Can a Rock Concert (and a Vegas Producer) Remake China's Image?

  • Share
  • Read Later
ChinaFotoPress / Getty Images

Singer Chris Martin of Coldplay performs in Hong Kong on March 25, 2009

Nobody would accuse Rick Garson of thinking small. The Las Vegas–based music producer is planning a benefit concert in Beijing on April 17 that will rival — and possibly exceed — such celebrity-spangled extravaganzas as Live Aid and Live 8. The ebullient Garson is well aware that China has what might politely be described as a mixed record when it comes to public performances by foreign artists; 2009 alone featured a trail of government last-minute cancellations. Notable among them was the nixing of Oasis concerts in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, reportedly because of one band member's attendance at a Tibet benefit concert in 1997.

But Garson says this event, dubbed Show of Peace, will be different. "It won't be a problem," he says. "We're doing it to raise global awareness of what good is coming out of China. [The government is] looking at this as the branding of the new China: red China going green." Participating bands will be donating their time, and half of all money raised will be funneled into global projects dedicated to promoting peace and protecting the environment. The slogan on the concert's website encapsulates Garson's oft-repeated objectives: Peace = Green + No War + Water + Food + Health + Education.

Exact details of which artists will be performing, however, remain fuzzy, with only legendary former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page 100% confirmed. The list of invitees constitutes a roll call of the industry's biggest names: Beyoncé, Coldplay, Green Day, Kanye West, Lady Gaga and a host of lesser-known performers from Africa, Asia and the Americas. Garson is well-known in the industry — among other things, he has been executive producer of the Billboard Music Awards and the World Music Awards — and he appears confident the big names will show up. The all-day event is scheduled to be held in front of the iconic Bird's Nest Stadium in the grounds of the Olympic Training Center. Admission will be free, with some 5,000 tickets directly in front of the stage reserved for VIPs. Garson says he expects a crowd of 50,000, though because the open area around the stage is limited, many concertgoers will watch the stage from screens placed around the grounds. The potential worldwide TV audience, Garson says, will run into the billions.

There's no doubting Garson's sincerity, but the question remains: Can Garson pull off what would be by far the biggest concert in China's history? The Chinese authorities have long been suspicious of rock music, notes Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based writer and musician who was once front man for one of China's most popular bands, Tang Dynasty. Pop music, initially associated with spiritual pollution from the West, later came to be seen as a potentially subversive force that might encourage rebelliousness among China's youth. But lately restrictions seem to be relaxing, and Kuo says bands that might normally have had problems getting permission to play have been performing in Beijing. "I think the authorities are finally getting comfortable with the idea that there's a different social and political context for rock music in China," Kuo says.

Garson says the authorities, who have already green-lighted Show of Peace, probably understand that the concert would be a good way of improving China's image overseas. "Everybody is looking for the next big event that will put China in a positive light since the Olympics," he says. "I think it's very powerful that this statement of green and harmony is coming from China."

If he does succeed, the promoter would not only manage to stage what will be by far the biggest event of its kind in China, he will also finally realize a 10-year-long personal dream that began with a random phone call from the Vatican. "I am the least likely person to get a call from the Vatican," says Garson, "but they wanted to do a project with me," involving printing some of Pope John Paul II's favorite poems and prayers.

Soon, the idea of a global concert for peace was born. Though it was originally intended to be held within the Vatican, years of delays and cancellations led Garson to look further afield. At one point the concert was to be held at the U.N. office in Geneva, but that, too, was cancelled, leading him to search in the Middle East. Eventually, his work took him to China, where he believes he was destined to hold the concert all along. "Things happen for a reason," he says.

Others are less convinced. "If it's still on 10 days before the concert is scheduled to go, then I'll believe it," says one Beijing-based analyst who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being labeled a cynic.