How The NFL Is Trying To Change The Future Of Live Music

Hello, everyone. We are thrilled to have you join us. This post is more of an editorial than a column dedicated to advice, with a focus on the NFL and the way they’re trying to change live music through contract negotiations over the 2015 Super Bowl halftime show. It may not seem like the kind of thing that applies to bands working out of basements, but it does, and if nothing changes it could make an impact on festival and large event planning moving forward.

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Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported on a new development surrounding next year’s Super Bowl halftime show that sent a bit of a chill down my spine. I didn’t plan to write about it at first, but the more I thought about it the more it drove me insane.

The NFL has not paid the acts who performed during the annual halftime show for many years, but this year they’ve also begun asking the talent under consideration for the high-profile gig to pay to play, according to people familiar with the matter. The acts currently being considered are Coldplay, Katy Perry, and Rihanna, but none of that really matters right now because the offer being presented is a far more intriguing story. In my opinion, it is not only a bad idea for the Super Bowl, but if carried out it could set a very dangerous precedent in live music industry.

Since 2012, the annual ad revenue the NFL receives from the Super Bowl has been north of $240 million. In 2015, it’s likely that number will swell to $300 million or more, and it’s not hard to understand why. Every year, without fail, the biggest game in the NFL is also the most watched sporting event every single year, drawing over 111 million viewers in 2014 alone. Viewership like that equates to historically high ad rates, which in turn leads to growing income.

This year, 30-second advertising spots sold for $4 million. When Bruno Mars and Red Hot Chili Peppers hit the stage for the halftime show, they commanded the screen for about twelve minutes, which equated to almost $100 million in exposure (based on the advertising rates). In the mind of the NFL, that is lost potential revenue, and now it seems they want to make a change.

To quote WSJ direct: “While notifying the artists’ camps of their candidacy, league representatives also asked at least some of the acts if they would be willing to contribute a portion of their post-Super Bowl tour income to the league, or if they would make some other type of financial contribution, in exchange for the halftime gig.” There is no mention of how much that percentage will be, nor is there any mention of using the money received for anything other than widening the NFL’s income stream.

This is a clear cut example of corporate greed, and it’s not all that different from the way many labels take advantage of artists. The idea that ’the company does more for the talent than the talent does for the company’ is the same kind of backwards thinking that has ruined countless careers and relationships over the last 60 years. Katy Perry, Coldplay, and Rihanna are not artists in the mind of the NFL as much as they are untapped revenue streams. They’re not people, just commodities, existing to fill a demand the league apparently feels is taking away from their right to advertise. It’s not enough the performance happens under a title like ‘the PEPSI super bowl halftime show,’ even though Pepsi Co probably paid far more for that placement than any other advertiser buying a spot that particular year.

The most absurd part of this entire offer is the request that artists consider sharing a portion of future tour income. It’s no secret that appearing on the Super Bowl leads to an almost immediate jump in sales on tour revenue, but that does not mean artists are indebted to the NFL as a result of that boost. If someone got on stage at halftime and fell flat on their face, resulting in lost future profits, would the NFL be responsible for recouping the lost sales? No. And they would counter sue if anyone who tried to claim something different. That’s how bullies work. They lay claim to what is not theirs and go out of their way to ensure everyone around them feels as small and insignificant as possible.

One could argue that these new requirements help ensure the world never experiences another Janet Jackson fiasco, but that event happened ten years ago. Could the NFL still be so frightened by pop music that they feel such requirements must be implemented to ensure the cleanest, most family-friendly event possible? If so, why are Rihanna and Katy Perry contenders for next year? Coldplay are the only artists on the current short list who offer the kind of generic pop sound the league seems to desire, but they’re also the furthest thing from a ‘football band’ at radio today. Their music is good, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that one would listen to when headed into battle (or celebrating a major victory).

What concerns me even more than the offer being presented by the NFL, however, is what will happen to the live music industry in the event no one fights back. It’s not hard to imagine major festivals and events taking cues from the NFL’s negotiation tactics and seeking new ways to raise revenue. Festivals may not have the millions of viewers the Super Bowl presents, but it can put artists in front of well over a hundred thousand people who may otherwise never see them. That reasoning is already being used to not pay many mid-level artists, so why not extend it to the headliners? Some may fight, but if they want to play in front of those crowds they will have to bend to the will of the people booking the event.

It’s almost terrifying to think, but it’s entirely possible that the fate of live music negotiations moving forward could be in the hands of Coldplay, Katy Perry, and Rihanna, but in a way it’s also true. If they do nothing and allow the NFL to steamroll their future revenue in exchange for twelve minutes of screen time they are not only selling themselves short, but making it okay for other corporations, sponsors, and booking agents to take advantage of talent. It’s up to them to take a stance, and something tells me they will. I hope so, at least.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.