This past December, when Colombian businessman Bruno Ocampo was at Richard Branson’s Caribbean retreat, the two men were discussing their shared passion for philanthropy over games of chess when talk turned to Venezuela, its human rights issues and its diaspora (during which 3 million people fled the country). “Six weeks later,” says Ocampo, “he wrote me an email and asked how we could help.
Ocampo reached out to everyone he knew until he found a contact for Venezuelan opposition leader and self-declared president Juan Gauidó. On Jan. 30, the two were on a video call with another opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, and Branson, when one of the men suggested a Live Aid-style concert to raise money and awareness of the humanitarian crisis, including foreign aid that Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro was blocking from entering the country.
Just three weeks later, on Feb. 22, 32 artists — including superstars like Maná, Carlos Vives, Maluma, Juanes and Alejandro Sanz — appeared on a makeshift stage built on the Tienditas bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia, a city of 1 million people on the Venezuelan border. Dubbed Venezuela Aid Live, 317,000 people — including the presidents of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay — attended the concert.
Ratcheting up tensions: In response to the proposed concert, Maduro staged his own show on the Venezuelan side of the same bridge, to occur at the same time, which he called Hands Off Venezuela.
“We wanted to try to get humanitarian aid into and bring the world’s attention to what was happening in Venezuela,” Branson told Billboard as the event kicked off.
In the end, Maduro did not allow the aid to cross into Venezuela, and following the concerts, clashes broke out between his forces and protesters, leaving at least five dead and over 300 wounded. Yet the making of Venezuela Aid Live — which Branson pledged would raise $100 million over the next 60 days — was an example of how artists can mobilize and influence politics in a short time frame.
“Music and art will always be fundamental in building peace in any society,” says Juanes, who organized a massive “Peace Without Borders” concert at the same location in 2008. “The world’s atmosphere is more tense now. There’s less innocence and more information online. The presence of the presidents, in a way, changed the humanitarian slant and made it different.”
Putting the show together was not easy for Ocampo, who had never before organized a concert. In addition to Branson’s support, he enlisted Ricardo Leyva, owner of experiential marketing firm Sistole, and they provided the initial cash infusion for the concert. None of the artists were paid to perform, though some were flown in from different parts of the world. Yet artist costs didn’t exceed $60,000, according to Ocampo.
“Our biggest hurdle was to guarantee world class content, with great sound and great production,” says Leyva, who engaged production companies Persival and Árbol Naranja, which produces the Estereo Picnic festival, for the event. And the music and tech communities rose to the occasion: Facebook helped speed the event’s non-profit status to ensure donations could come in; YouTube helped with technical support for live streams; WK Entertainment helped clear streaming rights through the local performance rights organizations; labels cleared their artists’ participation when needed; Shots Studios mobilized its army of influencers; local government mobilized security forces; and the Colombian government expedited landing and takeoff of private airplanes for artists and organizers.
At the end of the day, total costs were less than $600,000 and $2.4 million was raised online in the first four days. Ocampo says another concert with the same purpose is being planned for later in the year. Yet ultimately, says Leyva, it was a risk.
“We did have many Fyre Festival moments,” he says. “But three days before, even though we weren’t quite there yet, we’d solved the hardest parts, and I felt free. It was daring, no doubt.”
Additional reporting by Roberto Cardona.