Music Festivals Increasingly Add Charity to the (Dance) Mix

By Eden Stiffman

What will it take to get millennials talking about the damaged Jefferson Memorial in Washington? Maybe a music festival with a lineup featuring Drake, the Strokes, and other popular musicians.
That’s what the Trust for the National Mall is banking on as it gets ready to host its first Landmark Music Festival in September, featuring a wide variety of musical acts performing on stages with iconic structures like the Jefferson Memorial providing the backdrop.
The Trust, created in 2009 to help restore "America’s Front Yard" by raising the money needed to pay for a backlog of work that will cost $450 million, is in the first phase of a $350-million campaign. Ten percent of the two-day festival’s gross revenue will go to the trust. The rest of the money will be used for event-production costs and musician fees.
The broader goal is to get the attention of the 30,000 to 50,000 people who are expected to attend.
"It’s a great way to reach out to a new generation of people around the stewardship of the National Mall," says Caroline Cunningham, the trust’s president. "It’s using the way that people consume music and consume entertainment to bring them into a cause."
Festivals of all tunes are finding ways to incorporate charity into the entertainment. Whether by offering grants, providing volunteer opportunities, donating a portion of ticket sales, or auctioning off wild experiences to raise money for nonprofits, most major U.S. festivals have gotten on board.
Festivals of all tunes are finding ways to incorporate charity into the entertainment. Whether by offering grants, providing volunteer opportunities, donating a portion of ticket sales, or auctioning off wild experiences to raise money for nonprofits, most major U.S. festivals have gotten on board.
Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson
While the trend of combining live music and charity is growing, the concept is not new.
In 1971, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar hosted the Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden to benefit victims of a cyclone and a civil war in that country. The event’s two performances, considered the first charity rock megashow, set the stage for future benefit concerts.
A few years later, at a Live Aid concert in 1985 to benefit victims of African famine, Bob Dylan mentioned during his performance that someone should create a similar show to help the American farmer. Six weeks later, Willie Nelson, with his musician buddies John Mellencamp and Neil Young, took that call to action and put together the first Farm Aid benefit concert to raise money and awareness for small farms.
Farm Aid has grown into a nonprofit that works to support and advocate for family farmers in America, and it claims to host the longest-running concert for a cause. This fall the group will host its 30th concert. Performers volunteer their time for the event, which, along with other fundraising efforts throughout the year, has brought in more than $48 million since its inception. Sales from the concert still represent about 60 percent of the organization’s annual revenue, says Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid’s communications director.
"Having that hook to bring people in through music and then getting them at the show, giving them good food, and introducing them to farmers and the message really does help convert people and bring them into this work," says Ms. Fahy.
There’s a long history behind this kind of connection, says Susan McPherson, a communications consultant focused on the intersection of brands and social good. Because of the way music festivals foster face-to-face connections and community, she says, they can be a natural fit for a cause to generate more interest or cultivate potential supporters.
"Companies are realizing they need to stand for more than just the product that they are selling," says Ms. McPherson. "If you’re a smart director of a music festival or event, it provides you with an ability to attract a much more dedicated audience and one that could potentially continue year over year."
Festival Philanthropy
To plan the new Landmark Music Festival, the Trust for the National Mall is working with C3 Presents, the production company behind festivals that include Austin City Limits and Chicago’s Lollapalooza. Both of those festivals give tent space during the concerts to local and national charities for music fans to learn more about the causes.
In May, eBay partnered with Insomniac Events, which produces the for-profit Electric Daisy Carnival electronic dance music festivals. Together they organized an online auction benefiting Culture Shock Las Vegas, a nonprofit that aims to deter young people from drugs and violence by providing after-school hip-hop and performance-art classes.
Donors bid on everything from a helicopter ride to the Las Vegas event with the production company’s founder, Pasquale Rotella, to a chance to perform with Cirque du Soleil for a day. The auction brought in about $70,000 for the nonprofit, money that will enable the group to rent a reliable and safe rehearsal space and expand its programming.
"Culture Shock’s message of positivity and community aligns perfectly with the spirit of EDC, and I’m so glad that we can offer one-of-a-kind experiences while bringing attention to an organization that is doing amazing work in Las Vegas," Mr. Rotella said in a statement.
Bonnaroo’s Fund
Several festivals have gone further and established charitable arms to support their philanthropic work.
In 2009, the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival created the Bonnaroo Works Fund to formalize its process for giving back to the local community.
Administered by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, the fund supports mainly local and regional groups working in the fields of education, the arts, and environmental sustainability. This year the fund made almost $200,000 in grants to 40 organizations before the festival in mid-June.
"Creating a festival takes a lot of time and money, and to have a successful event, it is important to be embedded in the community, says Jeff Cuellar, the fund’s senior adviser and vice president of the festival’s production company. "Typical festival goers, as well as music fans, are passionate people," he says. "We always want to leave a positive lasting impact."
Though the festival partners would not reveal how much money the festival brings in, a study commissioned by the production company AC Entertainment found that in 2012, the festival generated a total of more than $51 million for the state and local economies.
Two dollars from every ticket sold goes to the festival’s charitable fund, and opportunities exist for people who want to give more. Festival goers can add an additional gift at checkout, generally bringing in a couple thousand dollars each year, says Mr. Cuellar. Proceeds from a silent auction and sales of a special Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream flavor also support the fund.
The festival provides a safe avenue to give, says Mr. Cuellar. "They know that Bonnaroo is a trusted partner and therefore they can help make sure that my philanthropic dollars are going to the things that I feel passionate about, and they’re going to quality organizations, and they benefit the community."
Last year, an anonymous donor made a $20,000 donation to the fund "just to say ‘thank you,’ " says Mr. Cuellar.
Volunteering for Tickets
Afropunk, a festival of alternative black music and culture, incorporates volunteer opportunities into its events. The festival began 10 years ago in Brooklyn in response to what was seen as a lack of representation of people of color at mainstream music shows.
Matthew Morgan, a co-founder of the festival, says the organizers were aware that their target audience was not made up of traditional festival goers and "wanted to create an environment where they were at least aware of what that community could feel like."
The festival was originally free, but its growth has made that financially unsustainable. So this year, tickets will be sold — or earned. At least 20,000 attendees will be able to earn their ticket through volunteer activities on the ground or involving online activism.
"We were looking at ways to engage young people, and if they didn’t have the funds to support something, then they would offer their time and support and activism," Mr. Morgan says.
Though many festivals give free tickets to volunteers who work during the show days, Afropunk wants its fans to engage with groups benefiting the local community. Attendees can participate in a tree census with the New York City Parks Department or volunteer with The Future Project, a nonprofit that works with public high-school students, among other programs.
"We’re trying to make sure that we’re speaking to organizations and we’re speaking to movements that our core audience cares about and naturally supports," says Manushka Magloire, the festival’s community-affairs director, who is managing the earned-ticket program. They organizers are also working to establish a similar program for a new Afropunk festival to be held in Atlanta in the fall.
Spreading the Word
It’s been a challenge to find organizations to partner with, says Ms. Magloire. Some organizations that are already strapped for resources find that managing a new group of volunteers often ends up costing them money. So Afropunk is also trying to leverage its audience’s digital and social networks by giving tickets to individuals who help spread petitions for the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.
Some groups see potential in leveraging the reach of festival performers as well.
Ms. Cunningham, of the Trust for the National Mall, says she hopes the performers at the Landmark Music Festival will help spread awareness of the cause.
"Some of the performers have crazy social networks," she says. "We want to make sure that we’re not only reaching people who are there and at the concert, but all of those who are attached to the performers through social media. It’s really allowing us to talk with a whole new universe of people."