Is Any Musical Artist Worth a $1 Million Performance Fee?

Before you rush to judge Rihanna's appearance at Sziget this year, consider how essential the model has become.

Rihanna’s million-dollar, headlining appearance at this year’s edition of the Sziget Festival in Budapest a handful of months ago was panned.

The local media were outraged — “disappointing”, “terrible” and “uninspired” were some of the phrases thrown about in daily Hungarian media on 12 August, a day after the performance. In the media’s own words, there were several reasons for such derogatory statements regarding what was supposed to be a benevolent dance-pop fiesta.

Firstly, the pop star wreaked havoc on the island by attracting a full-capacity crowd for the first time in history; more than 90,000 people flocked to witness her glory in flesh and even Sziget’s customarily reliable logistics (no lines) imploded under the weight of tens of thousands of fans queuing literally for hours.

Secondly, the concert was a half hour late, and was thus cut 15 minutes short due to the curfew, amounting to barely more than an hour and 15 minutes.

Thirdly, people (not the media, though), complained about the series of medleys which replaced whole songs — merely a handful of tunes lasted longer than some 75 seconds.

Fourthly, the choreography and scenography were criticized both by professional scribblers and disillusioned fans — the extrapolation of hundreds of comments amounted to the conclusion that stage antics weren’t extravagant enough, Rihanna’s Desmond-Miles-meets-girdle outfit was not interesting / sexy enough, and the backdrop wasn’t “flashy” enough.

And finally, the greatest issue of all was the singer’s alleged fee of nearly $1 million (280 million HUF). The day after the show, nearly all major Hungarian portals reported that the pop superstar demanded her fee minutes before the show was to begin. Financial skirmishes notwithstanding, the overall conclusion of all concerned (and many unconcerned) was this: she didn’t deserve a fee of $1 million and Sziget, known for its artistic diversity and a multitude of genre-specific performers, should not pay such a fee for any single performance.

These issues raise a number of questions relating to everything from what performers should do to make their shows “great” and “memorable”, to how much promoters should pay for a single performance relative to an overall event budget. And this is without even scratching the surface of the underlying problem: the hostility toward pop / commercial electro / hip-hop performers squeezing into the schedules of traditionally “rock” and “artsy” events.

Let’s start at the beginning. As a seasoned event veteran, and a person to whom Rihanna’s existence serves only as a motive for inebriated booty-shaking whilst out and about, I can say with certainty that the performance wasn’t as tragic as some made it out to be, even if it was a half-assed mess that could have benefited from more energy. Some of the lip-synching was irritating, but when she sang, she sang well and with poise. Rihanna’s stage props were modest compared with the asking fee for her shows, and nearly a dozen of her greatest hits, namely “S.O.S.”, “Only Girl (In the World)”, and “S&M”, were left out.

Still, one cannot possibly expect to hear all 64 singles, 14 of which hit No. 1 on Billboard (a number more than even Michael Jackson accomplished), and an array of songs from the new album (which the Anti tour serves to promote), within 90 minutes. It would take a full five hours for Rihanna to sing all of them (please, kindly add 5:04 to this running time to make room for “Skin”, my favorite Rihanna song, which wasn’t even a single), thus making it understandable that some songs were omitted from the setlist. Also, as irksome as they are, her medleys are hereby exonerated, given how many fans would prefer to hear at least a minute of three of their favorite hits rather than none of them at all.

Moreover, countless fans to whom I’ve spoken after the show, and twice as many in the realm of Internet commentary, were extremely happy with what they saw. Hundreds of children who had free access to festival grounds flocked with their parents and shared shrieks of bliss throughout the performance. Adolescent fans kept raving incessantly about what they had witnessed for hours after the show. In fact, given my personal indifference toward the performer, up until I saw how the media spawned rotten impressions the day after, I had thought the show was a major success, according to what the people around me were saying.

Such dichotomous (re)views would be enough to spark a debate or at least confusion in anyone, but this wasn’t the first time the media, or many of the spectators, condemned what RiRi had to offer onstage. Rihanna was recently booed at Pukkelpop for exactly the same reasons, i.e., lip-synching and being late. Problems with her performance seem to be endemic to the entire Anti tour, as the singer was criticized, again, for lack of energy and a cheap, bland stage décor, way back in April, while some reporters predicted the tour would be a failure even before it had started due to alleged poor ticket sales and a lack of funding.

Still, regardless of whether the modest backdrop was a fiscal necessity or a conscious choice of the artist/creative director, all the articles about how disappointing Rihanna’s recent performances are have one thing in common: a multitude of opposing comments written by some very satisfied concert-goers, as well as articles that paint an entirely different image of Rihanna’s musical charms and feminist power. The Telegraph described her as a “remarkable pop performer” after she had headlined V festival in Essex, England, and a Greek sculptor revealed his intent to morph RiRi with the Greek deity Aphrodite for an exhibition at Cambridge University. Such is the star power of this woman.

Essentially, we shouldn’t forget that what makes a performance great is completely arbitrary. As of today, with the exception of several theater-related studies on the identification of quality in the performing arts, there is no universal, proven and accepted method of determining if a performance is “good”. Nor can there truly be one. While most people traditionally agree that the first prerequisite for an astounding performance is musical prowess of the performer, in the case of hyper-produced pop music, this idea becomes somewhat skewed largely due to the fact that some visitors expect to see a mass-scale visual production coupled with innovative choreography and an overall circus appeal of the show.

Then again, some other people will tell you that, for them, it is the perceived “honesty” of the performer and their connection with the audience that plays a pivotal role; others will insist that the key is a setlist to their liking. In one way or another, all these people will be right, because they have paid to see someone who means something to them, and they want to be rewarded for their loyalty to the performer’s brand. But we should also work on being realistic with our expectations and understanding that the person on stage, whoever they are, fundamentally does not have any obligation toward us other than to show up and perform their tunes. The extra mile of commitment toward a more emotionally charged and nuanced performance (see Muse, Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, or Nick Cave) is what, in the eyes of many, separates a great performance from a good to a not-so-good one.

But we should not be crucifying a musician simply because they didn’t deliver exactly what we wanted them to deliver. I’m of the opinion that Rihanna’s performance at Sziget wasn’t a great one — perhaps not even a good one — because of some lip-synching and the rudeness of being late (nobody in recent Sziget history has been a half hour tardy), but if we allow ourselves to criticize someone because of their attire and choice of songs after we have paid money to see them live, then the joke’s on us.

The complementary ongoing debate with regard to all this criticism is whether the performers have the “obligation” to give us our money’s worth, especially if the tickets are pricey. In reality, what “our money’s worth” means differs greatly from person to person, but in pop/dance music, which often lacks the emotional sucker-punch that rock packs, this frequently means flashy stage antics and expensive props, large screens with intense visuals and a troupe of contortionists. After all, if the demanding price for the tickets hits $100, surely that means the performer must spent more money on entertaining us?

Not really. More than a dozen rock acts charge more than $1 million for their performances, and several dozen more come very close to that amount (Business Insider), yet you don’t see anyone complaining about Arcade Fire sporting little onstage effervescence other than their suits and a single giant screen. In this respect, debating about whether a pop performer should place more emphasis on the cost of a giant LED screen and costumes simply because we inherently assume their only purpose is to be circus entertainers and therefore don’t take them as seriously as we take rock acts, is futile, because at least on paper, these people also call themselves artists and demand respect. Whether we will extend them the courtesy of appreciating their songs outside the hyper-saturated couture bubble of their videos, is again an entirely different topic. What we can debate, however, is whether a music festival such as Sziget, no matter how big, should pay this much money for a single act. Let’s take a look at the numbers and rationally see if this business model pays off.

Founded in 1993 as a youthfully earnest anti-establishment music and arts event, Sziget quickly grew from local whimsy into an international spectacle, growing exponentially each year, overtly thanks to the diversification of programs, which served to attract as large an audience as conceivable. This growth went from intense to staggering in the past decade. In 2006, the already-famous seven-day Budapest festival was visited by 385,000 people (nearly nine times more than the 43,000, who had visited the first edition in 1993), and had generated $8 million in revenue, a 25 percent increase compared with 2005. The profit, though, was modest — under $200,000. Back then, organizers said a festival with that magnitude requires great investments to stay afloat and the profit wasn’t what kept the genuinely brilliant organizing crew going.

By 2007, the yearly subsidy was barely $450,000, but the tax income for the state generated by some 45,000 foreigners visiting the event was ten times that amount. Even though the budget had grown from the original $120,000 to nearly $12 million, the festival simply had to book more popular acts, rather than just niche acts, to help ticket sales and revenue grow and thus develop its status. The festival length was reduced to five days in 2008 and it saw the profit exceed 100 million HUF (about $500,000) for the first time. This number increased by a full 50 percent in 2009, and plans for a Croatian version of the event were made.

But then 2011 came and the profit was … well, zero. In short, Prince’s performance, for which the artist was paid about — you guessed it — $1 million, failed to attract the audience some believe such an iconic rock act should. With higher fees for producing an event of such grandiose aspirations, even with a budget of more than $12 million, Sziget barely broke even and plans for franchise expansion outside Hungary were all but canceled. Still, the attendance was 385,000.

The year 2012 was particularly rough, with ten percent less weekly tickets sold; given that 75 percent of all revenue is typically generated by ticket sales, 2013 was the worst, with 20,000 fewer attendees than planned (362,000 total). When asked to comment, the organizers blamed poor sales on a “weak” lineup, adding that the European event landscape had grown fivefold since 2001. That Sziget was already a powerhouse and in the top ten of the world’s largest cultural events didn’t matter – something had to change in order for the organizers to make more than a one- or two percent return.

Marketing abroad was strengthened. Daily capacity was increased. More state aid was received — about $2.5 million. The festival was pushed to the third week of August specifically to attract bigger pop stars, whose performances in the US or the Far East would otherwise clash with Sziget’s scheduling. According to reports, chief organizer Károly Gerendai needed 390,000 visitors to break even and to accomplish that, he brought the likes of Outkast, Skrillex, Calvin Harris, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and Deadmau5 as headliners. The festival easily attracted 415,000. Several of the headliners had been paid more than $500,000, but the festival still managed to grow and make a profit, because the audiences were back, and they were back in record numbers.

The formula of booking several house DJs and MTV acts to headline the event proved to be a winning one. Last year, a total of 441,000 people ornamented an expanded festival capacity of 90,000 by watching Avicii, Ellie Goulding, Martin Garrix, Rudimental, and Robbie Williams, who was paid more than $1.5 million and sang to a crowd of 75,000. Williams’ singing has always been an issue, but his swanky production and sheer dedication to entertainment quintuple the “wow” factor. The festival budget of 2015 was upgraded to nearly $16 million, compared with 2014’s budget of $13 million. It was done only to accommodate Williams’ show, but not even this was enough — ultimately, the budget amounted to $17 million, with the extra million thrown in to cover all Williams’ expenses. With all this in mind, there was no reason not to pay Rihanna about $1 million to sing to an even more expanded capacity of 90,000.

This year’s net festival budget was around $20 million, with about half being spent on booking, the other half invested in logistics, and more than 16,000 people working at the festival. With regard to exorbitant spending on Mr. Williams’ concert last year, this year, it was officially said that the cap for a performance lay at about $1 million. Curiously, it had also been said that two performers were paid that amount, so the backlash against Rihanna seems a bit hysterical. Other headliners included rock giants Muse, The Last Shadow Puppets, The Chemical Brothers and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, but chances are (speculatively) that the other seven-figure fee went to David Guetta, Hardwell, or Sia.

A further argument for not caring about Rihanna’s fee? This year marked the first instance of all 55,000 seven-day passes selling out months in advance, but Rihanna was the first headliner to succeed in selling out the full expanded festival capacity for the day, meaning 25,000 people purchased daily tickets which cost anywhere between 50 and 65 EUR just to see her (there was no other major pop/rock headliner that evening). The math is simple: the pop star paid her fee off without breaking a sweat, bringing in a 30 percent profit on what she was paid singlehandedly. We may or may not like the idea of an MTV darling headlining what is “supposed” to be an avant-garde artistic event, but one truly cannot have their cat both alive and dead: if you want to take a great event to the masses and draw them in, you have to really take it to the masses. This, as of now, unequivocally means paying large fees for popular performers who will attract visitors in large numbers. Other than Rihanna, it was DJs David Guetta and Hardwell who drew close-to-capacity crowds, not Muse or Manu Chao.

At least in Sziget’s case, hiring high-profile pop and dance acts in order to keep the event growing and ensure at least a morsel of profit, has become de rigeur. The decision to introduce larger crowds to the artistic glory of the festival by luring them in to see a couple pop acts is proved to be more than a vagary, and a genuine necessity if the event is to break even or turn any profit. This year it paid off with 496,000 people from 102 countries visiting the event, and while the profits still do not exceed some three- to five percent (even this assessment is optimistic), this way, the event has the opportunity to keep growing and, indeed, provide better funding for its more-than-1,500 artistic and socially responsible programs, which, in Sziget’s case, include jazz and opera stages, workshops for people with disabilities, more than 50 TED talks, and handing down leftover tents to refugees. In the grand scheme of things, several high-profile pop bookings per year, irrespective of a performer’s “quality”, really can only embellish any event, and if this is the only proven and consistent way not to fret whether you will break even and whether your event will manage to keep its scale and scope, so be it.

While many criticize festivals of “selling out” and doing anything to make the organizers rich, the reality of such claims can be startlingly different. Sziget isn’t the only event to add the big pop names to an otherwise rock/alternative lineup for reasons other than generating barrels full of money for a select few. Last year, Glastonbury, arguably the most revered music festival in history, made a £37 ($52 million) turnover, but with donations to good causes and costs of running the festival, actual profit was a mere 50p ($0.72) per ticket, amounting to £86,000, pre-tax. Glastonbury founder, Michael Eavis, revealed that he pays himself just £60,000 per annum, and spends any profit the festival makes on charitable donations, with a firm intention not to carry over any profit from one year to another.

All 135,000 standard tickets for the 2016 event sold out in 30 minutes, going for nearly $300 per ticket. Eaves pledged to continue his collaboration with Water Aid, Oxfam and Greenpeace, the main beneficiaries of some £2 million ($3 million in 2015, today around $2.65 million) in donations. To him, the idea to bring in some pop acts wasn’t a necessity, but rather an experiment in audience preference. It, too, started on shaky ground, with an air of resentment over the decision to have Jay-Z as a headlining choice in 2008, especially since it was argued he was the reason the tickets failed to sell out in record time (they did sell out eventually, though). This resentment, however, now seems to have evaporated, and Glastonbury, a traditionally rock festival, has seen Beyoncé, Kanye West, Adele and Coldplay as top acts in the past five years — with record attendance and record charitable donations. In the end, the only reason to be upset with the booking of a pop/rap star for some is the occupancy of a time slot otherwise reserved for their favorite rock performer. But how do all these bookings of pop/dance stars actually relate to the more “rock” lineup?

In practice, the only thing that more experienced and artsy visitors lose is one or two “rock” headliners. Everything else remains pretty much the same, if not better due to growing festivals’ budgets. For example, the past three years of Sziget have been sometimes targeted as “pop sell out” years, but in 2014, 18 main stage acts were rock acts, with only seven names representing “pop” (two of those names are Outkast and Cee-Lo, if you refuse to classify them as “artsy” enough).

In 2015, again, more than half of all main stage acts were rock acts; the seven counted “pop” acts incuded Florence + The Machine, likely one of the greatest young music artists. And this year, the tally was 21-7 in favor of “rock”. All this without a single mention of the sublime A38 tent, the second largest festival stage with a capacity of some18,000, which is entirely dedicated to rock and alternative music, and has hosted acts such as Interpol, Editors, UNKLE, Bloc Party, Bonobo, Woodkid, Crystal Castles and Gaslight Anthem as recent headliners. Rihanna or no Rihanna, there is no need to worry about your dearest event losing its street cred. Just bear in mind that both the halo and the horn effect are vicious side effects of human perception and that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions if we wish to call someone out … on anything.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a pop/dance/rap artist will perform at your favorite artistic event, as long as the money invested in their performance creates a profit and helps establish your otherwise favorite event as a growing powerhouse, offering its horizons to a more diverse audience. No rock fan enjoys having three house DJs headline a festival, but in the gargantuan scope of major festival production, those are just a few names. If their fees won’t set back the overall organization — but will rather serve to attract new and younger audiences to brilliant events — familiarizing them with a lot more than just those Auto-Tuned dance melodies, this is economically and socially sound reasoning and we have little to be upset about. Rihanna’s performance wasn’t much, but seeing hundreds of children and thousands of teenagers come to a major event such as Sziget for the first time and soak up the atmosphere, which will, almost inevitably, spark their interest in a wider array of artistic expressions, is payoff enough. After all, few of us have had our first karaoke performance in front of a mirror singing Tool.