience, which runs $1,000+ per ticket. "After a while it felt like you were at your own bar with Justin. It was really intimate and it was probably one of the best concerts I've ever been to. I literally got to touch him [slap hands]. I'm not a crazy fan who wants to go backstage and get a selfie, but you really felt like he was singing right to you." At one point, security cleared off the top of the bar and Timberlake started dancing on it right in front of the 50 or so VIPs, and Cooper says she felt like she was alone at her hometown corner bar for a JT performance. "It was worth it, and then some."
In addition to giving fans the chance to have their heads cut off in Alice Cooper's iconic on-stage guillotine, take a private photo booth pic with Halsey or sing karaoke with a Rob Thomas hologram, one of WU's other signature fan experiences over the past few years is the $295 G-Eazy "Barber" VIP upgrade. The package includes a fresh cut from the rapper's personal hairstylist, Kevin Kellett, as well as a meet and greet, photo with the MC, autographed poster, access to a pre-show backstage production tour, a copy of The Beautiful & Damned album and priority entry to the venue.
"G's been a good friend for years and he used to come to the shop [Frank's Chop Shop in New York's Lower East Side] every time he was in town, and we ended up clicking and he said, 'Bro, I want you to come out on tour,'" Kellett, 31, tells Billboard about how he's ended up on the rapper's past four tours. "I couldn't afford to be out of the shop, so he said, 'What if you cut these guys' hair, too?' I knew what kind of impact that would have from the trade shows I've done and it was outside the box."
The activation grew from a DIY barber chair set up backstage to a tricked-out, two-chair mobile shop in an Airstream trailer with a lather and hot towel machine and everything Kellett [and an apprentice] needs to serve six to eight fans a night. "When they come in they’re looking for an experience, anything other than everyone waiting on line can get," he says. "Sometimes it's girls, sometimes guys, sometimes moms, you never know. But one thing I know for sure is they always connect to that layer of closeness and the relationship I have with G. Not only am I his barber -- with that certain intimacy between a barber and his client -- but I travel with him and I'm a layer of separation they don’t realize they’re buying. To me or you it might not matter, but their eyes light up."
Some fans have come out two or three times for the special treatment, during which they not only get a cut, but can also play dominos with Kellett and his team, have some drinks and potentially hear some brand-new, unreleased G-Eazy tracks that are fresh out of the rapper's mobile studio (with full approval from the artist, of course). And, if they're lucky, they might just get a cameo appearance from their favorite MC. "I just wanted to create that vibe in the barber shop he loves to go to, and share it with the people who love him and his music," says Kellett.
Another recent Wonderful activation, the Aug. 9 "Howie Dorough Birthday Bash," loaded up a private party bus on the Las Vegas Strip with 50 Backstreet Boys fans, for a few hours up close with Howie on his 45th b-day. The $150 tickets included a ticket for the bus, a meet and greet with Dorough, a photo op near the Las Vegas sign, an autographed Polaroid and drinks and snacks. "My favorite picture with @howie_dorough so far," wrote fan Brittany Bumgarner in a Facebook post.
Getting an intimate view of your favorite band is also the driving force behind CID Entertainment, launched 11 years ago by CEO and founder Dan Berkowitz. The former hardcore Phish Phan got his start hanging out with jam band Disco Biscuits, observing how passionate their fans were and eventually going to work to help get them closer to the group. "I know what it feels like to be in the exact right place at the exact right time to watch the exact right show with the right people... it's the best feeling on Earth," says Berkowitz, who specializes in destination and curated events with acts included Dead & Company, Luke Bryan, Bassnectar and Dave Matthews Band.
With a dedicated venue in Riviera Maya, Mexico, for events such as Bryan's Crash My Playa, Berkowitz has created his own suite of one-of-a-kind experiences, with about 100 tours on the books for 2018. His offerings include "Weird Al" Yankovic pre-show Jeopardy hosted by a "Weird Al" superfan on his staff in addition to an exhibit with the satirical pop singer's vintage costumes, as well as a Metallica VIP upgrade. The latter gives fans access to a traveling backstage curated museum with handwritten lyrics and set lists, photos, awards, stage clothes and an interactive exhibit where fans can play the guitarists' parts using their actual guitar pedal boards, as well as photo opps and hang time with the guys. The Bryan hangs include a pre-show acoustic gig for a select group.
Both men say that while the VIP experience is not a new wrinkle, it's relatively young and, for Berkowitz adds, for now developing artists are doing a better job of considering it when they're plotting tour strategy and branding even as the larger tours have begun considering a place for VIP as part of their overall show production and creative vision.
Berkowitz also works closely with festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, specializing in travel packages that include camping, shuttles and festival transportation for a business he says is growing at a "remarkable clip" over the past few years. "A few years ago I had to call up buildings and describe VIP packages," he says. "Now, as they've become more commonplace and they're part of the fabric of tour announcements, we keep innovating and they know who to talk to... We are extremely fortunate that all of those things are happening for us right now. We've always tried to keep a culture that valued creativity across all aspects of the business (pricing strategies, marketing tools, daily workflow process, etc.)" And while neither could give an accurate estimate of the size of the VIP sector at the moment, both saw it only growing and expanding as more artists earn a greater portion of their livelihood on the road.
For Meehan, who is overseeing more than 50 tours at the moment, it's a job he says is like living his dream. He's also embracing a moment when fans want Instagrammable moments they can share (and brag about), as well as the best seats in the house and, if possible, a bit of face time with their favorite stars. "We want to do something that makes them feel like they're part of the show," he says. "Even if they don't meet the artist, but they're getting close, that is something you remember forever."
The VIP lane is getting increasingly crowded. Here are a few of the top names in the sector.
VIP Experiences: Coachella, Dierks Bentley, Imagine Dragons
Signature Events: Luke Bryan’s Crash My Playa, “Weird Al” pre-show Jeopardy, Metallica backstage museum
AEG Live: The VIP Experience at Microsoft Theater
VIP Experiences: In conjunction with artist-offered VIP packages, the AEG Experience centers around VIP access (parking steps from the entrance, red carpet back-of-house entrance, pre-show food and beverage in the Theater’s VIP room) and A-list customer service (courtesy calls prior to show, friendly representatives greeting guests at the door, etc), for all Microsoft Theater shows.
VIP Experiences: Drake, Brockhampton, Nicki Minaj, P!nk, Backstreet Boys
Signature Events: G-Eazy barber haircut, Justin Timberlake stageside bar
Established: 2015 as joint venture between Live Nation and Roc Nation to give attendees artist-like access to venues
VIP Experiences: Normani at TidalX
Signature Events: Three rounds of backstage ping-pong with Nick Jonas, champagne toast with Big Sean, selfie and Instagram takeover from DJ Khaled, tea with Bea Miller
Established: 2004 (originally known as "I Love All Access")
VIP Experiences: JAY-Z & Beyoncé, Niall Horan, Maren Morris, Britney Spears
Signature Events: The Live Nation experiences include backstage meet-and-greets with photos, Q&A sessions during soundcheck, interactive games with artists, memorabilia exhibits and exclusive merchandise. Former First Lady Michelle Obama's Front Row Meet & Greet package for the Becoming book tour includes: one premium reserved ticket in the front row, an exclusive meet & greet, pre-show photo op and reception, pre-signed copy of Becoming, collectible laminate, exclusive VIP item, parking space and entrance and on-site concierge. The upcoming Ariana Grande Sweetener Soundcheck Package includes a GA ticket for the VIP floor section, soundcheck dance party and Q&A hosted by singer's dancers, and invitation to pre-show lounge with interactive photo booth, gift item, poster, laminate, a copy of the new album, Sweet Like Candy Bar, pre-show merch opportunity and early entry.
VIP Experiences: Attending a farmers market with culinary luminary Alice Waters, hanging backstage with the Rolling Stones, a game of catch with Joe Montana, riding in a limo to a premiere and walking the red carpet with Chris Hemsworth. Each event raises money for the artist’s charity of choice.
Signature Events: Up-close experience for Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, including stage tour, learning about the show’s choreography while watching dancers rehearse and talk about their inspirations, a dinner with Gaga’s mother to discuss their charitable foundation, seeing costume prep and hearing from designers, premium show seats, capped by a meet-and-greet photo op backstage with Gaga and her puppy.