Friday, July 29, 2011

Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the Concert for Bangladesh

Monday marks the fortieth anniversary of the Concert for Bangladesh. Preceding Live Aid by almost 15 years, it marks the first time that a Rock n' Roll staged a massive charity concert. George Harrison forged a lot of new ground to get the concert up and running and later, getting all of the money raised to the people who it was intended for. Harrison's successes and failures were used by future Rock fund raisers  to learn from.

From the Guardian, music writer Graeme Thomson takes a look at how effective the concert was.

Rather than vanish, it expanded. The Concert for Bangladesh raised $243,000 overnight, and spawned a single (Harrison's typically literal Bangladesh, specially written for the occasion), as well as a triple album and a film. It has since raked in $17m for Unicef, funding projects not only in Bangladesh but in trouble spots from Angola to Romania, and is currently the focus of a Month of Giving in aid of the famine in the Horn of Africa. But not everything it achieved can be so easily measured. In paving the way for popular music to explore what Americans like to call its "better self", it still encapsulates much of what is perceived to be the best and worst about rock fundraising: a pile of money, heightened awareness for a clear cause, and a rich cultural and musical legacy on the plus side; confusion, mismanagement, excess and ego on the other.

Having hosted the concert with entirely honourable intentions, Harrison stumbled into what has become a perennial problem: getting the cash to the intended destination. "I don't know how much money actually reached where it should have gone, early on," Boyd says, recalling that Harrison believed that some of it "went walkabout".

"It was uncharted territory, the scale of it," says Jonathan Clyde, of Apple (the Beatles' company, not the tech company), who oversees the Concert's legacy, alongside Harrison's widow, Olivia. "The money did eventually reach Bangladesh, although perhaps not in time to help the refugees at that point. The big mistake was that Unicef wasn't chosen beforehand, and so the IRS [the US tax service] took the view that because the charity wasn't involved in the mounting of the concert, they'd take their cut. This distressed George hugely, it really angered him. There was an ongoing tussle for years, but I'm afraid even now the IRS still take their slice."

Many of these lessons have been learned by those seeking to replicate Harrison's pioneering work, but raising cash through making music remains oddly inefficient. "It's simply unavoidable that there will be costs which must be recovered," says Brendan Paddy, communications director at the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), which received half the £1.3m proceeds from Everybody Hurts, the charity single released last year in response to the Haitian earthquake. "It's a balance between keeping those costs down and making it happen quickly, and the public finds that difficult to understand and accept. If your single concern is that every penny of your donation goes to the cause, then you may well find a more efficient way of giving, but that's not really the point."

So what is the point? For all its problems, the Concert for Bangladesh resonated because it united those two lightning rods for 60s idealism – Dylan and, in the form of Harrison and Starr, the Beatles – at a time when music was still regarded as a counter-cultural force powerful enough to change the world. The result, Clyde says, "put Bangladesh on the map. For the generation involved in the war of liberation it meant a huge amount. It helped their independence become recognised."

The Concert for Bangladesh did more than simply raise money, it left a deep imprint on the times. So did Live Aid, partly because it was the first major music event given blanket TV coverage, but also because Geldof, born in 1951 and very much a child of 1968, the high watermark of pop and politics, understood the relationship between the two and how it could be harnessed. In an age of defined ideological divisions, framed by the 1984/85 miners' strike, Live Aid tapped into a desire among musicians to address social issues, and a willingness among audiences to accept that.

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