April 28, 2006

Fundraising Via Download: Sweet Music to Nonprofits

By Antony Bruno

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Amnesty International wanted to raise awareness about violence against women in Mexico, it turned to Jaguares, one of the country's most popular rock bands.

The group recorded a cover of John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" and made it available as a digital download via the organization's Make Some Noise music service. It proved so popular that the number of Mexicans signing up to support the initiative exceeded Amnesty's entire membership in the country.

It's just one of many examples of nonprofit social activists turning to digital music to raise funds and awareness. The digital milieu is quicker, cheaper and more relevant to the younger generation than past music initiatives. And getting acts, labels and publishers to donate an exclusive track to a download service is much easier and ultimately faster to turn around than getting physical product released or organizing a benefit concert.

"It's really cost-effective," says Stephanie Newman, senior manager for Amnesty International's Make Some Noise campaign. "It's a more accessible cost of entry for most nonprofits, and it's more accessible for the audience as well." Newman declined to say how much money has been raised.

The digital approach to fund raising is proving popular. British-based global hunger relief organization Oxfam built a download music store called Big Noise Music and collects about 15 percent from every track sold. U.K.-based War Child Music -- which advocates an end to the practice of using children as soldiers -- operates a similar service. It landed a major coup last year when Radiohead donated its entire back catalog to the site, representing the first time the group made its music available digitally. Tracks sell for 99 pence ($1.77).

Amnesty International's Make Some Noise store exclusively features covers of Lennon solo tracks that Yoko Ono donated to the cause. Other participating acts include the Black Eyed Peas, the Cure and Snow Patrol. The price per download is 99 cents.


And like any other digital music service, these efforts are going mobile as well. On April 28, Sweet Relief Musicians Fund began a three-month fund-raising campaign focusing on selling master ringtones donated by Pearl Jam, Jars of Clay and OK Go, among others. Fans text the word "heal" to a short code dedicated to each ringtone to receive the download in exchange for a $5 charge to their phone bill.

Music for Charity Productions is running the campaign. Scott Dudelson, the company's founder, says other acts will soon have the opportunity to conduct similar donate-to-download initiatives using the same platform.

"I'd like to make all my campaigns digitally related," Dudelson says. "I hope this revolutionizes fund raising, and I hope it's a tool every artist will have and can use for whatever cause they support."

Amnesty International also plans to extend the Make Some Noise effort to include mobile full-track and ringtone downloads. Mobile content developer Airborne Entertainment has created an entire suite of mobile content focused on socially conscious themes called Just Cause.

These online and mobile channels are most attractive to charities simply because they are where the next generation of donors are. While digital downloads of songs or ringtones certainly add to their war chest, nonprofits are most interested in collecting buyers' contact information and converting them into lifetime contributors.

"We need to inject Amnesty International into the popular culture, because we're not there at the moment," Newman says.

Such artists as OK Go frontman Damian Kulash say that these efforts humanize today's technology -- a necessary evolution for digital music.

"As the Internet and digital technology has helped democratize music, it also helps separate us into our own little worlds," he says. "We need to make sure to put as much emphasis on the parts that bring people together."