For more than 40 years benefit concerts have served as a conduit for emergency aid to disaster-stricken areas of the world. Their success hinges on hurried planning and requires whirlwind agreements between musicians and venues, sponsors and TV networks. “Up to that time, no one really got behind any causes,” John Oates told Billboard of performing with Daryl Hall at Live Aid in 1985. “No one saw the power of fame and notoriety.” That has changed significantly. For decades musicians have united to fight poverty abroad and tragedy at home. Yet since Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 5,000 and displaced more than 4 million in the Philippines two weeks ago, such relief efforts have been few compared to years past.
Last week, Journey announced it would give $350,000 toward food assistance there. Then David Byrne, who has visited the now-devastated Tacloban, scheduled a performance of “Here Lies Love,” his show based on Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, to help Doctors Without Borders. Incubus’ Make Yourself Foundation says it will match funds the news site RYOT raises up to $25,000. And on Thursday, the Gin Blossoms played New York’s Stage 48 on behalf of the typhoon’s survivors — exactly one month after they played Manila.
|Live at Stage 48|
“We’ve just become emotionally attached to the place,” frontman Robin Wilson told Billboard before the show Thursday. Later, from the stage, he high-fived a Filipino fan in the front row. “I need a tambourine,” he told her, retrieving one from the crowd as the band ripped into the hit “Allison Road.” “Til I Hear It From You” and “Hey Jealousy” closed the set, but not before Wilson dedicated “Somewhere Tonight” to those rendered hungry and homeless this month. The group pledged the night’s earnings to the Philippine Red Cross.
“I feel terrible about what happened because we were just there,” Wilson said in the interview, “and so many of those people that we must have performed for must be affected right now.”
These smaller-scale overtures reflect the limited overall musician-driven response to a disaster, one year after Superstorm Sandy killed 117 and devastated areas of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
The Robin Hood Foundation, which targets poverty in New York City, reports that it raised more than $73 million in Sandy-related contributions, mostly from 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief. It featured the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters and Eddie Vedder among the lineup at Madison Square Garden, and Nielsen reported that more than 19 million viewers tuned in that night last December. The foundation says it has since granted “every dollar” to “hundreds of organizations” that provide housing assistance, medical care and tutoring services for displaced students. (Forbes estimates Paul Tudor Jones II, Robin Hood’s founder, to be worth $3.7 billion.)
Yet even those non-profits with affluent backers can lose money as they work to raise funds for benefit concerts, which rely on sponsorships, ticket sales and merchandise. For instance, in 2011, the Robin Hood Foundation spent 43 cents for every dollar it raised through special events, according to filings. “At best, special events generate more revenue than expense, create goodwill, good press and good times,” said Jon Durnford, a consultant on nonprofit research and charitable giving. “But their cost-per-dollar-raised is typically the worst among other forms of solicitation.”
Still, many agree that the exposure and reach of such shows outweigh the setbacks and has only proliferated, thanks to social media and online streaming. The Concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1971, organized by George Harrison, was the first large-scale event to raise social awareness and encourage widespread giving. As Ravi Shankar remarked to Death and Taxes on the event’s 40th anniversary in 2011, “Within twenty-four hours, the name Bangladesh became known to everyone.”
Numerous celebrity-studded benefits to highlight famine and other humanitarian causes abroad followed the lead, including No Nukes in 1979; Live Aid and Farm Aid; the Concert for New York City after 9/11; Live 8 and Live Earth; and this year’s Global Citizen Festival in Central Park.
“Over the years, one thing we’ve done consistently is we’ve oriented ourselves toward local charities,” Oates said of his band in a phone interview. Last December, Hall and Oates donated more than $100,000 in proceeds from their Atlantic City gig to the American Red Cross. The organization reported last month that it had raised more than $300 million and provided support to 2,800 Sandy-affected households.
“You can’t save the world with these shows,” Oates said, “but I believe you can save it incrementally.”