Music's biggest acts collaborate to raise money for victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. How well do these superstar efforts actually do?


Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

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."

Those early efforts also benefited from being the first, and the only ones of their kind. After 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the tsunami in Indonesia, there was "a tremendous saturation, overabundance of causes and projects, which in total added to the diminution of value and impact" according to Lauren Davis, assistant professor at the Clive Davis Recording School. "The starpower of "We Are the World" was immediate and galvanized the whole industry. There are now charity singles for every cause. People aren't paying the same attention."

That's not to say that these projects are fruitless, or that the industry isn't figuring out a way to adapt to the changing culture. The album accompanying George Clooney's telethon last year, Hope for Haiti Now, released just 10 days after the country's devastating earthquake, became the first digital album to ever top the Billboard charts. It reflects the immediacy under which consumers now demand, which bodes well for the Japan album, which will also be available only digitally.

Hope for Haiti Now was also, largely, a compilation of relevant, artful cover songs, rather than a sloppily produced original composition or collection of hastily arranged remakes—in other words, it contained music people actually wanted to listen to. "Being a charity doesn't absolve you of the responsibility of creating something worth listening to," Kolosine said. "I don't think the solution is to whip something together and have artists groaning over the top, and then expect people to buy it." That also helps explain why the confusingly genre-bending, directionless "What's Going On?" didn't take off, or the 2009 single for cancer charity, "Just Stand Up."

Producers seem to be learning that lesson as well: Simon Cowell's celebrity-packed cover of R.E.M.'s haunting "Everybody Hurts" to benefit Haiti was the most successful charity single ever in the U.K., and a 25th anniversary version of "We Are the World" was the best-selling charity single in the U.S. in nearly a decade. Further details haven't been released about the Japan album, but the short timeframe between its announcement earlier this week and its expected to release in the next few days hints that it will play by the formula of singers covering previous hits or just contributing already-recorded material.

So will the Japan album be a success like Hope for Haiti Now, or have disappointing sales, like 2005's Hurricane Relief: Come Together? Davis thinks that if it remains the sole charity music endeavor for the Japan disaster, the project will benefit from that focus and spotlight. Similarly, there needs to be clarity in how to purchase the album, and transparency in where the money is going. There are many ways to help out Japan; it needs to be clear why this effort is worth consumers' dollars. "After all," Kolosine said. "Smiles are great, but money is better."

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