Music's biggest acts collaborate to raise money for victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. How well do these superstar efforts actually do?
It was only a matter of time: On Tuesday, just over a week after a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, a group of music superstars announced they were putting out an album to raise money for the disaster victims. Justin Bieber, Rihanna, U2, Lady Gaga, and Bon Jovi will all contribute tracks for the digital-only project, which will be released within the next few days. It's the kind of celebrity response we've come to expect in the aftermath of catastrophe. Ever since Bono, Sting, and George Michael first sang on 1984's "Do They Know It's Christmas?," as part of Band Aid to raise money and awareness for the famine in Ethiopia, charity singles and albums have become a rote reaction to devastation and calamity.
These efforts have become an expectation, but their level of success has fluctuated dramatically over the years. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in '84 and "We Are the World" the year after were pop culture Events, with a capital "E." Bob Geldof and Quincy Jones, respectively, assembled an unprecedented constellation of stars to sing on the tracks—Bono, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and many, many more. "Christmas" sold 3.5 million copies in the U.S. and raised $14 million for relief in Africa; "World" has sold over seven million copies and raised $63 million. Similar celebrity charity efforts ("That's What Friends Are For," A Very Special Christmas, "Perfect Day") in the '80s and '90s were also huge successes, though not quite at the magnitude of those first two endeavors.
But when tribute albums and charity singles were released in the wake of September 11th, something changed. Suddenly these megawatt music efforts stopped achieving multi-platinum success. A remake of "What's Going On?" starring Britney Spears, Beyonce, Usher, Jennifer Lopez, and the hottest artists at the time only sold 228,000 copies. Album versions of America: A Tribute to Heroes and The Concert for New York City undersold disappointingly, pushing only 600,000 and 400,000 copies, respectively. Multiple projects in 2004 and '05 to raise funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami had similarly disappointing results. What changed?
To begin with, the novelty factor of the celebrity collaboration had faded. "It was the equivalent of seeing The Avengers," Errol Kolosine, business area head of New York University's Clive Davis Recording School, said, referring to Band Aid and USA for Africa. "It was like, 'All these people! Together at the same time!' It was mind-blowing." Today's music scene, in contrast, is ripe with superstar collaborations, singers guesting on their colleagues' records, and surprise concert cameos—seeing a bunch of stars performing together is less unusual. "Nowadays these things are pretty standard in the mix," Kolosine said. "It's expected."