Rock And Roll To The Rescue Behind The Scenes Of Musical Benefit Projects

Rock And Roll To The Rescue Behind The Scenes Of Musical Benefit Projects
After getting only a single question in, Liberal MP Dennis Mills has to bail out on our interview. "You'll have to call back in ten minutes, I have to take this other call." I do just that, then call back again, and again. We don't end up finishing our conversation until a few days later, but despite trying my patience like no musician I've ever interviewed, I understand Mills' predicament. In only a few weeks he will find out whether he'll top playing host to the Pope last year.

The member for Toronto-Danforth is confident that bringing in the Rolling Stones and a multitude of other acts is the best way to restore the city's image from the beating it took at the hands of SARS. Mills would be the first to admit that he isn't Bob Geldof and this isn't a project to feed starving Africans — the concert's ultimate purpose is to boost capitalism in the city. Yet his determination to put on this show is only the most recent example of how musicians are still among the most readily available tools to get a message across, while deftly sidestepping the excess baggage of an overt political agenda.

The bottom line remains that charities — and, it seems, cities — need public donations to exist. Media savvy organisations now understand that calling on artists for help can be approached in two different ways: by having musicians raise the money directly through donations (proceeds from a concert or CD sales); and by having musicians represent their cause publicly, in the hopes that raised awareness will inspire fans to join in donating. In each instance, history has revealed that while aligning music with a benefit project may be an easy sell in the initial stages, the outcomes don't often achieve the original goals.

In terms of political savvy and the power to deliver a loyal fan-base to a cause, there are few better places to start than with Bruce Cockburn. The Canadian icon has spent the better part of the past 20 years balancing his musical career with raising awareness for many causes, most recently the worldwide movement to ban landmines. In doing so, he has not only retained his core audience, but gained more fans moved by his protest music of the ‘80s. While his recent albums, including the latest, You've Never Seen Everything, have returned to more self-reflective territory, he remains committed to informing his audience about issues that interest him, most of which are not normally covered in the mainstream media.

"These organisations obviously want to draw upon the visibility that musicians have," Cockburn says. "I can't go to Central America and teach people new agricultural techniques, but I can help raise money for people who can. At the same time, I'm not in a position to browbeat my audience into donating money to something just because I support it. All I can do is present ideas to people, then it's up to them whether they agree or not."

Despite developing into a highly visible spokesperson for USC Canada and Oxfam, among others, Cockburn's own ideals have always dictated the causes he supports. "Once you're on the map as being someone willing to do things like that, everybody asks," he says.

Cockburn contributed a song to the recently released Peace Songs compilation, a two-disc set assembled by War Child Canada, a branch of the international War Child organisation, with all proceeds going to reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sierra Leone. War Child's image in Canada has largely been shaped by its relationships with high profile musicians such as Our Lady Peace's Raine Maida, Chantal Kreviazuk and the Tragically Hip. Deputy executive director Kali Galanis says they have experimented with both the direct-donation and awareness-raising approaches.

"We nurture our relationships with musicians very carefully," she says. "We want them to understand as clearly as possible what the cause is, because if they don't and speak about it in public, it's not really to our advantage. We understand that musicians get asked to do a lot of charity work, so we want to make them feel as involved in the cause as we can."

Having Maida and Kreviazuk travel to Iraq two years ago to film a documentary, later aired on MuchMusic, was a major undertaking aimed at exposing the conditions there to an impressionable audience. But Peace Songs emphasises music, and Galanis says that since the album's release in April, War Child has already received $100,000 from sales through its distributor, Sony Music. She maintains that music fans are the organisation's biggest source of public donations and War Child has taken steps to reach them better.

"We have a staff member with experience in the music business who is able to deal with managers and record labels, so without him we wouldn't be able to do a lot of these things," Galanis says. "For the most part, the people who work at War Child are humanitarians and don't know a lot about the music business."

While Galanis says that War Child does build on its musical partnerships by campaigning in high schools, their strategy begs a question: do the Our Lady Peace and Avril Lavigne fans buying Peace Songs understand or even care where the money goes? One hopes so — the long-term benefits of these associations, in terms of awareness, tend to outstrip the immediate revenue raised by an individual project itself. The flipside to that remains, of course, that the focus will be placed on something other than its intended beneficiaries — on the artists, or the success or failure of the event, rather than on its well-intentioned cause.

Cockburn's integrity has never been in question, but he admits that in some cases, especially the landmines issue, he has had to face some political realities. "With a situation like that, where we need governments to act in order to get results, of course you have to take political aspirations into account," he says. "It's not bad to align yourself with people as long as it's going in the right direction. I've never had the experience of something being worthless because of the self-interest of some of the people involved."

Perhaps Cockburn has maintained that track record because he shies away from exercises like the "Concerts For Toronto." What began as a well-intentioned, if overly ambitious, public relations exercise to restore faith in the city's tourism industry has had almost the opposite effect, at least among many residents. The two events — June 21 shows featuring all-Canadian line-ups, and the July 30 Rolling Stones blow-out — were intended, at least in part, to compensate Toronto health care workers who dealt with the SARS outbreaks. But mostly the rapid time lapse between conception and execution was in response to the disease's crushing impact on Toronto's economy.

There are two recent precedents for these shows: the "Concert For New York City" following 9/11, and last year's World Youth Day in Toronto, where Pope John Paul II addressed nearly one million pilgrims at the same venue where the Stones played for half that number. With these examples as his trump card, Mills raised the $10 million necessary to get the Stones in a matter of days, through government and corporate donations. Originally conceived of as a free show, tickets were eventually sold for $21.50 — one dollar from each goes to compensate both health care workers and the hospitality industry. (A quick math lesson: that's about $500,000 raised for health care workers, at a cost to governments and private corporations of $10 million — spending $20 for every one dollar raised.)

With all that money at stake — not to mention Toronto's international reputation — why would Mills and the other organisers risk it all on a Rolling Stones concert? "The basis of my thinking went back to my experience as the government co-ordinator for World Youth Day last year with His Holiness," Mills says. "I'd worked on that project for two years, and I will never forget the international media coverage that it brought to Canada. I also will never forget the incredible spirit that took over our city from the moment the Pope landed at Pearson International."

Let's forget for a moment that a lower-than-anticipated registered turnout for World Youth Day left the Catholic Church with a $37 million debt; the two-year planning time still resulted in many unforeseen logistical headaches. Given both the Stones' long association with Toronto (it's the home base for their promoter, CPI) it was a reasonable assumption that minimal obstacles would stand in the way of this concert, once money was found to pay for it. But it's another leap to assume that the concert's audience — targeted out-of-towners came here for a single day event that took place in a remote part of the city's north end — would significantly contribute to Toronto's economy at all. Add to that a Woodstock ‘99-style atmosphere where the needs of the crowd are superseded by the needs of the organisers to maximise some sort of return on their investment.

As far as Mills was concerned, the SARS outbreak was Toronto's 9/11, and someone needed to respond to it in the same way New Yorkers rallied together. But if the health care and tourism industries do get sufficiently compensated from the concert, it will be at the expense of Toronto's City Hall. Questions remain: could this just be a case of Mills calling in favours to some high-powered friends, namely CPI president Michael Cohl, to gain some long-term political leverage, as well as to stroke his own ego?

An even more debatable point is why the June 21 concerts — bankrolled by the Ontario government to the tune of $5 million — were promoted almost exclusively to Toronto residents, i.e., non-tourists. With 70,000 tickets swallowed up at $30 each, the concerts at Skydome and the Air Canada Centre were successful from a PR standpoint, but the long-term positive effects they generated are highly dubious. An interesting side-note to the June 21 shows is that almost all of the artists on that bill are booked by the same agency, S.L. Feldman & Associates, which reaped its own benefits for having its acts play for up to a half-million dollars for an hour-long set. (Despite both shows having a "benefit" feel, all performing artists were fully paid.) Company president Sam Feldman told The Globe & Mail that the immediacy of the event led to organisers dealing mostly with his clients. "We provided the expediency needed to pull this thing off," Feldman said.

While the musicians obviously tried to put the best possible spin on the situation, Barenaked Ladies' Steven Page expressed some hesitation beforehand, telling the Toronto Sun, "I was nervous early on that this was going to be some kind of re-election campaign for the Eves government, which I wasn't going to be a part of. We're happy to go out there and entertain people and make people feel good about our city. But I want to make sure that this isn't the only assistance that people are going to get. There's something to be said about entertainment and feeling good about our culture, but there's also something to be said about getting jobs and not losing your apartment."

The SARS crisis may have demanded a large, elaborate response — the jury will probably be out for some time — but a large scale isn't always necessary to contribute to solutions in your own backyard. Even before bodies of missing women from Vancouver's downtown east side started being discovered on alleged killer Robert Pickton's farm, the events so affected singer/songwriter Wyckham Porteous that he felt compelled to react.

"My motivation originally was more of a personal response to the reportage," he says. "I go by that area and I see these women a lot, so I had an awareness of the problem, even when it seemed the police weren't really looking to solve the case. When the papers kept making the point that they died on a pig farm, something just clicked in me that these women were never treated with any dignity, even in how the news media were saying they died. That got me thinking that I could bring a bunch of people together to make a little memorial that would give these women a little dignity."

Along with his colleagues Gary Durban and John Ellis, Porteous wrote "The Streets Where You Live," and set about persuading other Canadian artists to contribute to the recording. In the end, the line-up topped 70 guest singers, including Gord Downie, Sarah Harmer, Ron Sexsmith and Mary Margaret O'Hara. Yet, while no one could question the song's intentions, Porteous says the logistics nearly proved insurmountable.

"Once we expanded the guests beyond the people we knew in Vancouver, the project started to weigh on two people, myself and Gary, who had no money, no management, nothing. But once you get to a certain stage, there are expectations that you place upon yourself.

"Almost all people that were contacted participated freely," Porteous continues. "It was only once we got involved with record labels and management structures that it got to be work, and unpleasant work. We had no resources for the first four or five months, and both of us were in uncomfortable territory, business-wise. At that point I was thinking, if I'd known what this would become, I never would have done it. What started off as a labour of love became just pure labour. But it reinforced in me that musicians still are, no matter what level they're at, extremely responsive to the needs of people that they perceive as underdogs. It was only when we went to the corporate world and tried to raise funds that there was a lot of hesitation, because of the subject matter."

After recording the song, the work turned to what would be done with the money it would bring in. Fortunately, Porteous was approached by an organisation proposing to build a transition home for women on the downtown east side, and the Buried Heart Society was founded. In the year since its release, "The Streets Where You Live" has sold over 150,000 copies on its own and through its inclusion on the Women & Songs 6 compilation, establishing Buried Heart as a legitimate charity. Porteous is now working on a series of television documentaries showing Canadian musicians getting involved in their own local troubled neighbourhoods.

"The positive outcome of the whole thing is that we had to form a board of directors, and those people turned out to be really good, serious people," Porteous says. "Gary and I are still on the board, but we're more of the original voice of the project. The rest of the board members are competent, high-level business people in real estate, law and accounting, and they've taken things to a degree that we realise now we never could have done. Our original idea ultimately became a catalyst for money to be raised in more traditional ways."

But for every successful project such as this — one that managed to raise both money and awareness — there are many others that unfortunately illustrate how the well-intentioned can be undone by poor planning or a lack of foresight. Amy Hersenhorn is one of Toronto's major club bookers and she has experienced too many benefit concerts that didn't achieve even the most modest of goals. "I think it's great that musicians want to do things to help people out, but when the whole point of doing a benefit show is to raise money and you're not able to raise any by the end of the night, what's the point of doing it?"

She adds, "There are certain warning signs. If a person comes to me with a bill that has 25 bands that I know can only draw ten people on their own, that still doesn't mean there are going to be 250 people in the room. Those shows are almost always disasters. I've done benefits at Lee's Palace where there have been two people in the room."

Hersenhorn's advice is to approach it like any other show. "Many larger charities have event co-ordinators for things like this, but people who don't put on shows for a living should never try to do it. They just don't know what's involved. Most musicians know what they're able to draw, so if a band like Godspeed wants to take the money they get from playing for 2,200 people one night and donate it to a local charity, that's really admirable. But if someone comes to me wanting to do a show and they can't even tell me the basic technical requirements, then I already know it's going to be too much trouble."

The promoters of the Stones concert obviously had the experience, if not the foresight, to pull it off, but history shows that any gathering of such magnitude cannot occur without a hitch, even long after the show is over. The City of Toronto and Dennis Mills might have gotten off the hook for World Youth Day's shortcomings, but the lead-up to the Stones concert had already been tainted by too many unwanted questions about the city's fragile public services, and the concerns of outside security experts: Will public transit be sufficient? Will there be too many personal restrictions? Are there contingencies in place in case of a major snafu?

Once all of these questions began taking the focus away from the real issues the concert was supposed to address, there was little hope that it could have the desired impact. Ultimately, the show may come to symbolise the end of massive outdoor rock festivals in Canada, but it may also mark the beginning of a new era in how musicians perceive and support benefit projects.

Bruce Cockburn, for one, is curious to see how it all plays out. "The concert may be of some value if it actually does help the businesses that were affected by all the bad [SARS] publicity, but it's way down the list of my priorities of things to support," he says. "I'm always suspicious of the motives of governments, because they always have their own agenda. The real charitable work in most countries is done by non-governmental agencies. On the other hand, if governments remain willing to pay musicians millions of dollars to support those agendas, I can't see them not taking it. I'm sure they need the money."

Giving Till It Hurts: The Fallout of Music's Biggest Benefits

The Concert For Bangladesh (1971)
George Harrison organised this first large-scale rock benefit, in aid of flood victims. With an album and movie in tow, the event raised $9 million. However, due to legal wrangling and tax problems, it didn't reach the needy until 1981, when Harrison paid the final tax bill out of his own pocket. A hard lesson for everyone involved.

No Nukes (1979)
This series of concerts dominated by the California folk-rock contingency did little to further its cause of stopping nuclear proliferation within Reagan-mad Middle America. A film and album of a Madison Square Garden show got mixed reviews, and is only remembered now for Bruce Springsteen's electrifying appearance.

Live Aid (1985)
Bob Geldof's finest hour, and the spark that created dozens of other similarly-styled events. While no one could fault Geldof's passion and effort in raising money and awareness for starving Africans, it was reported that the project's impact was reduced considerably due to more drought, and ongoing wars in Ethiopia. Geldof recently returned to public, political life in an attempt to illustrate what he calls the European Union's "pathetic" attitude toward African aid.

Artists Against Apartheid (1985)
Spearheaded by Springsteen side-man Steven Van Zandt, this project was the first substantial rallying cry by musicians to protest conditions in South Africa. The momentum only grew from there within the entertainment industry, eventually leading to a worldwide groundswell of support that forced the release of Nelson Mandela and apartheid's elimination.

Farm Aid (1986)
Inspired by a comment Bob Dylan made at Live Aid, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and others founded this organisation to help preserve American family farms. Although it received less and less government support over the years, the annual concerts still go ahead, with Nelson continually commenting that they shouldn't have to take place at all.

Tibetan Freedom Concerts (1996)
The brainchild of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, this series of concerts featuring a who's who of modern rock figures raised several million dollars to support Tibet's struggle against Chinese domination. The concerts took place in many international cities annually until 2001, when logistics and declining interest put them on the shelf indefinitely.