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On April 18, 2020, dozens of celebrities participated in the One World: Together at Home concert series, which raised $127 million for the World Health Organization’s Solidarity Response Fund. The series was hosted by Lady Gaga, and stars such as Lizzo, Celine Dion, and The Rolling Stones, all live-streamed performances from their homes.
Rock and pop concerts designed to raise money for charitable organizations have been around for decades. Some are designed to raise awareness or boost morale about a crisis. Others raise money for humanitarian causes or influence legislation. Live Aid, one of the best-known benefit concerts, drew 72,000 people to Wembley Stadium in 1985 to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. (Queen’s set is widely regarded as one of the greatest live performances of all time.)
Benefit concerts bank on using the power of celebrity and the uniting force of music to urge people to open their wallets and donate to charity. But are they effective? And how much money do they raise? Tune in and find out!
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110: Countries that tuned in to Live Aid
10: Weeks it took to organize Live Aid
13: Years that “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was the best selling single in the UK
1.9 billion: Estimated number of people who watched Live Aid around the world
>100: Artists who sang “We Are the World” at Live Aid
30 million: People who signed a petition presented to then-G8 chair Tony Blair after Live 8
6 minutes: Time it took for One Love Manchester tickets to sell out
12 hours: Length of the Concert for Nelson Mandela at Wembley Stadium in London
$12 million: Amount raised from Concert for Bangladesh album and film sales by 1985
1742: Year Handel’s Messiah oratorio debuted at a benefit concert
£7,000: Amount raised by benefit concerts for London’s Foundling Hospital from 1749 through the 1770s, originally organized by Handel (£1.3 million today)
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In 1971, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and others took the stage at Madison Square Garden and raised over $10 million for relief efforts in cyclone-ravaged and war-torn Bangladesh. Organizers George Harrison and Ravi Shankar set into motion a unique form of fundraising that would have a huge impact on charitable organizations around the world.
Some see them as a hypocritical, inefficient marketing exercise. Kristi York Wooten writes that Live Aid was “a marketing exercise that distilled the African continent’s complex history into a logo seen by more than a billion television viewers—roughly one-fourth of the planet’s population at the time.” Birhan Woldu, an Ethiopian child who was featured in Live Aid promotional videos, later said “for me, personally, Live Aid has done nothing. I am branded as the symbol of Live Aid due to the image of the 1980s.”
Years later, Live 8 faced criticism over a lack of diversity in performers, accusations of being a “publicity stunt” for G8 leaders and multinational corporations, and fears that it would perpetuate the idea that Africa is a continent dependent on Western intervention. Even a well-organized benefit concert, one recipient admitted to The Guardian, has very high overhead for a charity event.
The model was a thorny tangle from the beginning. Harrison and Shankar didn’t choose a charity before the concert, so the US Internal Revenue Service fought its tax-free status, which took a chunk out of the donations and meant almost the entire haul arrived more than a decade after the concert. But the Concert for Bangladesh may have represented the best of charity concerts as well—drawing attention to a subject somewhat obscure in the West (in part because censorship limited the information coming out of the region) and appreciated by its subjects.
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One of the criticisms of benefit concerts is that they have high overhead costs, and the money they generate would be better spent on direct aid. Frequent Obsession contributor Katherine Foley took a deep dive into a similar industry last month, in a series looking at the rise of medical crowdfunding, including the moral implications of setting up or contributing to a fundraising campaign intended to cover health care bills.
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“People are dying NOW. Give us the money NOW. Give me the money NOW.”
—Bob Geldof, imploring viewers to donate during Live Aid in 1985
“I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history. The other one is ‘We Are The World.’ Any day soon, I will go to the supermarket, head to the meat counter and it will be playing. Every f… ing Christmas.”
—Bob Geldof looking back on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” In 2010
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How did an Irish rocker become the man behind the largest benefit concert in history? It all started with a melody. In 1984, the Irish lead singer of The Boomtown Rats collaborated with Ultravox vocalist Midge Ure on the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” after seeing reports about widespread famine in Ethiopia. The song quickly became a hit and the single sold over three million copies under the name Band Aid. Inspired by this success, Geldof and Ure recruited dozens of headlining musical acts such as The Who, Black Sabbath, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, U2, and of course, Queen. In less than a month, Geldof and Ure set the stage for 16 hours of live music.
Geldof and Ure were hosts during the concert. At one point, Geldof issued an impassioned, expletive-filled plea for viewers to “give us the money now!” (He denies using any expletives on live television.)
After Live Aid, Geldof continued his philanthropic mission. He received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II and was dubbed “Saint Bob” for his efforts. In the spirit of Live Aid, Geldorf organized the 2005 Live 8 concerts that took place in 10 cities around the world to raise awareness for poverty in Africa. Despite facing some criticism over the years for his organization of funds after events, Geldof is synonymous with benefit concerts.
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Phil Collins was the only musician at Live Aid in 1985 who appeared on both the London and Philadelphia stages. He took a helicopter from Wembley to Heathrow Airport, a transcontinental supersonic Concorde jet from London to Philly, and then a helicopter to the stage in Philadelphia upon landing.
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🇧🇩 The Concert For Bangladesh (1971): The concert initially raised $245,000 but has since brought in over $17 million for UNICEF from film and album sales.
📻 Live Aid (1985): Live Aid raised £150 million for famine relief in Africa, 150 times its goal.
🏳️🌈 A Concert for Life: The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness (1992): The concert was said to have raised $35 million for AIDS research, but later Entertainment Weekly reported that this number was inflated by omitting costs associated with hiring performers.
🇺🇸 America: A Tribute To Heroes (2001): The television special held post-9/11 raised over $200 million for United Way’s September 11 Telethon Fund.
⛈️ A Concert for Hurricane Relief (2005): This post Hurricane-Katrina benefit concert raised $50M for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. It was also the scene of the famous Kanye West-George W. Bush controversy.
🇬🇧 One Love Manchester (2017): Ariana Grande’s benefit concert following the terrorist attack at her concert raised over $3 million for the Manchester Emergency Fund.
🌎 One World: Together At Home (2020): The at-home streaming event raised $127 million by calling on private sector leaders, philanthropists, and corporations to donate rather than viewers.
🚜 Farm Aid (1985-present): The first festival, aimed at supporting American family farms, raised $7 million; the charity has raised over $57 million with its concerts.
🏔 Tibetan Freedom Concert (1996): The Beastie Boys raised $800,000 with help from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, Yoko Ono, and others.
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Audiences were wowed by Rami Malek’s performance as Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury in the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody. Several plot points, such as Live Aid being a reunion for the band and Freddie Mercury finding out he was HIV-positive before the concert were dramatic license. Still, it’s fun to watch this video that shows the real performance by Queen next to the movie performance to get a sense of what it was actually like to be there.
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