Playing for the World: Musicians and Charities - Charity Week on BTR


Photo from the World Economic Forum, by Remy Steinegger

What do Bono, Sting, Justin Bieber, Chad Kroeger and Chris Martin have in common, aside from representing three generations of skillfully irritating pop stars? Each of these guys you love to hate works with a charitable organization in between their tasteless laser shows and secret meetings with Clear Channel and the Illuminati. Before they signed their contracts they were musicians, and musicians usually have a soft-heart if they can afford it.

Ever since Phil Ochs’ death and the effective end of pop music’s era of social-consciousness, commercially-masterminded acts or otherwise mainstream performers (see also: record executives) have put aside a portion of their time and money to engage in philanthropic exchanges with the world. Though these gigantic, G-8-sized charity concerts seem to come and go like the attention paid to the events they cover, the work being done is inherently good.

Not to be upstaged by larger acts, many small bands, lesser-known musicians, and indie record labels regularly involve themselves in charitable events that may not be “We Are the World” in scope, but their philanthropic aim is just as true–if not more so when local musicians play in their own communities.

Owner of the Brooklyn based Mecca Lecca Recording Co., Jonny Leather explained to BTR the benefits and limitations of musicians adding charity work to their busy performance schedules. In 2009, Leather worked with the Ronald McDonald House in Manhattan, bringing bands Your Vegas and Fugitive Souls along to perform songs for children and their families.

“Rather than just raise money and give it to them, we used the money to purchase a variety of instruments. We then made a special visit to the Ronald McDonald House in Manhattan, where we presented the gifts to the institution.”

They played classic children’s songs like “Old McDonald” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” while the kids banged away on their new instruments and sang along to the familiar tunes.

“There was a really wonderful joy filling that room, and some of the children even crawled up onto the laps of the band members as they performed.”

Coyle Girelli of Your Vegas drew a great deal of joy from the experience, as one of his closest friends recently passed away due to cancer and still other friends of his are currently fighting the disease.

“Seeing the kids playing on the guitars, percussion and equipment we bought remains one of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my life,” says Girelli, “And it’s deeply satisfying knowing that countless children will find escape, happiness and inspiration from them.”

In addition to the Ronald McDonald House, Leather has helped organize benefit shows for his friend Brad Bennett’s nonprofit Jiamini, an NGO that educates orphaned and other vulnerable Tanzanian children in methods of self-sufficiency while at the same time improving their schools’ conditions.

Leather emphasized that hosting a charity event requires real forethought, as the organization might be wary of presenting a blood-soaked GiGi Allin or a bat-eating Ozzy Osbourne as its representative.

Besides image conscientiousness, Leather explains the harshest reality in terms of getting musicians to help with charitable events: finance.

“Bands are broke and venues have their struggles, so it becomes more challenging to ask them to help out a cause if it’s gonna put them further in a hole. I think bands would be far more excited to do events for charity if they were making any money as artists.”

While massive benefit concerts wane in frequency (there are none on the horizon, and the big one for Japan never happened) for various reasons, smaller concerts pop up with smaller acts and more modest goals.

The music documentarians at Duke Street kicked off a series of benefit concerts in New York this May with “Generous Feedback,” a concert that starred Yellowbirds, Bozmo, and Little Gold, directing its proceeds to the music education nonprofit UpBeat NYC.

“It was a great time,” concert director Bill Antonucci told BTR, “The bands were great, we had a solid turnout, and were able to donate $200 to our organizations as well as a few musical instruments that were donated by some of the party-goers.”

The event’s tagline, “We’re all going out. Let’s party with some purpose” approaches the heart of charity’s purpose in a performance setting: people go out to have fun anyway, why not attach some meaning to it?

Sam Cohen of Yellowbirds, a band that performed at the first installment of Generous Feedback on May 27th, shared his thoughts with BTR on the doubly satisfying results of participating at such an event.

“The Generous Feedback events are great – everyone’s enjoying themselves, music is playing, and the environment is very comfortable.  Being a musician, I was definitely excited about helping raise money for instruments for kids.  Playing an instrument can be a powerful, life-changing thing.  I hope we were able to make that possible for someone.”

On Saturday June 18th, the Governors Ball music festival on Governor’s Island, New York is partnering up with Music Unites to donate a portion of the festival’s profits to help bring music education to underprivileged youth in the city. Girl Talk and Pretty Lights will be headlining, along with Neon Indian, People Under the Stairs, and others.

Self-Suffice, a poet and rapper based in Hartford, CT whose identity as a musician draws heavily from his community activism and social-consciousness will be performing at the Shashamane fundraiser on June 25th at the Vibz Uptown in Hartford.

Though concerts and performance spaces remain the preferred venue for charitable action, many artists take to the web for a more accessible, non-geographical outpost of philanthropic undertaking.

Several Japanese video game soundtrack composers including Koji Kondo, Akira Yamaoka, Hip Tanaka, and Nobuo Uematsu recently recorded Play for Japan, an album of original songs whose earnings will be relayed to the Japanese Red Cross for its tsunami relief efforts. Each composer has a rich connection to the history of Japan’s gaming and music industries, and so instead of repackaging old compositions in the contrived melancholic context of a relief album, they have come together to willfully produce a collection of new music that aims to entertain and connect fans to Japanese culture. No burdensome pathos is heaved upon the listener and no guilt is fully lifted, but through the compilation the sense that consumerism is a rotten partner to aid is temporarily pushed aside.

As a proponent of charities, one must always be wary of fiendish opportunism and poor management prior to making a donation. Before attaching their names to specific organizations, musicians should peruse the 501 (c) (3) nonprofit Charity Navigator, which evaluates the effectiveness of charitable organizations to save people from staging their own private investigations of a potentially suspicious NGO.

Ayn Rand, a robot famous for her self-help novels, believed that charity limits the need to find success in a capitalist market that already demands too much of its individual participants. Counter to this “greed is good” mantra is the idea that fame and fortune offer opportunities to help those with less privilege, and that disposable income should be disposed of freely, but responsibly.

For all we know Bieber fever is the antidote to Typhoid fever, and Lady Gaga’s sweat cures AIDS.

Written by: Jakob Schnaidt