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How Meeting Planners Can Rein in Entertainment Riders

Big-name artists and corporate events can be a match made in heaven—or elsewhere, if you don’t fully understand how to deal with artists' contracts, and especially their riders.

Headline entertainers can take your annual conference or incentive program from "pleasant memory" to "experience of a lifetime." But big-name artists and events need to get on the same page when dealing with contracts and riders. A rider is a document that specifies what an entertainer needs, from both a technical perspective and a hospitality perspective, in order to perform at your event.

“When booking headline entertainment for private events, agencies will still almost always send you contracts and riders that are more aligned to ticketed public shows, outlining the artist’s needs for those touring dates,” says Adam Kahan, senior vice president at Empire Entertainment in New York, who has spent more than two decades booking headliners like Lionel Richie, Flo Rida, Train, Kevin James, Seth Meyers, Kevin Spacey, and dozens more for a range of corporate clients. “The reason is that most artists simply don’t have separate riders for private, one-off events.”

So the booking agent's job—and yours—is to go through those documents and bring any discordant notes back into harmony, so to speak. Here are Kahan's top tips for doing that:

• Many artists are willing to modify their technical needs for private shows, but their level of flexibility will vary and only go so far. For example, if a band's or performer's rider says they need a stage that's 60 feet wide by 24 feet deep, you may reasonably anticipate that they could work with a 40-foot-by-20-foot stage but likely not a 16-foot-by-12-foot stage. In any case, you’ll want to have a conversation with the tour manager to make sure everyone is prepared for the set-up. Live performers dislike surprises as much as meeting planners.

• As for catering and security requirements, most riders will have terms that are geared toward public shows. As a result, you should not be afraid to write in comments on the rider that make it more appropriate for your private event, or at least request a conversation with the tour manager to determine where they can scale back. Artists will often be willing to work with fewer backstage rooms than are typically required in their rider, and also scale back on catering and security needs for a private event.

• When making an offer, it makes sense to specify that you will provide “technical and backstage requirements that are mutually agreed upon.”  

• Note that you shouldn’t be too aggressive at the outset. You want to be sure the artist knows that if they work with you, your team will be doing everything possible to make them comfortable, and to make sure they have a good experience on site. Don’t take the approach that because you are paying them a lot of money, they shouldn’t expect much else on site. Celebrities are accustomed to being treated a certain way, and it will often make for a better experience for everyone (and a better performance) if the artist can see that you and your team have paid attention their backstage needs.

• When going through the legal terms of a rider, you might come across provisions that you are not comfortable with. Pay close attention to consequences of a force-majeure occurrence, as most riders will specify that an artist is to be paid in full, even if the event is canceled due to force-majeure circumstances: on-site fire, inclement weather, or other natural or man-made incident.

There are several options when negotiating force-majeure language. Some artists may agree to a 50-percent cancellation fee. Some may accept a sliding-scale cancellation fee—for example, a 10 percent fee if canceled more than six months out; 25 percent at three months out; 50 percent at two months out. Some may even agree to return the full fee in the event of force majeure. But most will require payment, possibly in full, if they are already on site for the event and “ready, willing, and able to perform.”  

One other term you can try to negotiate: If you have to pay any amount as a cancellation fee due to force majeure, you can ask the artist to agree to apply that amount to another performance to be booked within a year of the canceled date.

One more piece of advice about booking headliners, Kahan says, is that you don’t always need the big name. Entertainment companies can help you discover lesser-known entertainers that deliver a huge impact to clients without huge price tags.

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