5 Things to Know About the Planning Behind Inauguration Performances

Even virtually, expect President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration week to far more resemble President Barack Obama’s star-studded festivities than President Donald Trump’s 2017 event with Jackie Evancho and the Rockettes.

Things kick off with the “We the People” virtual concert Sunday (Jan. 17), which includes James Taylor, will.i.am and Fall Out Boy; Lady Gaga sings the National Anthem at Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony; and Friday’s “Celebrating America” special includes Justin Timberlake, Bruce Springsteen and John Legend. (Lineups and formats are still in flux, given President Trump’s supporters’ pledge to cause even more mayhem on Inauguration Day than they did during the Jan. 6 riot on the U.S. Capitol.)

“Every inauguration reflects the president-elect and the moment — the moment in 2021 is very different than the moment in 2009,” says Erik Smith, creative director for Obama’s 2009 and 2013 inaugurations and now a founding partner at corporate-communications firm Seven Letter. “Inauguration planners are probably changing a lot of things they had planned to do over the last week.”

Biden’s team wouldn’t comment, but here are five things you may not have known about the logistics of performances at presidential inaugurations — including this unusual week.

Most Performances This Year Will Be Livestreams

Biden’s team hasn’t announced details for each event, but nobody expects anything to be in person — the pandemic makes concert crowds a health risk, and Biden’s team is astutely aware of Trump supporters’ inauguration threats. “If you have any common sense at all, you’re doing this online,” says Sam Feldman, manager of James Taylor, a headliner for Sunday night’s “We the People” virtual concert.

Though this year’s gigs will be virtual, “Everyone’s jumping at the chance to be part of a moment of change,” says one prominent artist rep. “Similar feeling during Obama days, I think.” 

Musicians Do Not Get Paid

For President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, artists clamored for spots in the lineup — and were happy to work for free. “What we were telling artists was, ‘You’re invited to perform. You’re not getting paid. Your band’s not getting paid. You get one hotel room and two tickets,'” Smith recalls. “We were limited in our resources.”

Artists generally accept the conditions, although Biden’s inaugural committee is raising millions in donations. “Will’s lawyer will say, ‘Is the caterer doing it for free? What about the valet?’ Nobody is. And they always expect artists to,” says Seth Friedman, manager of Black Eyed Peas, whose frontman will.i.am will share his Biden campaign video, “The Love,” as part of Sunday night’s “We the People” virtual concert. “But Will has never been paid for any of his political work.”

It Helps to Know People

Pete Wentz, Fall Out Boy’s bassist, shared an Instagram photo last November showing Biden holding him as a baby in the 1970s (his mother, Dale Lewis Wentz, worked on Biden’s Senate staff at the time). “When they were starting to put stuff together, they reached out to us,” says Bob McLynn, the band’s manager. “There was a connection there.”

Adds Feldman, whose client Taylor has been a prominent Democratic fundraiser and performer for decades: “It’s really built on relationships — somebody who’s active in any particular political party and their relationships with certain artists.”

In contrast, Trump had few music contacts. Aside from right-wingers such as Ted Nugent and Kid Rock, artists stayed away from his 2016 campaign almost completely. When he came around to planning his inauguration, even conservative artists including Hank Williams Jr. kept clear.

“He didn’t have as many relationships,” Smith says, “and it may not have been that important to him.” Feldman adds: “How could you possibly have any less? Springsteen said it all: It’s been a White House without the joy of music — or irony.”

Supporters May Get Rewarded

Will.i.am, who created the “Yes We Can” video in 2008, earned a prime slot at President Obama’s first inauguration. Katy Perry, who campaigned aggressively for Hillary Clinton, undoubtedly would have been a headliner if Clinton had beaten Trump in 2016. “It’s not just like, ‘Hey, we’re having a party.’ It’s ‘Who’s been involved?'” McLynn says.

Cultural Relevance Is Important

U2 wasn’t active in Obama’s 2008 campaign, but they kicked off his inauguration festivities the following January, along with Bruce Springsteen. “It’s people who can deliver a moment of great symbolism and importance,” Smith says.