It’s the second career (or “career,” in a loose, charitable manner of speaking) that top agent Richard Weitz never would have imagined he’d have, as recently as a month ago.
“I’m like a booker,” laughs Weitz, a partner at William Morris Endeavor (WME) and co-head of its scripted television department, still surprised at his dominant new role during the quarantine. “I’m literally booking music mini-festivals. Like, there’s no Coachella for anybody. I thought, how can I do a family-friendly event…”
The rolling festival that Weitz is producing is clearly not going to step into the Goldenvoice gap: It’s being produced from his kitchen countertop, is strictly invitation-only, and has a daily attendance cap of 500, with an audience that may be more CEO-heavy than any gathering this side of the annual Sun Valley media conference. But for anyone who gets slipped a password that goes out just prior to each new installment, and who is willing to pony up with a few bucks (or few grand) for one of his designated COVID-19 charities — and whose music tastes maybe skew slightly older than the Indio median — Weitz’s weekly or semi-weekly web shows are turning into the music events of the shut-down season.
Among the performers who’ve popped in for the first half-dozen installments of “RWQuarantunes,” which have tended to last for about three hours a pop: Alan Menken, Liam Payne and Charlie Puth (all pictured above), plus, in no particular order of importance, Randy Newman, Josh Groban, Hozier, James Bay, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, Marcus Mumford, Lauren Daigle, “Frozen” songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Billy Ray Cyrus, Weird Al Yankovic, Mark Hoppus of Blink 182, Rick Astley, the War and Treaty, Curt Smith of Tears for Fears, Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet, “Greatest Showman” singer Loren Allred, Natasha Bedingfield, Florida Georgia Line, Michael Bolton and Chris Isaak… among others.
Invited guests who might pop in between songs to exchange a few words — or who may just hide out quietly in one of Zoom’s many tiny windows — have included Bob Iger, Clive Davis, Amy Adams, Dana Walden, Tina Fey, Ken Ehrlich, David Foster, Rodney Jerkins, LL Cool J, Jeff Shell, Jimmy Jam, Jeff Ross, Run DMC’s Rev Run, and Jeffrey Katzenberg… along with plenty of less bold-face names, including some medical workers from the charities that are benefitting. Last Saturday’s installment kicked off with a few live words from Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, which segued directly into the first number of the long afternoon, Newman at his piano singing “I Love L.A.”
“This is not a WME sponsored event,” Weitz emphasizes. “This is just great people and talented artists who want to share. I don’t represent these people. I’m just a fan. All the people that I’m picking are an eclectic group of musicians that I have loved and that are part of the soundtrack of my life and everybody else’s, and I’m trying to create intimate gatherings.”
He believes his history of not saying “no” to people is coming back to him as good karma with his asks for these semi-weekly shows. “Nobody has said no to me yet,” Weitz says, though he quickly qualifies that by pointing out that he hasn’t asked Bruce Springsteen or Bruno Mars yet.
It’s a family affair, as Weitz has a co-host and particularly a co-fundraiser. “My daughter, Demi, has really been the star. That’s really the thing that’s come out of this — when you see her, and you see how articulate she is, she’s really the one who is forcing themselves to donate. My favorite line was when Marcus Mumford said, ‘Demi for president.’ And the other unsung hero is my assistant Coco Weaver, who I call the executive producer. The amount of email and time changes back and forth that she is doing as I’m on the fly doing this with help from my WME music friends… She has really been terrific in making sure now we have a waiting room, because we’re maxing out at 500.”
So far they’ve raised more than $350,000 for two causes; having started out with the Saban Community Clinic, they moved onto Cedars-Sanai Hospital (with options on the donation page to earmark money for either nurses or other employees), and are looking next at finding the right place to funnel donations that would benefit New York City’s highly beleaguered health care workers. They’re not just targeting big spenders for the donations to get into the gig: Weitz says most have been in the $25-1000 range, although there have been two separate $50,000 donations, one anonymously given and one from Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe Herde.
Since it’s gotten to the point where not even everyone in Weitz’s vast circle is guaranteed to get in among the 500, he’s looking to sell a certain amount of $5,000 guaranteed entries for each Zoom show. But he also wants to make sure it doesn’t get so exclusive that the audience doesn’t include those on the sub-EVP level of the totem pole.
“I have all walks of life” tuning in, Weitz says. “I have people that are hairdressers or work in the nail salon or are tutors or teachers or VC — it varies. But people want to give and they want to say they participated, and that’s really all that we’re asking for. I’m not trying to be elitist. Last Saturday, we had nurses from Cedars and the Saban Clinic, and we’re expanding that this week to nurses and doctors in New York and London and Nashville. What I’m going to do is, because WME bought the On Location Experiences, they’ve developed a secure platform where I’m able to send a link privately to the hospitals we’re raising money for so the doctors and nurses are going to be able to stream what we did during their breaks, and allow them to see the whole show. “
But allowing the general public access would ruin the vibe, he believes. “I’ve had offers from a couple of streaming platforms to put the show on so it’s a bigger audience. I don’t want to do that,” Weitz says. “What makes it special is the privacy and intimacy of the group of people, most of whom I know, or at least family or friends I know, so it’s not going to random fans or stalkers or anybody that will put this on the Internet. And there’s no social posting of the full performances, although we did with a couple of them early on. It’s respecting that (privacy), and it’s just a good time.”
Weitz wants to go light on the charitable hard sell. “I’m so sensitive that everybody is furloughed or is taking a cut in pay. I mean, this is not a time to be fundraising to the max. I’m not trying to sell tables. I want people to enjoy a time of isolation when there’s only so much Netflix and HBO or whatever we can watch — only so much we can watch on our apps, on our phones. This now gives people now something to look forward to. And everybody says, how can I be invited again? I want it to be a gift. … .(Artists) have been saying, what a great way for us to play our music, because we don’t really have a place to do it. We’re doing it for community, right? The charity is just the cherry on top.”
Weitz didn’t start the “Quarantunes” shows with the expectation of going all-star or fundraising at all. The origin story is that, in late March, for Demi’s 17th birthday, the agent got one of his favorite pianists, Chicago-based Dario Giraldo, to play a set for her, with her friends invited to watch along on Zoom. As everyone now admits with a chuckle, he completely misjudged the teen room, and Demi’s friends started zoning out instead of Zooming in as the solo piano performance progressed. But he did make it up to her by organizing some other casual web music get-togethers, one of which included John Mayer, something that hit a little closer to the Demi target demo.
From there, in quick bounds over a period of about three weeks, it’s grown into something that still feels highly informal but is getting discussed on, say, the Howard Stern show. For all the big names involved, both on the artist level and among attendees, the show feels more like an old-fashioned guitar pull than VIP event, with casual chatter among participants, as, say, Payne passes the baton to Puth and they discuss their encounters over the years.
“I’ve started to have rehearsals, like, 15 minutes before,” says Weitz, laughing as he still adjusts to his new booker/producer role. “So it’s almost like a backstage green room where Rick Astley is talking to Florida Georgia Line, who are then talking to Tony Hadley and then talking to Randy Newman and Loren Allred, and they’re just popping up on the screen and I’m like, holy s—. And it’s only like six or eight people, along with their managers or someone who’s playing, and they’re all getting a chance to meet virtually before we let 500 people in and do our thing.”
Pop favorites like Payne and Puth aside, the series has been a show tune lover’s dream, with Menken joined by his daughter to do a medley of greatest hits from “Colors of the Wind” on back to his seminal “Suddenly Seymour,” Adam Pascal doing favorites from “Rent,” Alfie Boe (a top European “Les Mis” Jean Valjean) doing “Bring Him Home,” the Lopez-Anderson-Lopezes bringing back the hits of “Frozen,” and Auli’i and Allred, the off-screen diva voices behind “Moana” and “Greatest Showman,” respectively, doing songs from those musical films.
Although music is not his day job, Weitz is also enjoying that some lesser-known artists, like Jac Ross and the War and Treaty, are getting exposed and even landing gigs. “I didn’t know the War and Treaty a month ago,” he admits, and now he’s such a convert to the male-female duo they’re one of two artists he’s including on every show (the other being Rick Astley — this is a web series that will be Rick-rolled, constantly).
“I was looking to get somebody for my Chrysalis event that I co-chair, and, and I’d asked them, and they were already on tour; they were about to tour with John Legend over the summer. And unfortunately for them all this happened. And so when I decided to do the Zoom, they were the first people out of the box that I wanted and they just crushed it. Last Friday for my birthday, I made them sing ‘Shallow.’ And for Bill Withers I had them sing ‘Just the Two of Us’ and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ and they learned it and crushed it.
“And Emmy Raver-Lampman did a Lizzo song and crushed it and got two jobs out of it. . That’s not the motive, but it’s nice to see that it’s gotten traction with brands and people or colleagues who may not have known who some of these people are and are seeing how talented they are. So that’s a plus.”
He also thinks a star is being born on the home front. Offscreen, his more camera-shy wife, Candie, and son, Aidan, are involved, too. But “for me and my daughter,” Weitz says, “it’s been the most amazing bonding experience that I’ve ever had with her. I called Demi the head of philanthropy. She is the face of really asking people to donate and to passionately talk about where the money is going. She just turned 17 and she’s giving back and learning what it means to be a great human being.”
Says Demi, “I love my dad and we’ve always had such a close-knit and strong connection, but it’s on a totally different level now since the quarantine. It’s been crazy how rapid this all was, and I’ve learned so many skills, and I want to keep doing this for the rest of my life. Any person that contacts my dad about wanting to make a donation, my dad will put us in a group text. I think it’s so important to give back, especially in times like this. It’s not just about doing it through my family now — I want to raise money. It’s been life-changing for me and I know it’s really impacting people in need. And it just happened because we wanted to make people smile and just make them feel like they have someone or somewhere to come to.”
Is she glad her friends were bored with the piano player he hired for her birthday, so her dad had to come up with a slightly more razzle-dazzle experience for them? “I’m happy my friends weren’t into it,” Demi laughs, “because now it’s this, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I’m so happy that we found a positive and a little light and made something out of nothing.”