In 1984, an Irishman named Bob Geldof, a musician with a group called the Boomtown Rats, traveled to Ethiopia. What he saw there changed his life.
Due to a combination of natural causes and man-made events, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians were dead from famine, and millions more were endangered. Geldof had to do something to help.
When he returned to London in November, Geldof and Midge Ure of the British band Ultravox wrote a song: “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” They recruited a group of Irish and British musicians and called themselves Band Aid.
The band included—among others—Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Bono, Paul McCartney, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Phil Collins, U2, Wham!, Sting, and David Bowie.
The song sold over three million copies. It was the best-selling single in Britain for 13 years.
It grossed $12.5 million for Ethiopian famine relief.
After hearing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, singer Harry Belafonte decided to do something similar in the States.
United Support of Artists for Africa (USA for Africa) was born. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie wrote “We Are the World,” and Quincy Jones signed on as producer.
The recording included Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, and many others. According to Wikipedia, a total of 50 singers and musicians took part.
That single sold seven million copies, was the first single ever to be certified double platinum, and raised $63 million dollars for humanitarian aid in both Africa and the US.
But Geldof wasn’t satisfied. He visualized a “global jukebox,” a benefit that would include the best talent in the UK and the USA.
In just over three weeks, he recruited some of the biggest names in music in both the US and the UK. They all agreed to perform for free.
On July 13, 1985, one to two billion (estimates vary) people around the world attended Geldof’s fundraising event—via satellite. At that time, it was the largest satellite broadcast ever. An estimated 40% of the world’s population tuned in.
The event was held on two continents simultaneously—at Wembley Stadium in London and the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. It featured 70 performers and ran for over 16 hours.
Television network coverage was on a scale that at that time was comparable only to the Olympics. The event was carried live by the BBC, MTV, and ABC and broadcast to 110 countries. The BBC staffed 300 phone lines to take donation calls from viewers.
This was Live Aid.
Princess Diana and Prince Charles of Wales opened the event in London to a crowd of 70,000.
The European performers included Paul McCartney, The Who, Elvis Costello, Queen, Phil Collins, Elton John, Dire Straits, U2, and about 30 other acts.
The show closed with a group finale of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
In Philadelphia, 100,000 people attended. Joan Baez opened with a message for the crowd. “This is your Woodstock, and it’s long overdue.”
At JFK, about 34 performers participated. They included Bob Dylan; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Eric Clapton; Mick Jagger; Santana; Tina Turner; Tom Petty; and Madonna.
The American portion of the show closed with a group rendition of “We Are the World.”
The Live Aid concert did not go down “without a hitch.” There were technical problems and clashes among performers.
There was controversy after the event regarding how the money was spent, including an inaccurate report by the BBC that the donations were used to buy guns from Russia. (The BBC later apologized.)
But overall, considering the staggering logistical efforts it took to pull it off, the event was a success. It raised over $125 million dollars for Ethiopian famine relief.
Maybe even more significantly, it set a precedent for a new and powerful form of giving.
Live Aid illustrated that the reach of television combined with the efforts of high-profile personalities could turn one man’s humanitarian dream into a worldwide appeal with lasting impact.
As successful as Live Aid was, the giving did not end with the concerts.
In 2004, in advance of Live Aid’s 20th anniversary, the Band Aid Trust released a 4-DVD recording called “Live Aid: The Day the Music Changed the World.”
In 2018, YouTube created an official Live Aid channel for videos from the event.
The proceeds from both go to the humanitarian efforts in Africa.
USA for Africa is still collecting money for aid to both Africa and the US. In the 34 years since Live Aid, it has raised over $100 million, according to their website.
“So Let’s Start Giving”
The Live Aid model was so successful that it established a new paradigm for fundraising.
Kristi York Wooten wrote in Atlantic Magazine in 2015: “The 1985 all-star benefit concert gave rise to the trend of high-profile, celebrity-endorsed charitable efforts, and changed the nature of fundraising in the process.”
If it had not been for Live Aid, there would probably have been no Farm Aid, Live 8, or Comic Relief. All of these events used the Live Aid model of bringing high-profile entertainers together on a grand scale in televised super-events that made viewers/givers part of the magic.
They all made millions for charity.
In spite of the controversies that followed that history-making day in July 1985, there’s little doubt that Bob Geldof, Uri Midge, and dozens of entertainers on two continents brought about lasting change and made the world a better place.
Even Queen Elizabeth seemed to think so. On June 10, 1986, because of his Live Aid and other humanitarian efforts, she made Bob Geldof a knight of the realm.