The Birth of the Benefit Concert

As I escape from the New York City hustle on a sweltering July weekend, a symphony of sounds -- horns, sirens and a lot of percussion -- serves as my own personal soundtrack along the way.

Clearly, it's not very soothing, which is why God (or Steve Jobs, my God) gave us the iPod. With one, we can all march to the beat of our own drummer. But music is best served fresh, and that means live.

Live performances have changed vastly since the big band supper-club era, when orchestras wailed and torch singers titillated before elegantly dressed audiences.

In the 1960s music and politics fused into a movement.

On March 24, 1965, on the last night of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, "Segregation is on its death bed." Thousands celebrated and commemorated this moment at a concert starring musical heavyweights Tony Bennet, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary, who rejoiced and sang songs of freedom to an exhausted but emotionally charged crowd.

By 1969, rock 'n' roll and live performances had become a lifestyle. In Woodstock, N.Y., the mother of all concerts was held on 6,000 acres, rented for $50,000 to hold an estimated 60,000 people. Tickets were $24.

But by the time the show began, 400,000 people had shown up for three days of sleepless, partying nights, and another 250,000 who never even made it to the show flooded the area. This culture of free love and peace was intensified by hallucinogenic drugs.

Legendary performances by icons like Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix made Woodstock one of the most significant events in musical and pop culture history. Both would be dead a year later.

Woodstock changed the way we wanted to see and hear music forever. The venues and crowds became bigger and bigger, so the business interests did too. Marketing teams, big-time promoters and the media stepped in. And with the cameras and klieg lights pointed at them, artists realized they could promote their own causes.

The benefit concert was born.

Sure, benefit concerts are intended to help victims and survivors of natural or political disasters such as AIDS, famine and human rights issues. But artists are also trying to sell songs. Make no mistake: These events are as much about making money as they are about delivering a message. And celebrities realize that by joining these orgies, they sparkle much brighter.

Last week, as only two princes and P. Diddy could do, the memory of Princess Diana was revitalized to the beat of a concert at the newly christened Wembley Stadium. Many of the participating acts were just kids like William and Harry when the people's princess died 10 years ago.

Nelly Furtado, Lily Allen, Pharrell and Kanye West performed alongside Diana's old school faves Duran Duran and Elton John. "It's got to be the best birthday present she ever had," said Prince William.

The Brits have a long history with benefit blowouts: Bob Geldof was the mastermind behind 1984's Band Aid, and the group's anthem "Do They Know It's Christmas" helped raise unprecedented funds to fight famine in Ethiopia. This success led to the spin-off Live Aid, a 16-hour concert held in the summer of 1985 that has raised over $100 million to date.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...