Touring for Pleasure?
Text by Vladimir Kozlov
The announcement that the Irish rock band U2 is to play its first ever Russian show at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on August 25, 2010, can be viewed as a testimony to the fact that the Russian capital has finally become a regular destination for top-level touring artists, just like any other major city of the world.
But getting the Irish rockers to come and play in Russia was a difficult and long process despite the kind of money that they can earn here. Information about artists’ fees for a large concert is almost never made public, but, according to rumors, figures between $500,000 and $1.5 million are most typical. In the case of U2, the figure might be even higher. According to Dmitry Zaretsky, senior talent buyer at SAV Entertainment, the promoter of the upcoming show, negotiations about U2’s first Russian concert took quite a while to complete. Although the band never openly refused to play in Russia, as the band did with regards to some other countries, there were rumors that one of the reasons why the band was unwilling to perform here – at least, at some point – was its members’ disagreement with the federal government’s policy on Chechnya.
The band’s publicist didn’t respond to a request to comment on the issue, and Zaretsky didn’t comment on the rumors about political motivations behind U2’s reluctance to play in Russia, either.
Meanwhile, he mentioned logistical obstacles as one explanation why it is taking the band so long to come to Russia. “For any major touring artist, coming to Moscow is expensive and logistically complicated, because the city is located quite far away from the majority of traditional European touring stops, and it takes several days to bring all the equipment here and then take it to where the next date on the tour schedule is,” he said.
SAV Entertainment wouldn’t disclose the artist’s fee for the Moscow show, but Zaretsky said that about 80,000 people are expected to show up at Luzhniki for U2’s concert, which would be “the biggest show ever in Russia”.
He also mentioned the impact on the entire promoting industry. “This is going to be a landmark event for the Russian touring industry,” he said. “Most other top acts have already played in Russia, and some of them even more than once, while U2 has never performed here so far.”
But establishing itself as a regular destination on the road map of touring Western pop and rock acts turned out to be a challenge for Russia, and it didn’t happen automatically with the collapse of the Communist rule.
Until the mid-1980s, the Iron Curtain prevented most Western pop and rock stars from touring the Soviet Union. Among notable exceptions were Boney M, a West Germanybased disco band with an internationa lineup, and British singer Elton John.
Rumor has it that then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev personally invited Boney M to visit the country in late 1978, and they became the first recording artists ever to be allowed to film their video on Red Square.
In 1979, Elton John played eight shows in Moscow and Leningrad. According to rumors, the singer was very closely watched by Communist “curators” who even recommended that he should not jump on his piano stool while performing.
In the mid-1980s, as the country began to open up thanks to perestroika reforms, several major rock bands, including Pink Floyd and Status Quo, came to perform in what still appeared to them to be exotic territory.
One of the groups that was able to capitalize on their visits to Russia was the German hard rock band Scorpions. By the mid-1980s, the band’s popularity in the West had been declining, but the song Wind of Change, which exploited the then-fashionable perestroika theme, became an international hit, for a short time bringing Scorpions back into the limelight.
The 1980s’ sporadic visits by Western pop and rock stars to the Soviet Union culminated in two big events, the Peace Music Festival at Luzhniki Stadium in August 1989, featuring, among others, Ozzy Osbourne, Cinderella and Motley Crew, and a show at Tushino Aerodrome in September 1991, the headliner of which was Metallica.
Despite all that, it took another decade or so for Russia to become a regular date on major Western stars’ touring schedules. With the Iron Curtain no longer there, foreign music came to Russia much faster than before, and fans of Western pop stars no longer had problems getting records – yet, in most cases, pirated – by their favorite artists. But when it came to seeing them live in concert, the situation turned out to be more complicated.
And, ironically, piracy was one of the issues why some top international acts were unwilling to play in Russia. For instance, Madonna rejected offers to perform in Russia until the late 2000s, citing failure to observe copyright law in the country as the main reason. Only in 2006, did she for the first time play a concert in Russia.
Another reason why agents and managers of some major rock and pop stars preferred to steer clear of Russia for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, was a shortage of reliable and experienced promoters. Cases when promoters failed to implement their obligations weren’t uncommon, although this didn’t involve top-level acts. Now, however, the problem has been resolved as there are several major promoters in the market, each having a rather long track record in the business.
And the economic boom of the second half of the 2000s created a new phenomenon: highprofile Western artists were invited to play here at private and corporate parties, with prosperous companies and wealthy individuals ready to offer huge fees. Among artists that have come to Russia to perform for selected audiences at corporate and private events reportedly are Jennifer Lopez, Robbie Williams, Ricky Martin, Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake, 50cent, Beyonce and Christina Aguilera.
Most such gigs were organized with a lot of secrecy, and often no details were made public. Among the few exceptions was Lopez’s performance at the 50th anniversary of Telman Ismailov, the owner of the AST group, three years ago, for a reported fee of $1.5 million. Promoters of regular shows complained that private gigs were “spoiling” artists with huge fees that couldn’t be matched by what they offered for a normal show.
Incidentally, much less popular artists with a much smaller price tag, like, for instance, various reincarnations of Boney M, also capitalized on the booming corporate gig industry, spending nearly a month in Russia each year during the winter holiday season and playing small corporate gigs one after the other for, reportedly, about $20,000 each.
But the economic downturn nearly killed the private gig business, prompting artists’ agents and managers to accept offers to perform at traditional venues for tens of thousands of devoted fans rather than for a handful of selected guests at a private party.
Now that U2 have scheduled a show in Moscow, the list of high-profile Western top and rock acts that have not yet played here has become very short. Nearly all major international stars, from The Rolling Stones to Limp Bizkit have performed in Russia at least once.
Meanwhile, British rockers Radiohead remain among the few that haven’t. “Many Moscow-based promoters, including us, have been negotiating with Radiohead for roughly ten years,” said SAV Entertainment’s Zaretsky. “But it looks like the situation will only change when the band itself expresses the desire to come to Russia.”