I was standing in the middle of a crowd when Neil Young took the stage. I took a look around. 60,000 people on Central Park’s Great Lawn in the heart of New York City. I saw people jumping up and down in anticipation. I saw people staring at the stage in stoic silence, seemingly mesmerized by the scene around them. Then I noticed several others who were running from the concession stands, dodging trash cans and security guards, desperately trying to get back into position before Neil launched into his set. This image felt like a decent metaphor for the last nine months of my life — a bunch of us had dodged quite a bit as we desperately charged towards our goal of seeing these rock stars play for 60,000 change-makers at the Global Citizen Festival.
The idea for this festival started about three years ago. I had spent a summer going to as many music festivals as I could. I tried to pay close attention to how brands and causes were being represented. At Austin City Limits, the different stages were each named after and branded by different sponsors. I thought it could be powerful if each stage were also paired with a charitable organization. I started to work through the initial idea with Andi Scull from the HOPE Campaign and then Hunter Heaney from the Voice Project. Together, we envisioned a music festival in Central Park that brought together musicians, brands and non-profits and paired each charity with one of the 8 UN Millennium Development Goals. I chatted with Barbara Burchfield (who was running the non-profit Artist For Peace and Justice) and she said that we needed to meet some of the non-profit founders that would be speaking at the Millennium Campus Conference in New York. It was here that Barbara, Hunter and I got to pitch the idea to Hugh Evans from the Global Poverty Project. Hugh was excited about the idea as he had run the ‘Make Poverty History’ concert in Australia, which featured U2 and Pearl Jam, so he had some serious experience running large-scale advocacy events.
We decided that we didn’t want to just run another benefit concert; we needed to do something cooler and more effective — a global festival that really spoke to our generation and engaged young people with the issues beyond the night of the festival. Hugh and I sat down with a friend of ours from (PRODUCT) RED, Don MacKinnon, and he had all sorts of great ideas, one of which was to game-ify the way people could get tickets. The idea was that people needed to log onto our website (globalcitizen.org) and take digital actions in support of different charities, those actions would score you points, and the points would earn you a ticket. This was key to creating a real movement because it ensured that everyone who attended the concert would have spent time considering the issues and learning about the non-profit partners involved.
Next we needed artists and a production partner. One of the Global Poverty Project producers, Lindsay Hadley, introduced us to Bill Fold from Goldenvoice (the company that produces the Coachella festival). At our very first meeting, Bill said he was in and that Goldenvoice would help produce for no fee. Having Bill and Goldenvoice on board meant a lot to me personally, but it meant even more to the music managers we would be taking meetings with for the next nine months. The first music manager to come on board happens to be my roommate, Bryan Ling. Bryan manages Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and some other amazing bands. He introduced us to K’Naan and his manager, Sol Guy, and they quickly came on board. The Foo Fighters were the first headliner to come on board, once you get one, the rest come a bit easier. We had a meeting with their manager, John Silva, who probably wouldn’t have taken us seriously had we not been with Rick Mueller from Goldenvoice. Being associated with Goldenvoice gave people confidence that this would be done right, and that this wasn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea that would never actually come together.
Once we had a few of these big artists on board, we knew we needed big brands involved that had huge global reach. One of our longtime festival supporters, Jeffrey Zarnow, had recently been at an event where he met Coca-Cola’s CMO, Joe Tripodi. Jeffrey, who runs a fair-trade African rum company called Starr, knew about Coke’s different international development initiatives and knew they would be the ideal brand to work with. So with Joe’s support and direction from Dana Barba and Hallie Lorber, Coke and Vitamin Water came on board as our official beverage partners, and Vitamin Angels, an NGO they support, came on board as an associate partner. Coke did a massive amount of advertising and promotion of the festival and our online live-stream that helped get us over 2b media impressions.
This festival required the work of so many different people from so many different places. Brands, musicians and globally conscious citizens came together to support our nonprofit partners who announced on stage a total of $1,314,700,000 in commitments that will support crucial anti-poverty initiatives. As I was leaving NYC yesterday, after working on this project there for nine months, I saw a billboard by the artist Peter Tunney that seemed quite fitting: ‘Nothing happens unless first a dream’