Originally published in Seattle Weekly
Benefit concerts are a big part of a musician’s life. The idea of staging such a show seems noble but still edgy, which is why so many people with a good cause in mind think, “A-ha! We’ll throw a benefit concert!” After all, what kind of tight-fisted and cynical performer wouldn’t want to play for a worthy cause?
Successful bands–ones who don’t have to work a day job to make ends meet–get asked to play several benefit shows a year, and in the end it’s impossible to honor even a fraction of the requests. Yet saying “no thanks” to a benefit concert can be difficult and awkward. When you’re starting out, you probably say yes to every request, but you learn to be selective. It doesn’t take long to realize that despite the best of intentions, benefit shows are often ill-conceived, poorly promoted and disastrously run.
I have played dozens of benefit shows, both solo and with my band. The best of them have been the highlights of my career, from sharing a stage with David Byrne and Jon Stewart at New York’s Beacon Theater at a benefit for the 826 Writing Centers, to playing at Neumos to help out a couple whose house was destroyed by arson. The best shows fall into two categories; ones you would pay to see even if it wasn’t a benefit, and ones where everyone on the bill has a connection to the beneficiary. The first kind is often a combination of diverse artists who wouldn’t normally share a bill, a way of raising funds and the “awareness” of an audience that might be too or apathetic to actually donate money or time to a good cause. The second type feels like a family gathering, usually organized by the musicians themselves to help out a friend. Bands play covers, join each other on stage, and toss the guitars around. Seriously, the more I think about the shows we’ve played of this type the more I recommend them. If you see an ad for a show at the Sunset that says, “Benefit for our friend Charley who broke his nose on a urinal,” buy a ticket, because it will be a blast.
But most benefit shows fall somewhere in between; an established charity is trying to raise money outside of their normal circle and someone hits upon the idea of staging a concert. The organizers are thrilled by the “hip” factor, even though it’s usually just the one indie-rocker on staff who has ever heard of any of the bands, and often the cause is something the bands really endorse and want to help, like homeless children or breast cancer. Everyone charges ahead with the best intentions, but benefit concerts rarely make financial sense for the charity because non-musicians routinely misjudge the amount of money such an event is capable of raking in. Even a sold-out show at the Crocodile will not fund the operating expenses of a medium-sized charity for a single day. They’d do just as well asking everyone on their staff to chip in five bucks.
Plus, when a charity puts together a concert, they are functioning as booking agents and concert promoters, even though they don’t speak the language of the music business. The artists they invited may have said yes immediately, assuming the details would be sorted, only to arrive at the gig to discover they’re opening for a ska band from Pullman that features the saxophone stylings of the charity director’s little brother. Adding insult to injury, when the benefit concert is for an established charity, the organizers of the event are actually being paid a salary–the charity is their job. The people working at the club are all being paid–it’s just another night at work for them–and the club is absolutely keeping the proceeds from their liquor sales. The concertgoers are doing what they normally do: paying money to see music. Hence, the only people at the event who are working for free are the musicians. The concert is essentially an opportunity for the musicians to give their money to the charity. Once you’ve committed to trying to earn a living playing music, a single show can represent a month’s wage.
The most confusing benefit concerts are the ones for charities that are the pet projects of wealthy people. We played a show a couple of years ago for a local billionaire who built himself a music museum. The event was billed as a benefit for the museum itself, which the billionaire had stopped funding for some reason, but the production costs of the event–the gear rental, crew wages, catering, etc.–far outstripped the money made on ticket sales. Although ostensibly a concert, the musicians were treated like the catering staff. The only difference was the catering staff got paid for their work. The whole show probably cost $100K to put on and raised maybe half that, maybe less. No one at the museum considered that if they were losing so much money anyway, and if it was, after all, a benefit for a music museum, they should kick a few hundred to the musicians for gas money. Some benefit.
It boils down to a common misconception that music, unlike other art forms, requires very little effort, is “fun”–versus “work”–for the bands, and makes scads of money. Charity organizers seldom consider that musicians are trying to live on the money they earn, and that bands maintain their draw by limiting the number of shows they play. Benefit shows can be wonderful occasions that leave everyone feeling great, but before you jump on the idea of throwing a benefit show for your favorite cause, ask yourself if you would donate a month of your own pay first.