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Festival Activism: How Music Can Help The World

From Woodstock to the Concert For Bangladesh to Live Aid to the Tibetan Freedom Concerts and so many others, live music has been one of the most accurate barometers of public opinion, bringing many together to raise money and awareness in ways that few mediums can.

The latest high-profile example was the “Venezuela Aid Live” concert co-organized by Sir Richard Branson amid an economic and political crisis that has led to hyperinflation and widespread food and medicine shortages.

“Venezuela sadly has not become the utopia that the current administration of Venezuela or the past administration were hoping for, and that has resulted in a lot of people literally dying from lack of medical help,” Branson told Associated Press from his private island in the British Virgin Islands.

“I think it will draw attention to the problem on a global basis.”

Ahead of the Venezuela event, the billionaire media mogul said he was aiming to raise $100 million, with 300,000 people expected to attend the free concert on the Colombian border city of Cúcuta on Feb. 22. On the bill was a full slate of major Latin superstars including Juanes, Maluma, Carlos Vives, Maná, Alejandro Sanz, Juan Luis Guerra and others – all reportedly performing for free.

Jason Felts, a partner in the KAABOO festivals and CEO of Virgin Produced, told Pollstar that Branson remains ever-committed to philanthropic “people-and-planet” causes.

“It was a Live Aid-esque show conceived by him, and the power of our Virgin brands got behind it in an effort to help send the message of freedom,” Felts said just after the inaugural (and sold-out KAABOO Cayman Islands (Feb. 15-16). “While he is incredibly and excited and bullish on all the music-focused business he’s involved in, he’s equally focused on his interests about people and the planet. So it’s no surprise he could be with us at KAABOO Cayman for the weekend having an amazing time with the Chainsmokers and Flo Rida and Duran Duran and then be on a plane the very next day to Colombia/Venezuela to use the power of his brand, his voice and the power of music to send a message.”

While not all events make worldwide headlines like Venezuela Aid Live, more and more music festivals are doing good in their own ways with charitable, environmental or educational elements added to their programming. Some music festivals’ core missions are intertwined with such causes, such as the second-year Emerge festival in Las Vegas, which is combining social justice and music with a full lineup of artists and speakers May 31 to June 1.

“What you’re seeing rise to the top is this new crop of ‘woke’ events, for lack of a better term,” Emerge founder Rehan Choudhry told Pollstar. “You’re seeing Global Citizen draw tens of thousands of people to Central Park each year, Afropunk grow both nationally and internationally as a brand, you’re seeing more and more events that are very much the badge of honor and representation for minority communities or people for looking for greater representation. For me, Emerge was my version of moving into that space a little more aggressively.”

The event, at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, includes artists and speakers such as transgender rights activist and Against Me! founder Laura Jane Grace, Andrew Bird, Talib Kweli, J.I.D, March For Our Lives activist David Hogg, Black Lives Matter’s Patrisse Cullors, and many others. They will all share one stage as the art and activism is often intertwined. There are four showcase categories – Protest, Self, Brave and Sex, touching on everything from body positivity to consent to addiction.

Choudhry’s background might not seem an obvious one for someone putting on a decidedly “woke” event like Emerge – with experience as former head of entertainment for the Cosmopolitan Casino in Las Vegas, business development for citywide events for Caesars Entertainment and a co-founder of the massive downtown Vegas Life Is Beautiful event. He has gradually moved further away from strictly entertainment events for a variety of reasons.

“Part of it is my own personal passion points,” Choudhry says. “In a sea of 90,000 millennials at a festival ground these days, when you look at them outside of being festival attendees and as a demographic, you realize they’re struggling with some of the toughest social issues that exist today. The result is increasing suicide rates, rates of depression, mental health illness, addiction.”

Choudhry says the proliferation and sophistication of major music festivals in North America over the past 15 years has left a void for more personal expression. With capacity capped at 3,500 and using the Hard Rock’s The Joint as well as the Paradise Pool stage for the live entertainment component, Choudhry says the event’s artists and speakers might not all be household names but their stories are – such as Pulitzer-winning journalist yet undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas.

“These are conversations that need to be had and brands are happy to be a part of or get behind. What Nike did what Colin Kaepernick with their new campaign is a great example of being on the right side of history.”
While the Hard Rock might seem an odd fit for a social justice event, the newly launched FYG U Music + Tech Festival is taking things back to school, bringing music, career mentoring and tech demonstrations to 10 universities coast to coast in its first year, put on by Big Noise Live, the nonprofit Find Your Grind (the “FYG” part) and Universal Music Group.

A big part of the event is parlaying a student’s passion into a career path. With free entry to college students from any campus, artists on tap include Trippie Redd, Lil Yachty and Alison Wonderland. Big Noise Live senior VP of events and partnerships Brian Rucker says the events help further universities’ core missions and get everyone involved.

“Our compelling offer is we’re bringing a professionally produced music and lifestyle festival to your campus, at no cost to you, free to the students,” he said, adding that there is a hole in the live entertainment market at the somewhat difficult-to-navigate university system. “Not only that, our arms are wide open in terms of integrating all the campus groups – the programming committees, the campus promoters, and incorporating them into our festival.”

FYG Tech U festival kicks off April 5 at Florida State University.