The Real Yacht Rock: Inside the Lavish, Top-Secret World of Private Gigs


For Jennifer Lopez, a November 2014 performance in Macau wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary. She’d have to sing (here, to a backing track) for 40 minutes, accompanied by six to eight dancers; the contract stipulated she’d be furnished with “first-class” sound and lights. No recording or taping of the performance would be allowed. But no tickets were sold, either. And the payday stood out, too: $1.25 million. To celebrate the birthday of a relative, a wealthy Chinese family flew Lopez to Asia to perform for them, tossing in $500,000 for airfare and hotel for her and her entourage. The opulence didn’t stop there; for the show, the family built a restaurant and a nightclub inside a Grand Hyatt ballroom, with a walkway connecting the two. And all for about 20 people in the audience, less than the number of crew members involved in working on the gig.

For more than 20 years, pop stars of all genres and generations, from Bob Dylan and the Eagles to Alicia Keys and John Legend, have been hired to play corporate events — big-paycheck performances for company employees or clients, often at theaters or arenas. Even during a pandemic, when live performances slowed down, that ecosystem has persisted. Last December, the blockchain-gaming platform Gala Games threw a “Galaverse” multinight private party in San Francisco, where its 500 guests gathered to hear Maroon 5, Alice Cooper, DJ Steve Aoki, a bit of Snoop Dogg, and a stripped-down set by two members of Arcade Fire. The venue included private rooms set up to look like a medieval tavern, a “Dungeons & Dragons” setup with a huge fake dragon, and a quasi Texas dance hall, while in another space, dancers were made up to look like zombies (to tie in with a Walking Dead game).

But alongside the world of corporate parties and retreats, a far more shadowy parallel world has been flourishing: the super-private gig. In that universe, stars in classic rock, hip-hop, and pop have been pulling in sizable fees for playing at weddings, birthday parties, anniversaries, and other personal-life milestones, all for those wealthy enough to afford it. The festivities allow performers to walk away with yacht-loads of cash and make one-percenter hosts feel like insiders and stars themselves. But along with the sizable paydays come sometimes dicey political issues that the artists have to navigate (or, sometimes, ignore).

In the early days of this industry, the only performers who would bite were oldies acts from the Fifties or Sixties. But today, the list of artists who’ve taken the money and played now reads like a pop chart. Fork over the right amount, as much as seven figures, and Beyoncé or Rod Stewart might play for your friends and family. The lineup includes veterans like John Mayer and newcomers like Charlie Puth (who was a surprise guest at a teenager’s bat mitzvah in Boston). Sugar Ray are available, as is the semi-supergroup Ezra Ray Hart, composed of Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, Tonic frontman Emerson Hart, and Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin, who will rock your house with a slew of Nineties hits. Pitbull, Nicki Minaj, and Flo Rida have played bar or bat mitzvahs.


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