“We Are the World – 25 for Haiti” will premiere on NBC prior to the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Spearheaded by Quincy Jones, producer, and Lionel Richie, co-writer, of the 1985 philanthropic anthem “We Are The World,” “WOTW-25” was recorded on Feb. 1 in the same L.A. studio as the original 25 years earlier (Henson Recording Studios, formerly A&M Recording Studios).
Jones and Richie served as executive producers and producers, in collaboration with executive producers Wyclef Jean, Randy Phillips and Peter Tortorici; producers Humberto Gattica and RedOne; and co-producers Rickey Minor, Mervyn Warren and Patti Austin.
Proceeds from the project will benefit the Haitian earthquake relief efforts and the rebuilding of Haiti. Downloads will be available on iTunes, and through a partnership with YouTube, the video will be viewable on the “We Are the World 25” YouTube Channel. Billboard spoke with Phillips, president/CEO of AEG Live, about the project and what viewers can expect.
Billboard: How did you come to be involved with “We Are The World-25?”
Randy Phillips: I came in because Lionel Richie, who I manage, asked me to. Originally a group of guys including (original WOTW producer) Ken Kragen … had an idea to re-cut “We Are the World” that was called Live 25. Lionel and Quincy were very lukewarm about it because they felt that what happened 25 years ago was iconic and they did everything they could for Africa at that time, and they didn’t feel re-cutting the song really made any sense. Basically, Lionel didn’t really want to do it, and we kind of let it die by not issuing the publishing license, because Lionel owns the copyright along with Michael Jackson’s estate. That was in November/December. They had gotten Visa on board as an underwriter of that effort, and I think they were going to try and premier it at the World Cup.
Then Haiti happened and that pretty much changed everything. Quincy called Lionel and said, “this is what this song is written for, as a fundraising vehicle for causes, tragedies, catastrophes like this. Why don’t we take over the process, call our friends, and actually do this?” And because Lionel understood the urgency of Haiti, he agreed to do it.
BB: Talk about the talent booking process.
RP: Tisha Fein had been on board for the original idea (to re-cut WOTW as Live 25), so Quincy kept Tisha as the talent booker, and she was already in contact with a ton of people. When you’re doing these things, one person tells you an act’s in, another person says they aren’t, it’s always a fluid thing until you get there. All of these things come together like that, much of it at the last minute. [Barbra] Streisand came in the day before. Of the list we went after, I’d say we ended up with 80% of the people we wanted.
It was a mad dash to pull it all together. When Lionel came to me, remember, there was Quincy and he had no infrastructure. So I met with key executives at AEG, they all volunteered to work on it, and then it was a 24/7 effort to work for gratis. Visa stayed in the deal even when it changed to Haiti because they felt so strongly about it, and picked up all of the hard costs and also provided millions of dollars in media.
What will be premiering right before the opening ceremonies of the Olympics is a 3:15 version of a 7:37 piece. NBC gave us the time, and Visa took the 30 seconds before for Lionel and Quincy to intro the piece, and that was a paid spot.
BB: What about the longer version?
RP: The seven-minute version will be broadcast worldwide simultaneously on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. PST on networks all around the world, about 120 networks. The tagline is “download to donate.” There will be options of audio for $1.29, video for $1.99, or both for $2.99. All of that money is going straight to Haiti, there will be very little admin costs off the top. All of this is going to a charity we just created, and then the board will determine how to get it in the hands of the people as fast and directly as possible.
BB: Will there be a physical product?
RP: Yes, we’re talking to Target about handling the physical product, 10 days to two weeks after the digital release.
BB: Any comment on the controversy surrounding the booking of this project, primarily reports that you said acts would be participating that had not committed?
RP: The truth is I wasn’t that involved in the booking, other than making a few phone calls to artists I was close to, like Jamie Foxx, who I’ve worked with in the past, and Justin Bieber, who I work with now as his tour promoter. This happens all the time when you’re putting one of these multi-act charity benefits together, people are in, people are out, schedules change. When you’re doing something as noble as this, why is there any controversy at all? People want to take shots, but what a thing to take a shot at. If you’re going to take a shot at people who are doing this, or me personally, do it when I’m doing something to make money, not when I’m doing something for free to help a country where we have over 150,000 dead and God knows how many more maimed.
BB: Can you tell me anything about the performances?
RP: It opens with Justin Bieber doing the Lionel Richie line, then Jennifer Hudson and he harmonize, then it goes from a Jennifer Hudson solo to Jennifer Nettles. The way it works is a star will do a line, then harmonize with the next star. You have Jennifer with Josh Groban, then Mary J. Blige, then into Toni Braxton harmonizing with Mary.
Then the chorus is Michael Jackson from the original version paired with Janet Jackson. After that, it’s Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion singing together.
The rap section is staggering. One part was written by LL Kool J and Quincy and the other was written by Will I. Am and Kanye. It starts with LL and Snoop and Will and Xzibit and Kanye and Lil Wayne, then it goes into Will and Kanye trading lines with each other.
We’re hoping that this not only raises significant amounts of money across the world, but that it also keeps the awareness of Haiti in the public eye. That was really one of the purposes of it, because a song like this will live on and on.