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Concerts Not Necessarily Music To Fundraisers’ Ears

By Patrick Sullivan - February 1, 2013

The Concert for Bangladesh raised $250,000 in 1971 for UNICEF, about $1.4 million in 2012 dollars. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the December 12, 2012 benefit for Sandy Relief (12-12-12) at the same venue, Madison Square Garden in New York City. That concert raised more than $30 million for the Robin Hood Foundation before a single note was played, and garnered at least $20 million more during the concert.

Farm Aid’s 2011 concert brought in nearly $1.6 million. The star-studded event featured musicians Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and more than a dozen others. Tickets ranged from $29 to $149, and approximately 15,000 people attended. Expenses totaled $1.31 million, about 82 cents for every dollar raised. The organization still reportedly cleared nearly $275,000, but it’s hard not to think that there must be a less labor-intensive way to come by the cash.

“The problem with most benefit concerts is that they don’t scale well,” said Max Lugavere, a journalist and founder of the benefit concert series Rockdrive. “To raise enough money to move the dial, massive artists need to be involved, broadcast networks need to be signed on, and people need to spend lots of money on expensive tickets for there to be a net monetary benefit for the cause.”

Even for a nonprofit that might get many services donated, it is a costly and time-consuming process. Big stars bring big crowds, but without a household name on the bill, nonprofits might be better served by focusing their resources on other projects.

The grand-daddy of them all, the Concert for Bangladesh, was the brainchild of former Beatle George Harrison and sitar master Ravi Shankar. As with most trailblazing efforts, the Concert for Bangladesh was fraught with problems, not least of which was confusion regarding fundraising.

Because Apple Corp., a for-profit com­pany tied to the Beatles, financed the concert and because the concert was not originally registered as a UNICEF benefit, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) auditors decided the income from the concert was taxable. It took about a decade for UNICEF to receive the majority of funds raised from sales of the concert recording. The money sat in an IRS escrow account between 1972 and 1982. Before that, UNICEF received about $2 million from record sales, plus the $250,000 gate. The concert and record sales have since generated approximately $18 million for UNICEF.

“From everything I’ve seen about the concert, I don’t think they had a lot of expectation when they started,” said Brian Meyers, deputy chief of staff for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF in New York City. He added that he didn’t think that concert organizers could foresee the 40-plus year legacy of the show. “My understanding was that George Harrison asked his friends (to play the show) because Ravi Shankar asked him to use his power to bring attention to something that was happening. It was a very basic concept of friendship driving it, and where it went they couldn’t have imagined.”

Lugavere decided to take a different approach for the six Rockdrive shows put on since 2008. Instead of selling out stadiums with marquee acts, “Rockdrive is all about local,” said Lugavere. “Local artists, local fans, local causes.” Venues are small. There have been about 3,500 audience members cumulatively, which cuts down on overhead. And, because the artists are regional acts, they don’t have travel expenses. Ticket sales benefit the causes, said Lugavere, and Rockdrive keeps proceeds from merchandise sales to help pay the expenses.

For the 40th anniversary of the Concert for Bangladesh in 2011, UNICEF decided not to put on another concert. “We looked at the numbers and spoke with the Harrison family, and they had no desire to go through the expense and production of putting together a concert,” said Meyers. “We’re not in the business of producing concerts, we’re in the business of helping children.”

The Harrison family instead reached out to more than 70 musicians who used social media to drive funds and attention to the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF. Dubbed the Month of Giving, the initiative raised more than $1.2 million, according to Meyers. Those 70 stars reached millions of fans and followers on social media. “We just decided that, in this day and age with technology, we thought we could get a good return on investment with something different,” he said.

“It’s tough to make money on concerts,” said Ken Kragen, the man behind Hands Across America and the We Are The World music single, both in the mid-1980s. Kragen said that benefits work best when they’re televised and have a fundraising component. “They have to have a huge outreach because of the cost of the venue and putting on the show,” to be viable fundraising tools, he said. The 12.12.12 concert was accessible to 2 billion people on six continents, according to the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City.

Kragen is still on the board of the Los Angeles, Calif.-based organization United Artists Support for Africa (USA for Africa), the charity that received and still receives the royalties from We Are The World. USA for Africa Executive Director Marcia Thomas said that the song We Are The World has generated approximately $64 million since it was released in 1985.

Royalties from the song is the nonprofit’s only fundraising stream, and Thomas said that the number one source of royalties is Japan. Sales are still strong enough to allow the organization to award 20 to 30 grants per year to U.S. and Africa-based charities.

“The key is getting a star who’s a magnet,” said Kragen. That was true of We Are The World, on which Kragen said Bruce Springsteen was the magnet, even though Michael Jackson is most closely associated with it. One of the biggest challenges in getting an artist to play a benefit show is that the artist “must be tremendously motivated to give up a concert date in a major city,” said Kragen. “If Springsteen does a full-out pure benefit concert in New York City, he’s given up a play date in that city for a year or two.”

Kragen said nonprofits can “piggyback on already existing projects,” such as trying to get artists to give them a percentage of a show or shows. “There are all kinds of other ways to skin the cat, so to speak,” said Kragen.

Concert producers might not be able to eliminate costs, but they can mitigate them with pro bono help, said Jennifer Fahy, communications director of Farm Aid, based in Cambridge, Mass. Farm Aid has been producing benefit shows since 1985 that have raised about $40 million. According to Fahy, 2011 was one of the toughest years on record for the organization and its 2011 concert was an anomaly. The show usually generates a much greater percentage of net proceeds as compared to expenses.

Fahy said that Farm Aid staff members all have a hand in putting together the concerts, in addition to their regular roles with the organization. They also get pro bono help for everything from advertising to set-up to talent. “We have top touring companies in the industry giving pro bono services and advertising Farm Aid and what we do. Artists play for free and cover travel expenses,” she said, even if they bring a 20-piece band. The venue is one of the biggest determinants of expense, said Fahy.

“There is no average cost. It depends on the venue,” she explained. Farm Aid targets outdoor amphitheaters because “we know the expenses and what we’ll come out of it with,” she said. “We have to be very aware of expenses. That’s why we sell into this formula of amphitheaters, because it helps maximize fundraising,” said Fahy. “A stadium is a whole different ball game.” The 25th anniversary Farm Aid concert in 2010 took place at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisc., with an audience of about 35,000.

“Venues typically will pay out venue employees but will gladly hand the cut that they normally take from ticket sales over to the cause,” added Lugavere.

We Are The World was originally conceived by singer Harry Belafonte as a benefit concert, according to Kragen. “I said, ‘Bob Geldof has shown us the way. Let’s not reinvent the wheel here,’” he said. Sir Bob Geldof, the brains behind the 1985 Live Aid show, had written a song in 1984 called Do They Know It’s Christmas? to benefit relief efforts for the famine in Ethiopia. Kragen credited Geldof with being the inspiration behind We Are The World. “Let’s take Geldof’s idea and make it bigger and better,” Kragen said he told Belafonte at the time.

According to Fahy, Farm Aid grew out of Live Aid, a July 1985 concert that also raised money for the Ethiopian famine. Harrison and Shankar might have pioneered the benefit concert model, but Live Aid is widely considered to be the show that proved the model could work. Estimates put the live audience at 170,000 in London and Philadelphia, about 2 billion watching on television, and fundraising according to some estimates totaling more than £150 million, which in today’s U.S. dollars is more than $900 million.

Country music star Willie Nelson reportedly heard Bob Dylan at Live Aid call for action on the American farm crisis, which Fahy likened to the 2009 mortgage crisis. Farmers were encouraged to grow as much food as possible and take out as many loans as possible. Overproduction caused a food price crash and many farmers were forced to declare bankruptcy when they could not repay their loans. Nelson had seen this first hand while on tour, said Fahy.

A few months after Live Aid, Nelson and fellow musicians Neil Young and John Mellencamp had put together the first Farm Aid concert in September 1985. It had 54 artists and an audience of about 80,000, and it raised $9 million, making it the largest Farm Aid concert to date, according to Fahy. She said the concert was instrumental in the implementation of a 1986 moratorium on foreclosures of farms and widespread debt restructuring for farmers.

Fundraisers can do more with technology than Harrison and Shankar ever dreamed in 1971. “Technology is pivotal,” said Lugavere. “What’s great about social media is the way you can get the word out about something that was once isolated to a global audience, and hopefully inspire change on a far grander scale.”

Social media for benefit concerts has moved beyond simply Facebook and Twitter, said Lori Raimondo, vice president for business development and marketing at the Los Angeles, Calif.-based Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF). “A big thing that is universal now is social media, and (12.12.12 organizers) took advantage of it,” said Raimondo.

At the 12.12.12 concert, event organizers ran a promotion with location sharing social media platform Foursquare. Samsung Galaxy donated $10 for the first 25,000 people to check in at the concert. Music identification application Shazam also participated. Those using the app during the concert could download participating artists’ music or donate at the 12.12.12 website.

Meyers said putting together the Month of Giving was much easier than producing a benefit concert would have been, thanks to technology. “From a logistics standpoint, it was easy,” he said. “The artists did a lot of work for us. We invested a minimal amount of time besides organization. The reach we got just doing social media was fantastic. Particularly in the music world, it was the perfect way to reach a mass amount of fans, supporters and advocates.” NPT

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