Benefit Concerts Stink!

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was mid-afternoon on July 13, 1985, and the British segment of Live Aid was winding down. Paul McCartney was about to close the show with his first-ever live performance of “Let It Be” (it was a few years before McCartney would realize that not many people came to his shows to hear songs like “Coming Up”).
After a day with few technical miscues, disaster strikes. McCartney’s microphone malfunctions, but it’s quickly corrected. Not missing a beat, he carries on and over a billion people around the world watch…the MTV anchors in Philadelphia singing along.
Yes, a former Beatle is making a then-rare television appearance singing one of his classic songs and the brain trust back in America decides that we’d rather watch Martha Quinn mouth the words.
Live Aid is credited with starting the trend of televised benefit concert, but they should also share in much of the blame for the production and artistic garbage we’ve been forced to endure ever since. If only the British side of the concert has set the standards. From top to bottom there was little to complain about, especially the last three hours which saw riveting performances by Bryan Ferry, Elton John, U2, Queen, The Who, and David Bowie.
Unfortunately, it’s the American side that has been copied by concert organizers. Celebrity ruled over musical substance, forcing us to sit through tepid performances by the Thompson Twins, Bryan Adams, Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, Phil Collins, an under-rehearsed Led Zeppelin reunion, Tina Turner, and a legendary alcohol-laden disaster featuring Bob Dylan backed by Keith Richards and Ron Wood. The finale was an “all-star” version of “We Are the World” which saw Patti LaBelle attempt to turn into a solo performance.
At least we were able to witness all of the performances from both continents. This never happened again. Farm-Aid, which occurred a few months later, was plagued by commercial breaks that interrupted the middle portion of all performances, leaving us to endure interviews with the likes of Reba McEntire and Alabama during set breaks. Most other benefits of this sort granted us one or two-song teasers before moving on to interviews and propaganda.
2005’s Live 8 was the ultimate nadir of televised concerts. MTV showed no complete songs, let alone complete sets. The directors jumped around from one venue to another, giving us little more than 90 second glimpses of any performer. Even XM Radio, which advertised for weeks that each venue’s entire concerts would be broadcast, cut in and out of music sets. At one point Mariah Carey’s appearance was broadcast on five different channels while Neil Young’s simultaneous Toronto performance was joined in progress.
Even worse, as time has passed the booking strategies have become more suspect. It seems like anybody who has a song on any current radio format receives a prime slot, regardless of whether they’re actually able to perform on any stage, let alone a giant football stadium-sized crowd.
If they’re not a current flavor of the month, the booked acts are primarily has-beens who haven’t sold a record since Live Aid. Duran Duran is a prime example. They reunite over and over with few sales of any of the resultant albums, yet they somehow show up on almost every benefit concert playing almost the exact same set they played at Live Aid.
All of this ranting leads up to Live Earth, which was held on Saturday, July 7. I’m not going to get into the political angles of this event, or the hypocritical lifestyles of some of the artists involved. I’m here to comment on the embarrassment of music that was foisted to a worldwide audience.
Let’s first look at the broadcast decisions. Despite the fact that almost a half-dozen channels were broadcasting the concert, none of the channels were truly live and few full performances were shown. Quite often, the same channel would show the same clips over and over. I didn’t sit through the entire show, but I can’t count the times I saw Genesis and Bon Jovi (by the way, I can never vote for Al Gore for any office after I saw him frothing at the mouth over the opportunity to introduce those clowns).
Yet that rant is peanuts compared to my anger over the acts that were booked for this show. Black-Eyed Peas? Pussycat Dolls? Akon? Fall Out Boy? John Mayer? These weren’t middling opening acts. They were booked for prime viewing times. It’s as if Entertainment Tonight and People Magazine were in charge of the booking and performance schedule (and judging by the insane commentary and interviews by the “hosts”, there’s a good chance these two outlets were in charge).
There was simply no rhyme or reason to the scheduling of the artists. Metal bands would precede pop acts that would be followed by country acts. The end result was a marathon show on multiple channels that offered no flow that would keep anybody viewed to their television.
How could future benefit organizers “fix” this problem? There’s a simple solution. First, the record industry must finally understand that music has become niche-oriented. A Melissa Etheridge fan cares nothing about Ludacris, and vice versa. Akon fans have never heard of AFI, and Madonna pretending to play a guitar and introducing a new song only excites her dwindling fan base.
No matter what lineup you put together, people these days are going to channel-surf. Obviously, the goal is to keep the various niches tuned in as long as possible. The solution is genre-based concerts held at multiple venues. Put all the pop stars on prime-time network television for the soccer moms and “tweens”. Book all of the metal bands at one venue and air it on Spike. Do something similar for indie rock and place that on Sundance, or a dance music lineup on Bravo. Obviously, the country acts would be placed on CMT, has-been oldies acts on VH1, and hip-hop on BET or MTV. Hell, how about a Christian rock lineup for one of the religious channels? Or an international set for the Travel Channel? Those respective audiences would find their channel, and stay there for the majority of the show.
Of course, this scenario makes too much sense, and is unlikely to ever occur. In the meantime, I’m staying away from these silly concerts, no matter the relevance of the issue of the day.


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