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Photographs by Dan Pulcrano

Greatest Concert Ever?: That's what Bob Geldof promised the world with Live 8. In London's Hyde Park, hundreds of thousands of people gathered to see if he could pull it off. But what went on offstage was the real story.

London Texting

Technology sent an activist message around the world. Unfortunately, so did the bombs.

By Dan Pulcrano

UNTIL TRANSIT bombs shattered the euphoria, London enjoyed a brilliant week. It secured the 2012 Olympics and broke viewership numbers for what organizer Bob Geldof had promised would be the "greatest concert ever." And it captured the high moral ground on the humanitarian crisis of the moment: poverty in Africa.

The weird juxtaposition of events spoke volumes about the state of the planet five years into the millennium. Popular culture fused with wireless communications technology had demonstrated a new political action model at practically the same time that terror propagators scattered crude parcels of combustibles around a transit system too underfunded to fix its escalators.

Inconveniences like that are chump pence to resilient Londoners, who tamely endured 10 hours of music by U2, Sting, Coldplay, Elton John, the Who, etc., and didn't complain much when the Underground shut down before the show's end, leaving concertgoers to gouging pedicab operators ($40 for a five-block ride) or shivering after midnight at bus stops. American rock fans are known for tearing down fences, baring breasts and engaging in the occasional stampede at megafests, though performers seem to like their spirit. Madonna, who noticed that the people in front of Live 8's stage weren't dancing, started "hectoring 200,000 people like a deranged personal trainer," as the Times of London put it.

The most enthusiastic London Live 8 fans had been pushed back behind a fortified wall guarded by a beefy security phalanx while the good viewing positions were occupied by guests of Live 8's corporate sponsors and a few lucky others who had won or paid $1,000 or more for a "Golden Circle" ticket. While the premium pass holders sauntered around sipping Pimm's and lemonade and enjoyed plumbed restrooms outfitted with antibacterial surgical hand gel dispensers, concertgoers who spent the night in line were rewarded with long queues for portable toilets and alcohol-free concessions. Some fans elected to urinate in water bottles or on the tall green wall that separated them from Paris Hilton and others in the backstage hospitality areas.

For the Masses?

The segregation of the privileged few from the masses may not have been apparent to the tens of millions who viewed live broadcasts of performances by Paul McCartney, Snoop Dogg and others, or video clips afterward. While creating the illusion of a people's event, Live 8 was really Big Entertainment covered by Big Media, and the line between the two fuzzed frequently as well.

CNN declared the day "a rock triumph" as its reviewer Graham Jones effused, "Thank you, Sir Bob. We were listening. We must wait and see now whether the G8 leaders will have done a little listening too." CNN's web version of the article neglected to mention that parent company AOL Time Warner's AOL division was a leading Live 8 sponsor that would benefit financially as the primary download site for Live 8 clips. (It did helpfully supply the download URL.)

The BBC also signed on as a sponsor and paid around $4 million for broadcast rights, but set down editorial guidelines prohibiting presenters from using the editorial "we" or urging viewers "to lobby, march or campaign to take direct action."

The Geldof organization did its best to screen out independent media and hired longtime Geldof media handler Bernard Doherty to manage the credentialing process. Doherty confronted one independent reporter who managed to make it inside the backstage press tent, where members of the corporate media downloaded reports on laptops while sipping complimentary Red Bulls and a brand of designer water that claimed it donated its profits to the Third World.

"I've never heard of you," Doherty said to one reporter when he identified his publication. Doherty briefly explained Live 8's pay-to-play photographer policy, noting, "They've paid $1,000 each to stand in front of the stage and take pictures."

Then, with an "Off with his head!" flourish that would have made Richard III proud, Doherty turned to a security bloke and said, "Have him escorted out."


We're Gonna Find Out Where You Fans Really Stand: After reuniting Pink Floyd—copyright holders of possibly the most bitter breakup in the history of rock music—you gotta figure getting $25 billion from the G8 was a cinch.

The Media Is the Message

Had the Live 8 press pool not been so closely aligned with the corporations who underwrote the world's most widely broadcast entertainment event, a different story might have emerged than simply an international outpouring of support for eliminating hunger in Africa through debt cancellation, as articulated by socially responsible musicians and tens of millions of sympathizers who expressed their support through text messages and web petitions.

Unlike Woodstock, punk rock, hip-hop and other musically assisted social revolutions, or the more radical pre-invasion London antiwar rallies, the Live 8 theme was a top-down play, much more a marketing campaign than a popular revolution, carefully orchestrated by Tony Blair-pal Geldof to support Blair's Africa agenda at the G8 summit meeting. Blair, of course, wants to be remembered for something other than providing deceptive WMD cover for the Iraq invasion.

The performers and media generally stayed "on message" and repeated the central theme of debt forgiveness. Sponsors like Nokia and AOL exploited the occasion to demonstrate their messaging and webcasting technologies in addition to their humanitarian concern. There were few surprises; the Scissor Sisters didn't join Pink Floyd on "Comfortably Numb" and no sound engineer had the guts to start playing "Money, it's a crime ... is the root of all evil today" during Bill Gates' walk-on. Pink Floyd, incidentally, was the first band to come forward and donate the proceeds of their post-Live 8 catalog music sales jump to charity.

Will musicians and global corporations be able to make a difference in Africa? The concert has remarkably succeeded in getting people talking about the human disaster in Africa, which can't help but result in some sorts of improvements.

Live 8 also demonstrated the power of technology to influence a global agenda by using SMS message lotteries to allocate tickets, to interlink concerts via large monitor video feeds and create an illusion of interconnectedness, to distribute messages through downloads and video streams and to express political opinion through text messages sent from cellular phones.

In this sense the media itself was the message, and the message necessarily was a simple one. Detailed discussions about African dictators and corruption, the effects of globalization, European trade subsidies that keep markets shut to African agricultural imports, the obscenely high prices of anti-AIDS drugs or whether the U.S. will assume the disproportionate financial cost for unwinding the effects of European colonialism—those concepts don't lend themselves well to text messages, song lyrics or the ticker above a concert stage.


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From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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