It seems whenever there’s a major crisis, someone sets up a stage, plugs in a microphone, and calls the world together through music. These are called benefit or charity concerts and they’re intended to raise money, awareness, or both, for said major crisis.
But, in the long run, are they really the answer to the world’s biggest issues?
Benefit concerts and festivals, in their current guise, have existed for more than half a century now, and they show no sign of slowing down. It’s not hard to see why, in a world that is grappling with new and ongoing social, economic, environmental, and health issues — not to mention a world that is undoubtedly still far away from achieving the goal to end extreme poverty.
However, if you think too hard about it (which I have), you might come to the thought that pop culture and celebrity stage moments don’t sound like they belong in the same space as the world’s biggest issues. Poverty and pop culture don’t mix well in the same cocktail, do they?
Let’s get to the bottom of it.
What are benefit concerts?
Put simply, a benefit or charity concert is an event that utilises music and the platforms of celebrities to raise awareness or money for an urgent issue.
They’ve existed in their current format since 1971, when The Beatles guitarist George Harrison and his good friend, Indian composer Ravi Shankar, teamed up to raise money for Bengali refugees fleeing violence in their home country.
At the time, East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was fighting for independence and democracy — a movement that was severely cracked down on by Pakistani authorities; killing hundreds of thousands of people, and leading to a refugee crisis.
The historic event, called The Concert for Bangladesh, raised $240,000 for UNICEF through donations and a further $17 million through album and film sales since then. It set a new precedent for celebrity involvement in spotlighting issues that need immediate attention from all around the world.
According to NPR: “The Concert for Bangladesh showed that celebrities could tap into their fan base to make Western audiences more attentive to geographically distant issues.”
Since then, some of the big hitters have been Live Aid in 1985 and the follow-up Live 8 in 2005, along with Farm Aid (an annual event that started in 1985), the Tibetan Freedom Concert events (from 1996 to 2001), Nelson Mandela’s 46664 concerts for AIDS awareness (from 2003 to 2008), Tsunami Aid in 2004, and Hope for Haiti in 2010.
Some of these events have even drawn on musicians’ own legacies and experiences, such as A Concert for Life: The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness following the death of Queen’s lead vocalist in 1991; and Ariana Grande’s One Love Manchester in response to the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing that took place following one of Grande's concerts.
These events are often massive undertakings that call on the world to stop in their tracks, and pay attention to what is being said on stage. So do they succeed?
Do they work?
The simple answer is yes. One of the biggest reasons they work is because they master the attention economy. They do this by using our daily hunger for pop culture to divert our attention to matters we might not have thought about if they weren’t immediately affecting us, or trending on our timelines.
This is important because the truth is, humanitarian crises don’t often get the attention they deserve. CARE International released a report in early 2023 that highlighted just how much more significant media coverage of pop culture is, when compared to media coverage of some of the world's biggest crises.
The report takes a look at the number of articles published about pop culture events in 2022, in comparison to articles about humanitarian crises in the same year; and the results offer compelling evidence that pop culture and celebrities get a whole lot more attention than most humanitarian crises. Malawi’s hunger crisis, for example, where at least 5.4 million people do not have enough food to eat, was covered in 2,330 articles. That's compared to over 100,000 articles about Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck getting back together.
Getting a stake in the attention economy is essential for humanitarian issues, because the global attention on an issue means more potential for world leaders to take action to help — it's been shown that media attention does correlate with government aid allocations.
It’s not fair, of course, that the world’s humanitarian crises are competing for the same eyeballs that are glued to pop culture news. But what benefit concerts and festivals do (as well as organizations who work with celebrities through ambassadorship) is use the star power to shift people’s eyeballs to the places that need them most. And they succeed at doing that, all while raising money and attention for urgent issues. Put it this way, if the events are about putting crises in front of people who otherwise wouldn’t be seeing them, then there’s a net positive gain.
Let’s take Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck again — both of whom took part in Global Citizen’s Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World (granted, this was slightly ahead of their romantic reunion). The event, held on May 8, 2021, and broadcast and streamed around the world, was part of a campaign working to ensure COVID-19 vaccines were equitably distributed around the world, to raise funds for pandemic relief, and to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
In part thanks to Lopez, Affleck, and the many other massive names who headlined and took part, this event helped mobilize $302 million for COVID-19 pandemic relief, along with 26 million COVID-19 vaccines delivered to those who needed them most.
Some benefit concerts — like Global Citizen's own festival events for example — don't raise humanitarian funding through tickets sales at all; but rather focus on raising awareness and educating the public about global issues, all with the aim of empowering citizens to urge world leaders, the private sector, and others with outsized global influence to act by committing funding to global and local organizations addressing the issues.
Global Citizen Festival, for example, which is taking place this year on Sept. 23 in New York City’s Central Park, calls on Global Citizens to not buy but earn their festival tickets by taking action on the world's biggest global challenges today. Global Citizens have taken millions of actions calling on world leaders and the private sector to urgently address gender inequality, the global food crisis, and the climate emergency in the run up to the event — which is being headlined by Jung Kook, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ms. Lauryn Hill, and Aniita, along with performances from Conan Gray, D-Nice, Sofia Carson. Stray Kids had been set to perform but due to an unforeseen accident, we will be joined by 3RACHA, which features three members of Stray Kids, Changbin, Bang Chan, and Han.
So yes, benefit concerts work — but the real question should be…
Will benefit concerts *continue* to work?
Currently, these concerts and festivals work so well because they tap into fanbases that are already invested in the artists who appear at them. Celebrities are smart enough to know the influence they have over their fans, and can share information with their fans about the causes they care about with calls to action — just like you would with your friends.
But audiences and fanbases are demanding more of benefit and charity events now than back when they first began. One of the biggest criticisms these events currently face, for example, is that they’re more about enhancing or improving a celebrity's public image, rather than having an impact.
Oxfam’s Creative Alliances and Music Outreach Project Manager, Bob Ferguson, notes that: "We have to be on our toes to sniff out opportunities that are more about rehabilitating an artist's reputation rather than being helpful."
Another argument against these events is their overhead cost; events are not cheap. Concerts are so expensive to host now that the Wall Street Journal has dubbed 2023: “The Year of the $1,000 Concert Ticket” — and that’s without even factoring in making enough money to deliver to charity organizations as well.
The hefty price of a ticket (for charity events that charge for tickets) could, of course, instead be donated directly to a beneficiary organization if you skipped the event altogether — although this argument doesn’t consider how much value artists bring to the cause through their influence.
So, for charity and benefit events to continue to be effective, event organizers need to be planning and thinking with care, authenticity, and with the impact of the event and the people it's intended to benefit absolutely front and center. Here are a few considerations in thinking about the future of charity events.
1. Have a clear goal, and a clear beneficiary.
Events can’t just be raising money for money’s sake. The Concert for Bangladesh, for example, knew what the cause was, but had no idea who to donate to. While things worked out in the end and the money was donated to UNICEF, the risk of raising funds without an intended recipient is large. If there’s a clear indication from the very beginning of what the money is being raised for, and who is going to receive it, this risk can decrease.
2. Be transparent and stay accountable.
We already live in an age of mistrust, miscommunication, and misinformation. Organizers of benefit events have to earn the trust of attendees and onlookers for their work to matter. This includes ensuring that celebrities involved have a genuine and authentic care for the issue they're working to address, including being willing to put in the work to educate themselves too, alongside their fanbases.
On working with famous artists, Oxfam’s Ferguson said: “There's a vetting process to make sure we're working with people who want to work with us. Music fans can smell a marketing idea or project easily these days.”
3. Don’t stop when the music stops.
The work has to go beyond the concert.
Jamie Drummond, co-founder of ONE, explained it this way: "Concerts, show biz for good causes go so far, and fundraising goes so far, but you have to get at the structural causes of the problems. That requires engaging a bit more in politics."
The work includes being more invested in the issues and the communities beyond the surface level, because otherwise all these concerts would do is throw money at the problem without acknowledging the systemic causes behind the problem. Connecting with grassroots organizations and activists on the ground is also essential to making sure that these events are truly effective in the long run.
For instance, Birhan Woldu, who was a beneficiary of Live Aid — a concert in the 1980s that worked to raise money against famine in Ethiopia — and became one of the faces of the event, went on to say of it 30 years later: “For me, personally, Live Aid has done nothing. I am branded as the symbol of Live Aid due to the image of the 1980s… The state I am in at this moment is miserable. I do not have a job and I cannot support my family on my own.”
This, she believes, was as a result of the event and organizations affiliated with it not connecting to the systemic causes of the hunger crisis that have continued to cause problems long-term.
4. Meet people where they are.
A large majority of the world is experiencing a cost-of-living crisis, and people are struggling to handle their own immediate issues, let alone the issues that people around them and far away from them are facing. Asking the public to fork out cash for a benefit concert when money is tight won’t necessarily sit right.
Instead, benefit concerts can take concert-goers wallets out of the equation by reassessing how they raise funds to address global issues. Global Citizen, for instance, targets world leaders, development banks, and major corporations to commit funds towards tackling an issue, rather than asking members of the public to buy festival tickets.
So what's the answer?
Benefit concerts alone cannot of course solve the world’s biggest problems, but they can be very effective and impactful — whether that's to raise funds directly, raise awareness, educate people, or unite citizens in calling for action from world leaders.
That's because the events and the star power behind them have the power to wield attention, call for accountability, and mobilize action. So yes, when done right they do work, they do have an impact, and they’re worth investing your time in to connect to your favorite artists and to show up for a cause that needs your attention.
If you’ve got this far, you might be interested in learning more about this year’s Global Citizen Festival and how you can take part wherever you are in the world to take action for gender equity, food security, and climate action.