One of my favorite Chris Cornell performances came not when he was fronting the iconic grunge act Soundgarden or the multiplatinum Audioslave. It was a Sunday-afternoon show in a West Hollywood parking lot where the singer unplugged to play songs from his whole career, as well as covers like “Hotel California” and “Wish You Were Here.”
That gig was for a fund-raiser put on for the Stewart House by fashion designer John Varvatos, a friend of Cornell’s. Earlier this year, Cornell again went the private route to perform at sunset on a Malibu beach (the locale was his reason for agreeing to the show) for Rock and Republic’s five-year anniversary. While one was for a company and the other for charity, Cornell says both satisfied his requirement that the show be about more than money.
“A corporate gig like that is something you really have to decide what is the reason,” he says. “For me there has to be something other than just money, because I can go do a show anywhere and make money. I’m not going to be playing someone’s birthday party.”
Just as bands’ allowing their songs to be used in commercials has become commonplace marketing, the taboo on respected artists’ playing private shows for corporations was shattered several years ago. Nowadays, some of the best performances that roll through L.A. are private. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck and Stevie Wonder perform in the backyards of mansions, walk right up to the front of the stage unencumbered as the Foo Fighters rocked a TV Guide post-Emmy party, and watch as Prince and Wonder jam in a Bel Air mansion at 4 in the morning. And just recently, Linkin Park and Common, both of whom debuted at No. 1 this year, were playing the Key Club and Roxy, respectively, on a Friday night. What brought two chart-topping acts, each of which has headlined places in L.A. that hold thousands of people, to intimate clubs? SanDisk, a data-storage company looking to make a big splash for its new music memory cards for cell phones.
Even by the increasingly impressive standards set for corporate gigs, the recent SanDisk Sunset Block Party was highly ambitious, with the company taking over the Viper Room, in addition to the Key Club and Roxy, for shows that also included Crystal Method and Z-Trip.
“The party was meant to be an intimate personal experience. We wanted the press to understand where SanDisk is going,” says Mike Romero, the company’s senior director of global retail marketing and business. “[And] our primary goal was to get that core that was going to start telling our story. So that’s why 172 press people from over 30 countries actually were invited to attend this event.”
While it’s clear what artists get — money, unique opportunities, networking — from these gigs, it’s harder for corporations to measure their success from shelling out big bucks for top-name talent.
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Still, Motorola, which for nine years has been putting on an annual end-of-the-year party with performances by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Pink, L.L. Cool J and, this year, Kelly Clarkson, believes the results are tangible. “It’s a giant networking opportunity for our company,” says David Pinsky, director of entertainment marketing and PR for Motorola. “And when the press follows it, you see Motorola on Extra or Entertainment Tonight. Nine years ago, that’s not what this product was about. We’re becoming much more consumer focused. When the Razr came out and every hot young Hollywood actress was carrying a pink Razr, that translated to the masses.”
Besides giving away free swag like the latest phones, companies need incentives to get Paris Hilton and her brethren to their party to get into the weeklies. Actress Olivia Wilde, of the TV series House, says with so many options to choose from on the party scene, the musical guest is important. “We work odd hours, and often through the night, so when you do have a night that you want to come and hang out, you want to make sure the music act is someone who’s going to create a good atmosphere and party.”
All that competition is where someone like Brent Bolthouse, one of L.A.’s premier party planners, comes in. Bolthouse, who estimates his company does 30 parties a year, including a recent T-Mobile soiree with Kanye West, says despite the need by brands to get the right bands for their events, most of the time getting an act comes down to some luck. “A lot of it, we’re subject to what band availability there is — if they’re on tour, if they’re in town,” Bolthouse says. “There’s no method to the madness; we go after who we go after.”
For bands who have their pick, though, it’s all about the partnership, according to DJ Paul Oakenfold. “In terms of parties, if it’s a cool brand, if it’s something I want to be associated with, I’ll do it,” Oakenfold says. “It’s not about doing everything you get offered, but choosing the right thing, so you’re associated with the right brand. It’s different doing Sinbad for Disney than doing The Matrix for Warners. I’m not going to do soap powder or the launch of the new Snickers bar. It’s gotta be relevant to me and it’s gotta be cool in my eyes.”