Big Picture: Tim Wakefield's Sound-Wave Art Pieces Raise $2.4 Million for Charity

Wakefield (right) with Carlile.
Courtesy of Soundwaves Art Foundation

Wakefield (right) with Carlile.

Chris Martin was biking to a ­London recording studio in 2007 when he saw local visual artist Tim Wakefield in the parking lot, holding an armful of digital renderings of the sound waves to the Coldplay hit "Yellow." Wakefield left the prints with the singer, hoping the band would sign them to be auctioned for charity. Three months later he received a text from Coldplay's manager: "The guys love it."

Coldplay's four members signed 50 prints, which were sold at various auctions to benefit the long-running U.K. music-therapy charity Nordoff Robbins. Shortly after, Nordoff Robbins helped Wakefield get in touch with Roger Waters, and all four Pink Floyd members signed 50 prints of the sound wave to "Wish You Were Here" backstage in London.

Since those early successes, Wakefield has collaborated with more than 200 acts -- from Queen to Paul McCartney, Kacey Musgraves and Panic! at the Disco -- on limited-edition prints, raising over $2.4 million for charities of the artists' choice, from the ACLU to the youth-focused music education nonprofit Notes for Notes, through Wakefield's Soundwaves Art Foundation, which relocated to Austin in 2014.

Wakefield digitally manipulates, shapes and colors the sound waves from each recording, a process that can take up to two weeks. He came up with the idea after visiting British songwriter Paul Weller's studio, seeking inspiration for music-themed art that could have a charitable element. "I was trying to give people in charity auctions something different that really speaks to them," he explains. "If we pick 'I Need My Girl' by The National, there are so many couples where that will be their song." Once the prints are complete, Wakefield connects with artists to sign them, usually while they're on tour in Austin.

Prints fetch between $200 and $7,000 on the foundation's site. Wakefield only dips into the proceeds to cover the costs of production and to pay his small team, and at least half of the proceeds (generally more) go directly to charity. In 2015, Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" sold out in 24 hours, raising enough to keep one of Notes for Notes' free youth recording studios open for another six months.

"Tim has created a truly innovative way to support causes that prove the power of music," says the organization's co-founder/CEO, Philip Gilley. Adds Depeche Mode's Martin Gore: "It was mesmerizing to see our music translated visually, and rewarding to give more youth access to music." Brandi Carlile says she was "immediately drawn to both the visuals and mission" of Soundwaves, which helped her Looking Out Foundation raise over $180,000 for War Child and Children of Conflict to support children affected by war. Waters, Dolly Parton and members of Queen all have sound waves prints hanging in their homes.

By September, the foundation will have opened a new public arts space in Austin that's focused on community and activism. Funded by private donors, it will include a music venue, an art gallery, space for cultural programming and a 1,000-foot-long wall of bricks engraved with song lyrics, each one purchased by a member of the public to support one of six charities. The project -- called "w'ALL," as in "y'all" -- aims to "reclaim the concept of a wall as strong and unifying," says Wakefield.

He also hopes to expand Soundwaves' presence in other genres, especially hip-hop and Latin music. The foundation recently worked with Puerto Rican pop star Chayanne to raise money for the Women's Refugee Commission, which advocates for migrant rights. Artists on Wakefield's bucket list include The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and he's optimistic that they'll help him, since, he says, musicians are particularly open to charity efforts. "Being artists, they're caring people. They write songs that touch people, and they feel for the kind of people we're fundraising for." 

Wakefield shares memories from working with some of music's top stars:

Brandi Carlile: "Brandi got me on the Cayamo Cruise [music event], and we had a range of artwork signed by John Prine, Patty Griffin. Brandi came up to me and said, 'How's it going?' I said, 'Not very well. Nobody really knows who we are.' Then I'm sitting in the theater on the boat, and she stopped her show and said [to the audience], 'I want to talk to you about this artwork.' The next morning, we had a huge queue of people. It was incredible."

George Michael: "I was in his kitchen years ago, and he was signing prints. He couldn't have been more engaging. He loved the work, and was asking where the money was going to go and what it would do. He was going to sign again just before he passed [in 2016]. I was sitting there on Christmas day when he died, and it broke my heart. Having done this for 10 years, I'm starting to lose some of the people who have helped me."

Paul McCartney: "I am my worst critic. I always look at [prints] and think I could have done better -- it depends on who it is. I remember doing a small run to Paul McCartney, and I couldn't send it to him. I probably did about 50 versions of 'Band on the Run.' I couldn't think of what piece to send. You just don't know what the song is going to give you, and you have to work with what you've got. It's important that when a musician sees it, they can relate to it."

Dolly Parton: "I am pretty pleased that Dolly asked for artwork for her home and office. We did 'Jolene' as a print, and she said, 'Can you do "I Will Always Love You" [too]?' Brian and Rodger from Queen [also] requested artwork for their homes. It's always nice to know the artwork clicks not just with fans, but with the musicians themselves. We're constantly sending out the artwork, which ends up on their walls or on management walls."

This article originally appeared in the July 27 issue of Billboard.


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