Who really benefits from musicians' charity?
Recently I was asked if I would like to play at a fund-raising gig for victims of the Asian tsunami. You bet, I thought. Doesn't everyone want to do what they can? It should be a good gig — perhaps I'll get some names for my mailing list. And it's not every day you get a chance to share a stage with some of the biggest musical names in... hang on. What exactly is important here?
Fund-raising concerts are an obvious way for the music world to contribute in times of need. Many promoters and technicians and venue staff give up their time to organise benefit shows, and I have nothing but respect for them. But I don't know that musicians can always claim to have such pure motives. If we were perfectly honest about it, I suspect many of us would have to admit that we play charity gigs for the same reason we always play gigs: because we like to show off. The fact that people on the other side of the world will get a few quid out of it is great, but let's not kid ourselves we're all being Mother Theresa. For most of us at the lower end of the food chain, there are better ways to help tsunami victims than to dedicate a song to them. It's just that shaking a collecting tin or answering telephones doesn't make us feel so important.
Of course, I could struggle with my conscience for years and it would make no difference to anyone. When pop stars line up to perform for charity, however, the stakes are higher. The original Band Aid and Live Aid not only raised vast amounts of money, but also did something that no ordinary fund-raising campaign can do: they drew the British public's attention to a famine that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Since then, every unfortunate event seems to have spawned a charity hit, from football disasters to the BBC's decision to axe Doctor Who. As befits the scale of the destruction it wrought, the tsunami has generated at least three fund-raising records, among them 'Grief Never Grows Old', featured in last month's SOS. All are the product of hundreds of man-hours, donated for free by celebrities, engineers and record-company employees. Over the month or so that they stay in the charts, sales of these hits will raise tens of thousands of pounds that are desperately needed in Asia. Everyone wins.
Everyone, that is, except the listener.
I don't want to belittle the hard work put in by everyone involved, but I find it hard to believe that most of these records would have been hits under normal circumstances. How many people would actually hand over cash for your average Comic Relief tie-in if it didn't have the charity tag attached? How many radio stations would have playlisted Ferry Aid's 'Let It Be'? The truth is that we're expected to listen to charity singles not because we might like them, but because of what they represent. To my mind, that takes advantage of the public's good will.
You could say that's not important when lives are at stake. After all, there wasn't much musical genius on display in the original Band Aid, yet it changed our view of the world, and probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But not every charity single is a Band Aid, and in the case of the tsunami, the public was already responding with amazing generosity without any musical prompting from Cliff Richard. If 'Grief Never Grows Old' hadn't existed, chances are the money it raised would still have been donated through other channels. And couldn't the world's pop stars have collected the same amount more easily by getting out their cheque books instead of their microphones?
Making a charity record brings with it a reward that most good works don't: the chance to have a hit single with no risk of failure, no matter how poor the material, no matter how weak the performances. I'm sure I'll be accused of being cynical for saying this, and perhaps I am. But is it really the disaster victims who stand to gain the most from this sort of project? Or is it the faded pop stars using their involvement to get back into the public eye? The songwriters whose dismal efforts would never normally trouble the charts? The producers who are busy adding names like Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney to their CVs? Aren't they being just a teeny bit cynical too?
The gig was great, by the way.
Sam Inglis isn't nearly as bad as he seems. In fact, he once saved a bus-load of schoolchildren in the French Alps when he could easily have left them to die. He is also Features Editor of Sound On Sound.