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The 5 Worst Disasters in Benefit Concert History

Poster for the No Pain for Zain Benefit
Poster for the No Pain for Zain Benefit

Benefit concerts are great. The practice of bands playing to raise money for a cause can be as local as helping a fellow unsigned musician pay for their son's hospital bills to as international as world hunger. Though we may pinch our noses at the perceived sanctimoniousness of people like Bono and Bob Geldof, we have to admit that their hearts are in the right place. They're trying to help; it's just that their method involves getting a lot of personal attention.

The thing about charity concerts is that, well, they still involve regular people and the music industry. No matter what you do, the same leeches, incompetents, criminals and other peripheral folks that make being a rocker a trap-filled traitorfest are still going to be involved because you still have to find a venue, sell tickets, record and market the event, and whatnot.

That's where the process breaks down, and even musicians with the purest of intentions find their attempt to make the world a slightly better place has now been undeniably pissed in. More often than not, it doesn't actually wreck the endeavor, but if you're out there planning on tackling an issue with a concert, then maybe you should read about the pitfalls.

5. Scalpers and Counterfeiters Cost Sandy Relief Thousands of Dollars This past Halloween, Hurricane Sandy became the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, in terms of diameter. When it slammed into the East Coast, it left behind $65 billion in damage, second only to Hurricane Katrina -- to put it further in perspective, that's more than four times NASA's entire budget. So James L. Dolan, John Sykes and Harvey Weinstein decided to stage 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief to try and make a dent in that bill.

The event sold out Madison Square Garden and was broadcast on radio, television and online all over the world. Stars included Bruce Springsteen, Alicia Keys, Bon Jovi, Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Chris Martin, Michael Stipe, The Who, Kanye West, Eddie Vedder and a freakin' Nirvana reunion... sort of. It was a great night that managed to raise $30 million in ticket sales alone.

Unfortunately, scalpers lowered the amount collected by at least tens of thousands of dollars after they acquired the tickets through services like StubHub and resold them for as much as $48,000. In all fairness, StubHub, TicketMaster and the other outlets really did try their best to head off the douchebaggery. TicketMaster blocked thousands of bots' attempts to snag choice seats for resale profit, and StubHub donated $500,000 to the charity to make up for the loss.

Then again, some people just flat out made fake tickets to dupe people with, because the only thing worse than denying a charity the money it's raising by scalping is to cost even the buyer the chance to see the show.

 

The 5 Worst Disasters in Benefit Concert History

4. Sean Hannity's Freedom Concerts Raise Some Eyebrows Benefit concerts are considered kind of a leftist thing. It all goes back to hippies banging tambourines to raise awareness for, I don't know, tambourine rights or something. Add in the traditionally liberal nature of show business, and you'll end up with fewer conservatives getting in on the act. Fewer, but not zero.

Sean Hannity, the Fox pundit, is big on scheduling Freedom Concerts to raise money for Oliver North's Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund, which provides college money for the children of soldiers killed in the line of duty. As far as worthy causes go, it's hard to top that one, and bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd regularly donate their time and energy to help make it happen.

Hannity claims that every single penny from the concerts goes into the fund, but his events have come under scrutiny for corruption. In 2010 conservative blogger Debbie Schussel started questioning the way money was allocated by the concerts. Freedom Alliance dismissed her accusations as baseless, but the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) followed up hard, lodging complaints with the Federal Trade Commission.

In addition to accusing Freedom Alliance of violating aspects of its charity status, such as promoting partisan political blogs by North and selling mailing lists to conservative communication firms, CREW alleges that Freedom Alliance used only $2.1 million of the $9 million collected between 2003 and 2009 for the scholarships.

In 2007, Daily Kos went even further, claiming that as little as one percent of the proceeds made it into the hands of the kids for whom it was collected.

 

The 5 Worst Disasters in Benefit Concert History

3. The Concert for Bangladesh Forgets Its Tax-Exempt Status

The first charity concert on a major scale was the brainchild of George Harrison, who decided to stage a two-day festival in order to raise funds and awareness for Bangladeshi refugees fleeing the devastation of the 1970 Bhola cyclone and atrocities happening in the Bangladeshi Liberation War.

It was Harrison's first solo appearance live since quitting the Beatles, and he brought Ringo Starr along to help him ease into it. Bob Dylan participated, as did Eric Clapton. It was a supergroup of rock legends all coming together to help out some people in desperate need, and their largesse was rewarded to the tune of more than $12 million after ticket sales and proceeds from both the album and subsequent documentary film were all tallied.

Here's the problem: No one had ever really done anything like this before, and Harrison basically got to make all the mistakes everyone else would later avoid. His biggest one was that he planned to give the money to UNICEF but neglected to register it as such, which kept the funds tied up in tax hell for most of a decade.

Finally, it all got cleared up, and sales from the DVD of the concert still go to UNICEF, but Harrison made it a point to warn people who followed in his footsteps. People like Bob Geldof, and speaking of...

 

The 5 Worst Disasters in Benefit Concert History
Photo by Squelle

2. Live Aid Ends Up Giving Money to the People Causing Starvation Bob Geldof created the benefit concert to end all benefit concerts when he started Live Aid. Stars like Queen, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Elvis Costello, U2 and more performed across the world entertaining almost two billion people and raising something like $250 million in order to try and alleviate starvation in Ethiopia. Hell, it would be easier to list major bands in 1985 who didn't participate. It was a feel-good moment for the decade, and Geldof has twice been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

And it's entirely possible that the money actually killed more people than it saved.

For those of you who don't understand why the United States spends money on foreign relief in war-torn shitholes, here's a lesson in global diplomacy. In a sense, we give a country like Ethiopia an ultimatum: We will help feed their starving people if they don't steal the money to make weapons or do anything else horrible with it. If we catch them doing it, we stop giving them money. This way people eat, and now that they aren't starving, they start to see what kind of pricks are causing the famine in the first place. Hopefully, this eventually leads to change and less shitty countries.

Unfortunately, when a private charity tries to do this, they don't have the clout of the American government. Instead, they have to go through non-government operatives, and they ended up losing millions when forced to use the exchange rates used by Ethiopia's brutal Marxist government to fund the ongoing civil war that was a major source of the famine.

The food was also used to lure people into labor camps, where they worked and starved to death. All in all, aid expert David Rieff has estimated that the resettlement program instituted by the Ethiopian government with the Live Aid money may have killed 100,000 people.

 

The 5 Worst Disasters in Benefit Concert History

1. Aaron Tonken Scams... Well, Everyone Look, with the possible exception of Sean Hannity up there, and nothing has been proven in a court of law or anything; everyone running these concerts was just trying to help. They may have been boosting their own egos, riding the promotion train into further stardom, but in the end they wanted to do something nice. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but that's only because the devil drives the paver. Don't blame the material.

Aaron Tonken, though? There's a wholly different sort of a son of a bitch.

At 35 years old, Tonken had become one of the greatest fund-raisers around. He hobnobbed with the Clintons, Diana Ross, Arnold Schwarzenegger, everyone. He was a smooth customer who helped organize every kind of benefit that you could possibly want.

His crowning glory was 2001's A Family Celebration. He packed two presidents and the best of Hollywood into the Regent Beverly Wilshire's ballroom. Bill Clinton joined B.B. King onstage for a blues set, and N*Sync finished off the event with a concert. All in all, Tonken was supposed to distribute the $1.5 million collected to various charities.

In reality, most of the money that Tonken, a schlubby sycophant desperate for the limelight, collected went to paying off increasing debts he had incurred, as well as his passion for $3,000 escorts. The man who had hoodwinked the brightest stars in the world began to unravel in 2002, and he pleaded guilty to fraud a year later. He was sentenced to 63 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution, in addition to a $500,000 fine.

Despite still owing the people he duped millions and publishing a tell-all book on the way to prison that embarrassed many of those same people even further, Tonken tried for redemption upon getting out of prison, with folks like Wayne Newton expressing their wish to help him turn his life back around. Of course, since he's bitching because a life insurance policy naming him beneficiary paid off some of his creditors instead of giving Tonken the money, it's probably a work in progress.



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