At Super Bowl 2015 Halftime Show, Will The Piper Pay To Play – Or Call The Tune?

Bruno Mars wasn’t paid a dime when he performed to 115 million viewers at last February’s Super Bowl halftime show … but his career took off like a rocket. And the $10 million tab for the 12-minute show, according to someone with knowledge of the matter, was picked up by someone else.

103145749Mars’ brief show may have marked the end of an era – The Era of The NFL Footing the Bill. The league believes the time is right for music acts (or their labels) to cover expenses associated with the performance, which have risen dramatically over the past few years, according to a source familiar with the situation. After all, it took the NFL a full 90 seconds to cover the cost of last year’s production – two and a half Super Bowl ads, at $4 million per 30-second spot.

One way to move the ball on this issue would be to share some of a performer’s post-Super Bowl bounty, which historically enjoys a huge post-broadcast boost. How about giving us a slice of post-halftime show music download revenue? Maybe a commitment to take your tour to NFL football stadiums instead of those baseball parks and other venues you’ve taken a shine to? What if the football league got to produce a behind-the-scenes Making of Your Halftime Show documentary, which it could then release commercially?

When a couple of these suggestions were written up recently in the Wall Street Journal under the headline “NFL to Coldplay: Pay JanetJacksonto Play the Super Bowl,” the reaction in the entertainment industry was stupendous. The halftime show hasn’t generated this kind of outrage since Janet Jackson debuted her right breast in 2004, horrifying Washington. Back then, the NFL reacted with a succession of Viagra Generation rocker guy acts (Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones) — a great strategy, though nearly derailed by that rascal Prince when he projected himself and his guitar into a large white sheet at the ’07 halftime show, creating a phallic symbol silhouette. (The NFL responded the only way it knew how, which was by doubling down on its ban of female halftime solo performers, bringing on Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and The Who).

WSJ described industry reaction to the NFL’s show tab-sharing strategy as “chilly.” This is like calling Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a troublemaker. Here’s a sampling of reactions we got around town:

[Reported halftime show candidates] Katy Perry, or Coldplay, or Rihanna would all be great, and the NFL should pick up the tab and shut the fuck up.

– I’m not seeing superstar acts doing this — superstar acts want to remain desirable and elusive and be seen as artists.

They’re making more money than god, and they want to charge performers for being on that stage? These guys want to squeeze every fucking penny out of everyone. They only believe in the win – they don’t believe in the win/win.

– Frankly, artists don’t pay for anything. Ever. Whether it’s a dinner check, or clothes, or travel, or a performance. They don’t pay…It’s a giant culture clash.

The sturm-und-drang over its talks with musicians is not something to which the NFL is accustomed. “For them to meet any resistance is like a shark getting punched in the face. Someone punched the shark in the face,” one industry exec explained impishly.

And yet, Sportscorp Ltd’s Marc Ganis forecast this in 2012, when he remarked to Forbes that the halftime music performers “get so much out of it…frankly I wouldn’t shock me if some day the entertainers end up paying the NFL.”

138089305What Mars got out of it was the biggest TV audience in history – besting Beyonce’s 2013 halftime audience and Madonna’s 2012 crowd – and even more viewers than had watched the game around Mars’ performance (an average of 112 million viewers, according to Nielsen.)

And in the wake of the show, Mars pulled down $60 million in 2014 – nearly eight times what he earned in 2011, according to Forbes. Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox album sales jumped 180% in Super Bowl week, and popped an additional 92% the following, according to Billboard. He had the No. 1 and No. 3 albums on iTunes the day after his Super Bowl performance, according to Mashable.

All of which helps explain why it appears NFL prefers not to cast its new game plan as a “pay-to-play” gambit. The league sees this year’s halftime show negotiations as brand talking to brand, business talking to business, with both parties looking to grow a platform that’s been plenty beneficial to both sides, according to industry sources with whom we spoke. Along those lines, the show’s estimated $10 million tab becomes one of the best bargains in all of TV. Other brands marketing themselves at last February’s Super Bowl XLVIII paid $4 million per 30-second spot – at which rate, the halftime show would cost a cool $48 million.

Related: Super Bowl XLVIII: The Good, The Bad, The Ads

“They’re treating artists the same way they treat Pepsi. Pepsi is a brand – Beyonce is an artist,” scoffed one of many industry execs who spoke on condition of anonymity. Snack foods and luxury cars do not provide the league with months’ worth of AAA marketing opportunities before the Super Bowl kicks off  — Madonna does. When the NFL announced Madge for its 2012 halftime show, back in fall 2011 – she being the first female solo performer since Janet — sportswriters spent weeks mulling whether she could, as one finally asked her at a Super Bowl walk-up news conference, “guarantee against a wardrobe malfunction, given your history,” as though suspecting Madge had something up her bustier.

The NFL is sticking with the statement it gave the WSJ that “contract arrangements with artists are confidential” and “our only goal with the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show is to put on the best show for the millions of fans who watch.”

That may be more challenging this time. Music acts wanting to play the Super Bowl might hesitate this year, rather than get tangled in the press’s pay-to-play storyline, even if the NFL winds up tabling those plans. If the league does not, it’s expected to narrow the field of performers. “I’m sure they’re going after Rihanna [but] she’s not going to give in so quickly — she’s got no trouble selling tickets,” a hopeful music-industry exec speculated.

Ultimately, industry expectation is that someone will make a deal that helps defray the NFL’s production costs and the precedent will be set. “They have the biggest platform in the world right now… and can squeeze every penny out of everybody they deal with,” sighed a TV exec, joining the music-biz chorus. “From a Harvard Business School 101 point of view it makes perfect sense, but the audacity of it is mind-boggling.”

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