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All-star benefit concerts relics of the past?

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  • The Internet is changing the way musicians use charities
  • Musicians say massive benefit concerts are losing their appeal
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By John Blake
CNN
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(CNN) -- Psychedelic album covers. Break-dancing music videos. Rockers with mullet haircuts.

art.bangladesh.jpg

George Harrison in 1971 during one of two concerts he staged at Madison Square Garden in New York to bring attention to the plight of the Bangladeshi people.

Now there soon may be another entry added to the list of obsolete pop music trends: the all-star, mega-benefit concert.

Remember the days of Live Aid and last year's Live Earth concert? Those events may be going the way of chain record stores. Music industry insiders say that big-name benefit concerts are being pushed aside by the rise of the Internet.

"The days of Live Aid and the Concert for Bangladesh are becoming relics of the past," says Keith Clifton, an associate professor of musicology at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

"It wouldn't surprise me that one day we could have YouTube charity events being broadcast on the Web."

When the music industry celebrates the Grammy Awards Sunday night, one of the night's subplots will be the Internet's troubling impact on record sales. Few have paid attention to another trend: more musicians are going online rather than onstage for their charitable work.

The English rock group Radiohead recently made news when members decided to sell their music directly to their fans. Musicians are going online with their favorite charities for a similar reason -- they want to appeal directly to their fan base, music commentators say.

Popular artists such as Madonna, R&B pianist John Legend and country singer Clay Walker are leading the way. Each prominently promotes their favorite charity through their official Web site.

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"It's not that we don't see the power in some of the bigger concerts," says David Murphy, a bassist for STS9, an "electronic jam band" from Santa Cruz, California, that highlights 14 charities on its Web site.Video Watch STS9 talk about their music »

"But we feel that there's more power and change for ourselves when we have some direct contact with the charities we're working with."

There's also less chance for bad press.

Benefit concerts can backfire. Several have drawn more bad press than good, says Clifton, the music critic.

"The biggest criticism is that the money earned does not make it to the people who need it," he says.

Some musicians try to sidestep that criticism by creating their own charity instead of allowing concert organizers to pick one for them.

Walker, the country music singer, created a charity called BAMS (Band Against MS) after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996. Walker, who has four platinum-selling albums, says he was inspired to take more control over his charitable endeavors after hearing complaints about some concerts to benefit victms of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"I was hearing these families who had lost loved ones in 9/11 say, 'Where's the money?' " Walker says. "That raised a red flag."

Rock band 3 Doors Down says it made good business and moral sense to form their own charity. The Mississippi band created The Better Life Foundation to raise money for children and young adults with special needs.

"If you donate to a charity, who knows what the charity is going to be known for," says guitarist Chris Henderson. "With the Better Life Foundation, we have 100 percent control."

Despite their imprint on popular culture, there was never a golden age for benefit concerts. They attracted criticism from the very beginning.

One of the first massive benefit concerts was the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. The concert was organized by Beatles guitarist George Harrison to raise money for refugees in the South Asian country.

The Madison Square Garden concert was a musical success. It featured an all-star lineup of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Billy Preston. One of the most memorable images from the concert came when the late Preston, dubbed the "Fifth Beatle," became so carried away by the music that he began dancing on stage.

But the organizers weren't dancing off-stage.

According to the Associated Press and Time magazine, allegations over missing funds surfaced. The IRS and lawyers had to be called in to resolve disputes.

Other problems cropped up in subsequent benefit concerts.

Rachel Weingarten, a pop culture critic and a co-producer of benefit concerts, says some of the concerts eventually became known as "Ego-Fests" because of the back-stage demands of some performers.

Critics wondered if some benefit participants were feeding their egos more than needy people. The legendary record producer Quincy Jones reputedly warned performers before the "We Are the World" recording session to "check your egos at the door."

Benefit concert critics also said that some performers were using human misery to bolster their own image.

"You'd have musicians tearing up hotel rooms and their agent says, 'You know what? Let's get you some brownie points,' " Weingarten says.

The last major benefit concert, Live Earth, couldn't escape bad publicity either. The event was a series of global concerts designed to raise awareness of global warming. But the concerts gained plenty of attention for back-stage drama.

Critics said the logistics and private jet travel required to stage the concerts damaged the environment more than helping it. One dubbed the concerts "Private Jets for Climate Change." Others accused organizer Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore of staging the event as a promotional vehicle for a planned presidential run. The event's worldwide television ratings tanked.

Benefit concerts are now rich subjects for parody. Two animated shows, "South Park" and "The Simpsons," have skewered them.

Still, the impulse that drove musicians to first stage the Concert for Bangladesh more than 30 years ago remains. It's now normal for bands to join with charities. STS9, the electronic jam band from California, appears to devote as much energy to giving back as playing music.

The group organizes food drives, registers voters and donates portions of its concert proceeds to charities. The group even splits up its charitable donations among local, national and international groups.

David Murphy, the group's bassist, says his band wants to inspire people through their giving as much as their music.

"We're poor musicians, but we do what we can," he says. "We're trying to as much as we can so that everyone will jump on that train." E-mail to a friend

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