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Looking Out For Every One

7 May, 2010 By: Thomas Haire Response


And, 20 years later after Live Aid, Geldof organized the Live8 concerts, which happened in conjunction with that year’s G8 Summit of world leaders to bring attention to the continuing poverty of African nations. The shows in 10 different cities around the world on July 2, 2005 (and an 11th just four days later in Edinburgh, Scotland) were a massive success, with more than 3 billion TV viewers joining the shows around the world.

But the scope and point of the event was different from the initial Live Aid. “Twenty years before, we worked with the naïveté of saying, ‘We don’t want people to die of this thing,’” Geldof contends. “In the intervening years, we watched agricultural policy around the world subsidize farmers for food grown that we will never need. It destroys markets around the world every day. Here’s the ultimate example of the injustice: a cow in Europe is subsidized to the tune of $2.50 per day. On the other hand, we spend 50 cents per person per year in Africa.”

Geldof contends that the Live8 shows took place “to illustrate the move from charity to justice. We didn’t ask for your money, but your voice.”

In the year leading up to the shows, Geldof was appointed to the Commission for Africa, which released a report titled “Our Common Interest.” Geldof contends, “The idea for Live8 was to get the world community to push the G8 to action on Africa, to set in motion the recommendations in ‘Our Common Interest.’”

Geldof had also taken a leadership role in the Jubilee Debt Campaign and the Africa Progress Panel during this time, transitioning from humanitarian to spokesman and leader on the issue. His passion shows through every time he begins to ruminate on the topic of Africa.

“Charity is vital and necessary for the human spirit, but famine is a symptom of poverty,” says Geldof. “The structures of it are economic and political. Africa is a vast continent, with a billion people, half of whom are age 15 and under. Without change, though, this is a place that’s going to kick off. Economics are the answer. Fair trade gets you out of poverty. Look at China — thanks to trade, the Chinese brought 400 million people out of poverty in the past six years.”

And here, again, is where Geldof turns back to the importance of marketing to his goals. “Marketing is absolutely pointless unless the consumer buys your product,” he says. “We live in a post-modern world. If you can figure out how to distill cool, you can make a billion bucks.”

What does that mean to Geldof’s bottom line? “With what we’re doing, we have to posit a politically achievable goal,” he says. “The lobby won’t come with you unless you start with what’s doable. When you can do this, you create a fair wind of public opinion behind you. In our case, we’ve set out a story to argue our case with the public. And throughout that, rock-and-roll has been the cultural pied piper. If you can use that as a means to get the public — the consumer — to the electronic hearth of the TV or computer screen, you can then argue your message.”

Still, Geldof knows that marketing is only as good as the quality of the product. “People will turn away if the product is rubbish and your means of selling it is rubbish,” he says flatly. “There has to be some moment, like Paul McCartney and U2 playing ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ or Pink Floyd reforming (both occurred on the London Live8 stage). These are landmark rock-and-roll moments — the product is exceptional. At Live Aid, we called it the ‘Global Jukebox.’ That’s a marketing tag line.”

But how to translate the great product people are enjoying into the support Geldof needed, both in 1985 and 2005? “The product helps sell the idea — the end of poverty,” he says. “It gives us the cache to talk about debt cancellation, moral hazards, toxic banks — to take these concepts and make them understandable. What we want at the end of this is the end of poverty. Think — just think — about 1 billion people trying to buy your stuff rather than starving to death.”

Re-mixing Philanthropy, Business and Music

During this transition of adding political leader and expert to humanitarian and philanthropist, Geldof has been approached by many other causes to speak out on their behalf. But, he’s chosen not to do so. Why?

“Charity is important, and it’s a job sometimes for marketers to invent the idea,” Geldof contend. “Then you have something like Haiti this year, and that’s really the only way the incredible sense of shared humanness takes place. You see people put a hand up, put a dollar into the till, it’s hugely important and we can’t lose sight of it. However, I don’t want to be Mr. Charity. Whether I like it or not, in Europe, I’m Mr. Africa. Bono is that same thing in America now, and he has to walk a fine line as a mega-rockstar. I’ve found that if you move away and start talking about other issues, people tend to tune you out. But if you stay on one issue, they’ll begin to refer to you constantly as an expert, then ‘the expert.’ If you start acting on behalf of other causes, you can inadvertently destroy the one thing you’re doing.”

Aside from his humanitarian and political efforts, Geldof also has continued his music career as a solo artist throughout the past three decades. He’s also been involved in creating a series of successful businesses, including TV production houses Planet 24 and Ten Alps PLC and travel Web site

“I am planning on releasing an album of new songs in September,” Geldof says. “I’ve got 32 tracks to choose from, including three new ones I just played in Dubai.”

His work in television has been ongoing for more than two decades now. “TV was a byproduct of the music, spending half my time in TV and radio studios,” Geldof says. “After Live Aid, the BBC wanted to do some big stuff with me. So we started Planet 24 in 1987. It was the biggest entertainment company in the U.K. We invented ‘Survivor’ and still own it. We sold Planet 24 in 1999 (to Carlton TV), and then started Ten Alps, which produces factual programming in various media.”

Geldof says he and Ten Alps co-founder Alex Connock were looking at the market and expanding world of TV when they started the company. “We’ve created shows for the History Channel, A&E, National Geographic, Discovery. We’re the largest producer of factual programming in the U.K., and we’re growing big into the online TV space.”

Exposing the ‘Culture of Rhetoric’

In recent years, Geldof has added public speaking appearances, such as the keynote at Response Expo, to his bag of tricks. Asked what drew him to the event speaking circuit, he says, “It’s a gig, and I’ve spent my life gigging. Last week, I was in Dubai doing rock shows, you know? I feel comfortable on a stage, I’ve done it all my life.”

Geldof is renowned for his straightforward, off-the-cuff style of speaking. He doesn’t dispute it, and even has a fantastic explanation for it. “Often I have no idea where I am going,” he contends. “I’m just following my logic in my head, and I don’t think my job is necessarily to motivate. I’m there chatting. I’m Irish — we can talk the back legs off of a donkey. If Bono wasn’t making kazillions on stage, he’d be good at it too. I was chairman of the debating society in school, and my family was constantly debating. Irish culture is a culture of rhetoric. Look at Irish pubs — conversation is a sport.”

When he started making speaking appearances outside of his regular personal and political appearances, he wondered, though, what value he could bring. And he’s been pleasantly surprised. “I just talk about the stuff that bothers me,” Geldof says. “Somebody asked me one day to come and talk at an event. The audience went crazy for it, and four people asked if I’d come speak to their groups. Still, I do much more of my political stuff than events like this.”

Nonetheless, with the many hats Geldof wears today, it was his start in the music business that made the rest of this very important life possible. But how did the background he got from growing up in the music world help prepare him for everything else he’s accomplished?

Geldof is briefly taken aback by the question, saying he’s never been asked about that and never really considered it. “It appears so self-evident, but I’m not really sure,” he contends. “One way to look at it, I suppose, is that what happens with success is that your confidence grows — hugely. People like what you do, you do it again and they like it more.”

He goes back to the beginnings of the Boomtown Rats in the 1970s for more perspective. “Our songs were always about stuff,” Geldof says. “We came up in the punk period, and it was an idealistic thing. Rock music was bloated and it no longer had anything to do with what Elvis was talking about in the beginning — I’m from the wrong side of the tracks, but I want in! Rock had become about nothing to do with my life — big cars, high heels, mansions and rubbish.”

But that changed, and Geldof was in the middle of the movement. “We started in Ireland in 1975. At that time, in New York, you had the Ramones, Television, the New York Dolls and the Talking Heads. But there needed to be some sort of nihilistic moment, a real nuclear bomb. And that’s when London arrived — the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten (lead singer of the Sex Pistols) was Irish, and he was clever, articulate, funny. And the hole that rock music had left filled up behind them. Music was about us, about contemporary life again.”

At the end of this stream of consciousness riff — a Geldof staple — he locks on a spot that may hold the answer to the original question. And he seems amused, adding, “You know, our first single was called ‘Looking After No. 1,’ and the first line of the song is, ‘The world owes me a living.’ Really, when I wrote that, I articulated myself in the moment as well as I ever could, and I think, no matter what I was doing, I always wanted to keep doing that.”

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