Would Harry Styles Play Stalin's Birthday?
Vice published an article a few days ago called “Inside the Secret Shady World of Corporate Concerts.” The title isn’t exactly inaccurate: privately funded, invite-only concerts aren’t advertised publicly, so they’re kept “secret” from most of us. But is that “shady”? Is it shady if you don’t place an ad for your birthday party?
What the piece ends up implying is that there’s something morally dubious about an artist taking a bunch of money to play a private show. But that’s not where it starts. Most of the author’s tactical ink is spent describing Beyoncé’s widely reported concert for Atlantis Dubai, a hotel in United Arab Emirates, a country where homosexuality is illegal. Beyoncé did this despite having often led people to believe that she thinks homosexuality is fine. Which, okay, if all of your actions are supposed to align with all of your stated beliefs, then Beyoncé definitely fucked up. (Let’s discuss that more some other time.) We’re told that this represents a trend, that bad governments are now paying Beyoncé’s cohort lots of money to help whitewash their reps with VIPs from all over the world, who presumably come home from luxurious concert-retreats to their corporate boards and national parliaments and assure the person seated next to them that the UAE or Turkmenistan actually has some cool neighborhoods now.
Which seems bad, for sure. Duran Duran shouldn’t, ideally, help an unelected government maintain power over its oppressed citizenship by playing a party where British MPs and board members of Mercedes and Apple are sold on the idea that economic vitality is what the populace of Bad Country really needs, not, say, an election. (To be clear, We Are Scientists believes that Bad Country’s populace deserves both, but that only one of those things can be produced more or less by the wave of a wand.)
Having kinda convinced us (or maybe just reminded us?) that people, even ones as eccentric as musicians, should know better than to abet totalitarianism, the author switches that bait for something much less tasty: not artists performing for wicked dictators, but instead performing… privately. The shift isn’t really announced. It’s not “Section 1: Normalizing National Oppression for Personal Gain,” then “Section 2: Playing a Kinda Lame Show for People Who Don’t Really Care About Your Music In Exchange for More Money Than Usual.” It’s just one big section. It’s “Wicked Governments Hired Beyoncé, Black Eyed Peas, Lizzo, and Duran Duran”; paragraph break; then “Also, The 1975, Drake, Flo Rida, and Robbie Williams Got Hired, and There Were No Tickets!” That’s the real through line: exclusivity.
Is that interesting? Maybe it is. We’d like to know your thoughts. (By all means, use examples if you have them!) Is it wrong for an artist to play a show that doesn’t sell tickets? Is it therefor kinda-wrong for an artist to play a show that she knows can offer only way fewer tickets than there are people who want to attend? (That sort of show is usually sponsored by… a corporation!) What about a wedding (i.e., an un-ticketed event that delays the dismantling of patriarchy’s mightiest girder, marriage😉)?
What if an artist plays a private gig for a really good company? That sounds intuitively okay — she’s rewarding the employees, who are making the world nicer by working there, or she’s helping the good company to coerce better trading terms from nations where it does business, or whatever. It sounds pretty similar to playing a fundraiser for a politician, which artists often do when they agree with most of what the politician claims to stand for.
So if artists should only play for companies whose activities they cosign, and (perhaps more obviously) should only play rallies for politicians whose positions they agree with, should they sell tickets only to members of the public who meet their moral standards? Maybe as a shortcut the artist could limit ticket sales to people registered with her preferred political party.
Would it be good for an outspoken proponent of legal abortion like Taylor Swift to actively dissuade abolitionists from coming to her shows? It would be hard to prevent them outright, but she could certainly print “I am asking you not to come to my show if you believe in banning abortion” on her tour posters. It’s unreasonable to think she would include all of her strongly held beliefs on ads — the volume would water things down — but she could take a position on abortion, Israeli settlements, pornography, and maybe the use of atomic bombs during World War II, and make it clear that people who don’t agree are unwelcome in the stadiums.
Incidentally, we’ve played a handful of “private” — i.e., un-ticketed — events over the years, never for much money, and never for a company that seemed particularly objectionable to us. We’ve turned down a couple things where the signature on the check made us queasy, but we’ve also played ticketed festivals that had sponsors we know kinda suck. Should we not have? Probably not! Capitalism splashes mud on all of us! (Capitalism doesn’t appear to have a monopoly on mud, of course.) Anyway, the private shows we did? They were easy! That’s always a selling point. That and the cash. And it’s not like public shows are being canceled to make way for the corporate gigs. You slot the them around your normal calendar. Cuz if you’re a regular band, you’re lucky to be able to play 60 shows a year — there’s no shortage of time.
Of course, what Vice wants to talk about is not We Are Scientists, who, rest assured, aren’t getting rich doing this — it’s the big names, and that makes sense, because it greases our mental water slides until they’re so slippery that we can’t help but ker-SPLASH into the 21st Century’s favorite question: How much is enough??? How much money would Beyoncé need in her bank account in order to say no to Atlantis? What size would Dua Lipa’s savings need to be for her to start turning down shows in the UAE? And if somebody gave the snow globe of history a good shake, would Harry Styles play Stalin’s birthday party?
We had a marvelous day off yesterday in Birmingham, though we ended up stripping it down to its essentials after remembering how few hours there are in days off (there are at least twice as many hours in show days, unless you’re stuck in motorway traffic on the way to the venue). Here we are last night with our guys Andy Burrows and Stuart Wilkinson before their lovely (ticketed) gig with K.T. Tunstall at the Symphony Hall:
Such a bittersweet line of work we’re in — it lets us meet and fall in love with geniuses like Andy and Stu all over the world, then sends everybody off in tiny packs in little vans for months or years at a time, until happenstance lets us have another few hours with our separately-wandering friends.
Ah well, it could be worse. At least we haven’t had to decide whether to turn down the UAE.
I was so surprised at which subscription would be sending me this article when I read the email subject, and then I made a brand new surprised face when I saw it was from here. Then I laughed! Then I grimaced! Then I pondered. This is genuinely thought provoking. I think concerts for shady people is weird - even for mega popstars, this is weird. Inauthentic and strange just on a human level. Then, with the things their fanbases say to defend them, the mistakes of these people mold the morality of masses.
The unticketed thing might be a big non-issue though.
Also I'm going to take this opportunity to say that one of the reasons I hold this band in my heart and head above all else is the sincere humanness and authenticity that you guys have shown for so many years. My adult life was just starting when I started listening to you and I've always had this sort of example of two people just being good fun humans and doing what they love and making it work without any of the strange sellout strategies which are so recommended to every person trying to make it these days. It seems a bit crazy to say "I'm fine doing what I'm doing because I like what I do" in the face of corporations, leaders, and now even pop stars telling you to hustle every which way until you die, and so in that ocean of desperate work ethics and actions, I've always liked that we have We Are Scientists.
I feel like there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with playing corporates because artists need money for food and shelter but there is something fundamentally wrong with musicians providing positive press and entertainment for ie. homophobes, dictators, etc - and I agree that collapsing the two very distantly connected things into one issue is not helpful.
I also think with ticketing companies and venue ownership being what it is, artists are probably playing for companies whose values do not align with their own in small ways a lot more often than they’d like and I don’t hugely judge anyone for that because there’s not really a way out of it - if you can afford to only play DIY shows at anarchist house parties that’s cool but it makes your music immediately much less accessible to a lot of fans.
It’s nice when artists you like have good politics and shout about it and if that dissuades people with bad politics from going to their shows that can help foster a nicer experience and environment for everyone there - but again, you need to already be in a comfortable position to be able to turn down the money of people who like your songs but you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with.
Still, all that said, I don’t think you guys should have played that party for Orphanage Crushers Inc marking their thousandth orphanage destroyed, not cool.
(PS: Great show in Birmingham last night, death to capitalism, long live We Are Scientists)