The forthright attitude toward commerce also became visible in the private-gig market. Doug Sandler, known as DJ Doug on the mitzvah circuit around Washington, D.C., remembers the first time he was told to make room for more famous talent: “They had, as the main act, the Village People.” In 2002, David Bonderman, a Texas venture capitalist, booked the Stones for his birthday, at a reported fee of seven million dollars, and word spread. Jennifer Gilbert, the founder of Save the Date, an event-planning company in New York, noticed that clients were becoming overtly competitive: “They started hearing it more and more—‘Oh, they had this person perform.’ So now someone says, ‘We want something totally unique and over the top.’ ” Over time, the preferences showed a pattern: whoever was popular with young men about twenty-five years earlier was in renewed demand, as a rising cohort achieved private-gig-level wealth. (Current favorites include the Counting Crows and Sir Mix-a-Lot.)
In 2007, on the eve of the financial crisis, the financier Stephen Schwarzman treated himself to performances by Rod Stewart and Patti LaBelle, at a sixtieth-birthday party so lavish that it prompted what the Times called an “existential crisis on Wall Street about the evils of conspicuous consumption.” A decade later, when Schwarzman threw a party for his seventieth—featuring not only Gwen Stefani but also trapeze artists, camels, and fireworks over Palm Beach—it barely protruded above the tide line of the Trump era.
As the market grew, there was an inherent friction between the instinct to show off and the instinct to keep quiet. In 2012, shortly before the Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Sacks sold his company Yammer for $1.2 billion, he threw a costume party for his fortieth birthday, where guests were under orders not to leak details. The embargo was broken by the hired entertainer, Snoop Dogg, who posted a photo of himself posing with the birthday boy. Sacks was wearing an eighteenth-century waistcoat, a wig, and a lacy cravat, in the mode of Marie Antoinette. The party slogan was “Let Him Eat Cake.”
Musicians, on the whole, don’t get into the business because they dream of playing for tiny audiences, under the shroud of an N.D.A. Hamilton Leithauser, who helped found the indie band the Walkmen before launching a solo career, recalls peering out one night into a dark club filled with “older, heavyset Philly finance guys.” He had been hired as the dinner entertainer at a business conference. “They must have spent a million dollars on the party, and they had pulled in all these huge leather couches and spread them out throughout the room.” The remoteness was not only physical, he said: “The closest person is probably thirty feet away, and it’s a banker eating a lobster tail.”
David (Boche) Viecelli, a veteran booking agent in Chicago, has tried to help musicians navigate unfamiliar territory. Viecelli, who founded the independent agency the Billions Corporation, has represented Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and other big acts. I asked him how musicians react when they get a private offer. “Every artist always thinks, Well, this is either going to be a total shit show or at least a drag,” he said. “That goes all the way up to when you have Beyoncé going to play for some emir.”
Despite all the luxuries, “corporate events can be sort of soul-destroying,” Viecelli said. “It’s not really an audience. It’s a convention or a party, and you just happen to be making noise at one end of it.” When musicians are uncertain, he has some reliable tools to help them decide: “If you can say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go have a bad time for an afternoon, but it’s going to pay for my kid’s entire college education,’ then that’s a trade-off I think most responsible adults will make.” But these days he has less persuading to do. “If you talk to a twenty-year-old in the music business now, and you bring up this idea of the weirdness of doing corporate events, they’ll just stare at you, like, ‘What are you talking about?’ You might as well say, ‘Don’t you feel guilty for eating pizza?’ ”
The realities of making a living in music have changed radically in the past decade or two. Viecelli used to counsel emerging artists to plan for a long-term career: “It might not necessarily make you incomprehensibly rich, but it would give you a way to continue to make music the way you want, while doing it as a full-time job and being secure.” In the streaming economy, audience attention is shallow and promiscuous. “A kid could know a track inside out, listen to it a thousand times that summer, and not know the artist’s name. They’re just surfing along the wave of whatever’s getting spit out,” he said. “The truth is, now young artists know they’re going to have—even if they’re successful—two to four years. Maybe. And so that means that they want to monetize everything as fast and hard as they can.”
Given the pace of that churn, artists tend to obsess less about impressing A. & R. executives than about elbowing their way onto top-ranked playlists, with names like RapCaviar and Songs to Sing in the Car. “They know there’s this giant unthinking audience that just keeps streaming these playlists and racking up those counts,” Viecelli said. “Everything is geared towards treating artists essentially as disposable.”
Even as streaming has diminished the returns on recording, social media has created an expectation of accessibility. Fans no longer assume that their favorite artists are remote figures. Viecelli told me, “I’ll get e-mails from people saying, ‘I live in Philadelphia, and I see that they’re coming to town, and my daughter is a big, big fan. Could you stop off at our house to play a few songs?’ ” He laughed. “It’s, like, ‘Are you nuts?’ But if that person says, ‘And I’d be happy to pay five hundred thousand dollars for the privilege,’ well, then, actually it begins to change.”
In the spring of 2015, Steely Dan was hired to play a fiftieth-birthday party for Robert Downey, Jr., in a converted airplane hangar in Santa Monica. Steely Dan didn’t do many privates, but Downey had endeared himself to the singer Donald Fagen. Downey, who had built a thriving late career playing Iron Man in Marvel movies, was celebrating with friends from Hollywood. “Phones were taken away. Downey came up and sang ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ with us,” Michael Leonhart, who was playing trumpet that night, recalled. When the evening’s other band, Duran Duran, took the stage, Leonhart quickly realized what it meant to generate stadium campiness on a small scale: “Simon Le Bon has his back to the audience. Then he turns around, the drum machine starts, and he goes, ‘Is anybody hungry—like the wolf? Two, three, four!’ And I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God, this guy gives good privates.’ ”
Leonhart, who has also played private gigs with Lenny Kravitz, learned to expect odd moments when the disparate tribes of cultural capital and financial capital meet: “Either they’re in awe of your group or you’re the paid servant. You’re never sure which meal you’re going to get, or which entrance you’re going to use. When push comes to shove, it’s a caste system.” He conjured a controlling host: “I love what you’re wearing. Can you maybe button up that shirt one more button? My great-grandmother is here.” When hosts try to merge friendship and labor, though, the result can be awkward. Leonhart said, “Even if it starts off well, there’s usually a fart-in-church moment, where someone is trying to be cool, as opposed to just owning it for what it is: You paid a shitload of money—enjoy it.”
Over time, artists have become more willing to accept proximity. First, they embraced the meet and greet, earning extra money on top of a concert ticket in exchange for a photo and some effortful bonhomie. (Scholars of the workplace call this “relational labor.”) Privates have extended that concept by several zeros, though the underlying principle remains the same: a man who books Snoop Dogg for a private party is probably a man who would like to smoke a joint with Snoop Dogg. (Snoop avers that he has, indeed, smoked weed while working a bar mitzvah.)
In the taxonomy of paid performances, as in other parts of life, the money tends to vary inversely with dignity. Headlining a regular concert, known to professionals as a “hard ticket,” pays the least; a festival, or “soft ticket,” pays more, because it is usually flush with corporate sponsorship money. Privates pay the most, with the added bonus that they don’t violate “radius clauses,” which venues impose to stop bands from playing too many shows near one another. Thus, the modern dream scenario: take a million dollars for a holiday party on Tuesday, then play the Beacon Theatre for half that sum on Thursday night.
Ian Hendrickson-Smith is a saxophonist with the Roots, who have played privates around the world, including at Obama’s sixtieth birthday on Martha’s Vineyard. (“They put me in a tiny plane that was barely a plane. I was terrified,” he said.) Hendrickson-Smith also releases albums under his own name, and he has watched the market change. “The largest distributor of actual physical records in the United States was fucking Starbucks,” he said. “I used to get some nice checks. Now I put out a record and it gets streamed a ton, but my check from Spotify is, like, sixty-five cents.” A 2018 report by the Music Industry Research Association found that the median musician makes less than thirty-five thousand dollars a year, including money that’s not from music.
Viewed in that light, private gigs can start to feel like something close to justice. For years, Hendrickson-Smith toured with the late Sharon Jones and her band, the Dap Kings, and they often jetted overseas to play tycoons’ weddings. “The second we’d hear the W-word, our price tripled immediately,” he said. But he also learned that relying on private money exposed him to a new type of captivity. He once played a private party in New York where the host had hired little people, costumed as Oompa Loompas and as members of Kiss, to serve drinks. “I was mortified,” Hendrickson-Smith said. “But I couldn’t leave. It was brutal.”