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No business like big business - as album sales fall, rock acts are playing corporate gigs and for billionaires

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The Strypes at the Hoppr Web Summit party at the No Name Bar on Fade Street, Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron

The Strypes at the Hoppr Web Summit party at the No Name Bar on Fade Street, Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron

Danny O'Reilly from The Coronas

Danny O'Reilly from The Coronas

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The Strypes at the Hoppr Web Summit party at the No Name Bar on Fade Street, Dublin. Photo: Arthur Carron

When mirror-shaded rockers The Strypes took to the stage in Dublin last week, they were greeted by a familiar volley of squeals and screams. There was one distinct difference, however. The band were performing not in a heaving arena or sweaty club, but in the cosy No Name Bar off George's Street to an invite-only audience of people from the tech industry.

Similar scenes unfolded at the nearby Market Bar where, likewise marking the 2014 Web Summit event, The Coronas delivered a blistering set at a corporate party organised by Twitter (according to one rumour the bash cost €150,000). Two distinct elements of the modern entertainment industry, rock 'n' roll and technology, were joined in glorious, head-banging harmony.

Bands used to rely on album sales and concert tours for a healthy income. But in the music business there is now no business like playing for people in business.

Just a few years ago, these type of arrangements - The Strypes gig was at the behest of discounts start-up Hoppr - would have been utterly hush-hush. For most of its history, rock 'n' roll has defined itself against the establishment. Billionaires such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg were the bad guys - the 'man' against which self-proclaimed rebels as diverse as The Velvet Underground and Nirvana railed.

To accept a big fat cheque in exchange for performing for just such a clique would have struck many rockers as sacrilegious. That isn't to say they wouldn't have swallowed their dignity and trousered the money - art and commerce have always had a complicated relationship. However, they would certainly have kept quiet about the fact.

Today all is changed utterly. For an ambitious group such as The Coronas, a Twitter-approved gig isn't a source of embarrassment - it's a reminder just how far they have come since their days as bottom-of-the-bill make-weights in Whelan's.

"If you are asked to play your original music at an event... well, why not?" says Mark Murray, manager of popular Irish group Keywest.

"You would like to think the organisers have asked because they are fans. We have performed for the likes of Google at their European head office in Dublin. It was an absolute  pleasure. The staff were incredible - those that didn't know Keywest before the show certainly did afterwards. At our gigs we get people coming up, saying: 'I saw you at our work event and had to come see you again.'

"Record sales are not what they used to be. Artists need to survive," says Mark Downing of AMA, the music management group that looks after The Coronas, Paddy Casey and others. "It is most definitely part of what is required from an artist to get by in today's market.

"Within the industry these are called closed invite gigs - you'd see the Rolling Stones do it in the Middle East for various different people. You have U2 doing stuff with Apple. A lot of Irish companies are looking for a 'wow' factor - they would call on national-level artists to perform at special events, whether that be a summer party or at Christmas."

For artists with a global profile, corporate gigs are a mouth-watering side avenue. As has been exhaustively publicised, Usher and Beyonce were among those to perform at private shindigs thrown by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (donating the payment to charity as their participation was made public).

Their rumoured appearance fees were in the region of $1m, which pales compared to the $7m Texas magnate David Bonderman splurged for The Rolling Stones and John Mellencamp to sing at his birthday party in 2010. More lavish yet was the $10m technology entrepreneur David Brooks splashed on his daughter's bar mitzvah at which The Eagles and Aerosmith headlined (Brooks' nephew was allowed guest on drums with Aerosmith - for an additional $2m).

Similarly, Amy Winehouse received $1m to perform for a Moscow oligarch.

Closer to home, such largess was echoed during the silliest days of the Celtic Tiger. There's the famous tale of a Dublin developer arranging for Girls Aloud to sing at his daughter's 21st. Solicitor Gerald Kean, for his part, once threw a party at which Lloyd Cole, ABC and Belinda Carlisle performed (we're guessing it was an 80s-themed event and the Human League were busy that weekend).

"I think certain types of acts can do corporate shows without adjusting their artistic compass too much," says Dermot Lambert of 90s Dublin band Blink. "They might have an array of tunes that appeal to many different types of people. They've written some cracking originals that everybody knows and therefore they can play to an audience of relative strangers with confidence they will be entertaining - or might even gain new fans through such a process.

"Blink have in the past played in Irish bars in the US for sums of money which enabled us to tour that country. But while that could be seen as corporate, it did also feel like we were connecting with a new audience and gaining fans - and indeed once these audiences realised just because we're Irish doesn't mean we're going to play 'N17' or 'Mary', well then we were all friends for life."

The flirtation between rock and the corporate world seemed to reach its zenith in September when U2 popped up at an Apple press conference, bashed out their new single, then announced their latest album was being uploaded to the iTunes accounts of 300 million people (whether they wanted it or not).

At one level U2 were cannily leveraging Apple's international profile to promote their record - however, there was a cash inducement, with the band paid tens of millions for the LP (they dispute the sum was as high as $100m).

"When I started out 20 years ago, nobody wanted to look at doing a corporate gig," says AMA's Mark Downing. "That's changed. Because these are blue chip companies, as far as the artist is concerned there isn't a high risk element. Everything is above board. It's almost a 'bonded' event in that you know you are going to get paid."

This isn't to say that musicians will chase the nearest pay cheque fluttering in the breeze. In a world of constant social media scrutiny, artists are more image conscious than ever. If a corporate paymaster does not fit the artist's 'brand' they will likely decline the invitation. Everyone wants to perform for Facebook and Twitter. Less zeitgeisty sectors of the economy may not find it quite as easy to attract the hottest talent. That's why you won't see The Coronas performing at the National Ploughing Championship.

"In my experience, a lot of artists won't do something if it isn't the right fit or if they aren't into what the company is doing," says Downing. "They will always ask who the company is and the reason for the event. If they don't seen it as suitable then, from what I have witnessed, they absolutely will not do it."

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