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Benefit Burnout, Results Cloud Popular Charity Concerts

July 20, 1986|ELLIS E. CONKLIN | United Press International

Charity once began humbly at home. Now, giving to the unfortunate is a stadium event.

Hands have spread across America into overflowing concert halls and cheering coliseums, with satellite uplinks and downlinks, in a high-tech maze of mega-events from Band Aid to Live Aid to Farm Aid to Sport Aid to Fish Aid.

The goals are as ambitious as the wars waged on poverty during the Great Society--helping Ethiopians, American Indians and farmers, this nation's homeless and overseas political prisoners.

The generosity flows not from hearth or from government, but from spirited producers bankrolled by corporations and fueled by million-dollar entertainers who feed the music-starved with promises of feeding the hungry.

Few question the sincerity of these mammoth fund-raisers that germinated with the emotional British Band Aid recording session in the autumn of 1984. But amid the consciousness-raising fanfare, perplexing questions are being raised by social critics, relief organizations, political and religious leaders--even producers themselves.

Is it the cause or the concert that draws an audience, or does it matter as long as the money comes? Is the success of the event measured only in terms of dollars raised, and does the money really help? Is it even enough to matter?

Have entertainers started shaping public policy and, perhaps making all of the other questions moot, has the litany of extravaganzas created aid-concert burnout?

Stevie Wonder, comedian Cheech Marin and singers Rita Coolidge and Kenny Rankin joined Native American elders recently at "Drums Across America," a concert in Burbank to publicize the plight of Navajos facing relocation from their ancestral homeland in Arizona.

Only about 1,000 people showed up at the 4,000-seat Starlight Amphitheater, and producer Bob Grad conceded that the effort would lose money. So much for fighting relocation.

"People are starting to get burned out because there are so many causes," Grad said. "I don't know. From what I've seen (from other benefit concerts), the purported beneficiaries don't receive any benefits. The money from these things sits earning interest, and that can burn people out."

The Farm Aid II marathon concert in south Texas on July 4th may have been another case of benefit fatigue.

Organizers originally planned to host the Willie Nelson-produced concert, on behalf of debt-ridden family farmers, at the 80,000-seat University of Texas Memorial Stadium.

Plagued by demands for a $200,000 liability insurance premium and slow sales of the $20 general admission tickets, organizers were forced to move the site of the concert, one week before the gala, to the Manor Downs race track. Although the benefit attracted such groups as Alabama, Asleep at the Wheel and the Beach Boys, only slightly more than 40,000 people attended.

Early estimates put the Farm Aid II gross at less than $2 million, a far cry from the $9 million earned by last September's first Farm Aid concert.

The day before the concert, Nelson told reporters that it would take $230 billion to bail out all the farmers who are in debt.

The daylong concert was televised over the Video Hit One cable television network, which has an estimated 130 subscriber stations. Major network coverage was upstaged by Liberty Weekend.

"I'm just bored with these kinds of events," said Los Angeles producer Sandy Brokaw, whose clients include Bill Cosby, James Brown and Jose Feliciano. "I got to the point where I thought it was great, but now I've gotten to the point of burnout."

Brokaw, however, acknowledged that the brave new world of the political concert is also an industry event that offers great publicity to rising stars.

They also provide jobs. "These things are make-work projects," said Roxanne Moffit, who served on the administrative staffs of the Live Aid and Sports Aid concerts.

"You can begin with 12 people and end up with 200 to 300," she added. "You have all the runners the day of the event, the PR people, the corporate sponsors, the budgeting people, the technicians."

Moffit insists that getting the big names is the best way to guarantee success. "For the concert-goer, it's still the concert and the talent, not the cause. Only God can book U-2. That's why the Amnesty International (concert series) was so successful."

"That's irrelevant," countered Mary Dailey, Amnesty International's communications director. "The general feeling is that people came for the concerts (six of them from June 4-11), but they enjoyed hearing about the cause of helping to free political prisoners."

For Dailey and others, the primary purpose is to make people aware of a societal ill.

Come for Entertainment

"From the kids' point of view, they're coming for the entertainment," said Harvey Goldsmith, chairman of the Live Aid Foundation. From his home in London, Goldsmith quickly added, "Sure, there may be too many benefits going, but there's a lot of need, and these make people aware of the need."

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