Last summer’s global Live Earth megaconcerts were precedent-setting on many fronts, from the clarity of the cause and the mammoth logistical challenges faced, to the ambitiously green staging of the shows and the multiplatform mass-messaging. Live Earth executive producer, Kevin Wall, whose extensive résumé includes Live Aid in 1985 and Live 8 two decades later, is obsessed with making the Live Earth message live on, though it’s a process fraught with challenges. His efforts were honored by Billboard last November when Wall accepted the Humanitarian of the Year Award at the Billboard Touring Conference & Awards. He talked with Billboard’s Ray Waddell about the Live Earth legacy, what lies ahead, and the importance of the Kyoto 2 Treaty, which will bring about massive, global political change to combat global warming.
With the benefit of some perspective, what’s your take on how Live Earth came off?
Overall, it was a fantastic success. We were in almost 130 countries. In some countries it helped become a tipping point for massive change. In Australia, for instance, which after a long drought and a huge amount of political discussion, we arrived at a time when an election happened. And not only did a change of politics occur, but in addition to that they signed the Kyoto Treaty.
In Canada 41% of the population actually was glued to the event. We did better than our critics thought we would in terms of the actual carbon used in doing the project. Our films are sponsored by Absolut and are going to film festivals all over the world. We are about to publish a book called “LESS,” which stands for “Live Earth Sustainable Standards.” We’re doing that with the British Standards Institute, and it will be a globally-published book for events, be it sporting, music, stadiums, or arenas. By all reads so far it will be a major book in this area and it turns things that we learned from doing Live Earth and the greening of these stadiums into a useful guide.
We are going to do a series of other Live Earth events in the future specifically around the Kyoto 2 Treaty negotiations and the ratification of that treaty. Our first event will be a U.S. event in October at college campuses. We’ll announce the specifics in the next three or four weeks. We’ll follow that up with a big project in India, and other events. Live Earth will continue and we will continue working with Al Gore specifically trying to create a lot of political movement around the Kyoto Treaty and making sure it’s ratified by all the countries in the world.
How can you quantify the success of Live Earth?
If anything, we really were challenged with old media versus new media. In the U.S., we had in aggregate on the television networks 19 million viewers across NBC, Bravo, Sundance, etc. On a Saturday Fourth of July weekend, that’s a huge number.
However, the big news is what happened online, where we ended up with over 100 million uniques. Some of the press focused in on the NBC prime time number and didn’t focus in on the new media number. We are in an evolving state today. It’s no longer about appointment TV, what happens on a network. It’s about how people are really eating content. They’re platform agnostic. In this case, the experience proved out one more time, as it did on Live 8, to be an online experience. It historically broke records with numbers that had never been done before.
We were very challenged and I know that Billboard even wrote an article about the ratings. There was another one that wasn’t as kind in Rolling Stone, and I talked to Jan Wenner about it and wrote a rebuttal saying, “magazine subscriptions are going down. Network viewing has a 20 year path of going down. The story was in the digital form we broke all records, it was a multiple of five above anything anyone has ever done in history.”
There’s no doubt you got the public’s attention, the challenge is keeping their attention, isn’t it?
What’s difficult about the environment is the positive results are not instantaneous. When we worked on Live 8 or Live Aid, we could say, “This young person here in Africa is starving and they’re going to die unless you send $20.” A person at home could have a feeling of emotional attachment, reach into their pocket and pull $20 out, and in giving it to you that kid would live for a year. With the environment, the reason this has never happened before on a global basis is there’s no immediate result you could look for. It’s about the air we breathe, the climate, etc. That made it very tough.
However, my partner went off and won the Nobel Peace Prize, and he’s partnering with us going forward and is very serious about this Kyoto Treaty being a very real result, that we need to get negotiated around the world in the next two years. Now that we’ve done the global awareness and we’ve moved the needle-certainly the greening issue and sustainability is talked about in every corporation and every government around the world today, we’re part of that-now we’re going to get very specific with an emotional ask, trying to achieve a very specific goal, the Kyoto 2 Treaty.
In October, four weeks prior to the election, we want to make sure the candidates, whoever they are, local or national, specifically are addressing this issue of where they stand on Kyoto and the climate crisis. We’re going to drive that hard.
Can you give me any more details of what you’re going to do?
It’s a fall program aimed at college students in North America to encourage these new voters to make the environment their number one voting issue and put pressure on political leaders and corporations to participate in and adopt the Kyoto 2 Treaty. We will have events at major universities and we will activate another 500 universities as part of the campaign with eco weekends and viewing events. There will be some big surprises with the artists and speakers involved. This will feel very much like if you went to a John Lennon concert in the late ’60s with bands, speeches in the middle, a lot of throwing up of fists and raising the hands, very activist oriented.
So you feel like you and Live Earth still have a pretty strong profile in the artist community?
I think so. What do you think?
I would have to agree.
We’re aiming specifically to college campuses, so the artists makeup will be a bit different. There won’t be as many artists because it’s not just about the artists. It’s a shorter program, only in the U.S. for this particular program. But Al Gore asked me if I would go out and keep up the charge and we’re happy to do it with them.
The end result without all the spectacle, with the right kind of bands and presentation, ultimately might have more impact in the long run when you reach the right kind of people.
Yeah, I agree. We’re going to be regional about it, and be very specific about the ask, the Kyoto Treaty which will be a very specific ask and action we ask people to take. I think it’s the next step. I think the first step of global awareness was great, we built a great brand.
Maybe it’s because you’re not in severe ramp-up mode, but you seem to be a lot calmer about the whole situation than you were a year ago when we did our first interview about Live Earth.
As you know, global events are very, very tough to produce, because there are a lot of moving pieces. Not only were we trying to be platform agnostic digitally so that we would reach all the major platforms in 100-plus countries, but we had to book a project where we had tremendous logistical challenges, with 150 acts. We tried to book as much local as possible so we could keep our carbon footprint down.
Added to producing all those shows in one day, which no one has ever done before, we put them into Control Room and its affiliates. When we last talked, I was half environmentalist and half producer and each moment of the day I wasn’t sure which one I was. Now I’m back to the environmental part, we’re not in producing mode yet. We want to make sure that our sustainability guide is out, our partners are on board, and we want to make sure we get our messaging correct, which is what we’re doing now. And we want to reach out to the music industry, the big promoters and the big festivals this summer, and make sure we’re reaching them.
I know that you personally took a lot of financial risk on Live Earth,
was it a brutal beating or did you come out okay?
We came out okay. We happily were able to recover the investment and the alliance became a benefit of the overage. One of the issues with doing these shows is somebody has to be prepared to take a loss if there is a loss and provide the cash flow to get these things up and running and they’re not inexpensive. And I was able to personally play that role and was happy to play that role, and it worked out. Like anything else, we could have had a rainout or a hurricane, there are a lot of obstacles in the way that could have made the story not the great story that it turned out to be.
This seems more personal to you even than your previous causes, where you were more of a producer if still an advocate.
I saw Gore’s slide show, it’s very moving, and sometimes you wake up and you look around and say “wow, nothing’s changed, nobody gets it.” People are still driving SUVs with one person in them, and you’re not seeing significant change even in people’s houses. There are changes happening, certainly, with plastic bags and light bulbs, etc., but just in general, when you read these scientific reports that just keep coming out, you realize this problem isn’t going to go away just because we did a concert or a movie won an Academy Award or Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s going to go away because real action is taken and this Kyoto thing is going to be very, very important to helping solve this problem long term. So I’m very, very serious and passionate about it.
Are we in a better place environmentally today than before Live Earth?
There certainly is more awareness and the awareness is global. In terms of are we in a better place, huge corporations are making massive moves, that’s great news. Governments are still giving a lot of lip service, that’s not good news. We need to take their lip service and develop that into real policy that follows, and it has to be ratified on a global basis.
For example, what’s really driving change in terms of pollution right now in China is the Olympics, and they’re making massive changes driven really be these huge promotional events in the country. That’s good, and if those changes are long-lasting, it’s fantastic, because we need these changes to happen.
It seems to me that live music as a business is a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting these changes.
Ray, you remember the press releases used to be, whether it was a big Stones concert or a big stadium event, how many trucks of steel, how much power was being used, the largest lighting system in the world, blah, blah, blah. Now you’re seeing a change in the trend. You see extremely conscious bands, Jack Johnson is a good example, with fewer trucks, less lighting, more greening of the tour itself, not just telling people to be green. And that’s a fantastic movement that’s happening in this business.
Patrick Woodroffe, certainly one of the top few lighting designers in the business, is changing everything about the way that he lights tours because he worked on Live Earth. That’s all good.