Scanning a crowd of 55,000 at Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium from a private perch reserved for Ariana Grande, her family and team, manager Scooter Braun is visibly moved as his client sings the Judy Garland classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It had been barely a week since plans started coming together for “One Love Manchester,” the concert he and Grande organized to benefit the families who saw loved ones die or be seriously injured during a May 22 suicide bomber attack outside Manchester Arena, and all went off without a hitch. Collaborations between Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams (on the latter’s “Happy”), Coldplay, and Take That, were well-received, surprise guests like Oasis’ Liam Gallagher showed (sans brother Noel, who wasn’t expected, but rather hoped — Liam’s ire palpable in a series of tweets sent later that night) and brought the hometown pride, Marcus Mumford moved, and Katy Perry wowed.
“All these people, they could have stayed home and watched the entire thing well-produced on BBC nationwide or around the world on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter,” says the 35-year-old Braun, who, personally recruited the acts and partners and served as the guiding force for the event. “They said, ‘No, we’re not doing that. We’re showing up.’ The crowd here in Manchester is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.”
The logistics that went into pulling off an event of its size in such little time was, indeed, a sight to behold, and much of the credit belongs to Braun, as countless music industry insiders – among them: CAA head of music Rob Light, managers Adam Leber (Cyrus), Bradford Cobb (Perry), and Ron Lafitte (Williams), and Live Nation exec David Zedeck – commented to Variety. But complicating an already challenging production (UK promoters Festival Republic and SJM Concerts spearheaded efforts on the ground) was another terrorist incident the night before the concert at London’s London Bridge. The Manchester Police, Braun explained, had reassured concertgoers that the cricket field would be safe, but also warned organizers in a prescient alert, “that it was highly likely there could be another attack” on British Soil.
That attack – when a 27-year-old Islamic State radical mowed down a crowd of people, killing eight – gave Braun and team “a greater sense of purpose,” he says. The London Bridge incident proves “it’s not over. It just feels good for all of us to have one day that we did something positive, because it’s been a pretty wild world.”
For 23-year-old Ariana Grande, who took the stage multiple times throughout the night, that meant deciding whether to call off the rest of her “Dangerous Woman” tour, a possibility she deliberated in the days after the attack, when she returned back home to the United States inconsolable. “She didn’t cry for days because of her fear for herself, she cried for the lives that were lost and her fans that were hurt,” her mother and onetime manager Joan Grande tells Variety. “That impacted her to a point where it was devastating pain. Ariana said, ‘This isn’t about me. This is what I have to do to make them feel safe and feel better.’ She’s a very strong young woman. But this was a bravery of a different sort, it was a physical danger.”
|“There’s something powerful in thousands of people coming together.”|
Indeed, the prevailing sentiment among the dozen acts was that, contrary to the belief that U.S. president Donald Trump wants to erect a wall and isolate the country, here were mostly American acts who paid their own way and rerouted tours and commitments to assist not just an allied country, but humankind.
“It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by the news to think that every street is terrifying,” says Chris Martin, frontman of Coldplay. “When confronted with some of the challenges we see today, you have three choices: you can get angry and aggressive, you can do nothing or you can do what you do. In our instance, we sing — that’s all we can do.”
Martin, whose band chooses the poignant “Fix You” as its statement song, before joining Gallagher for the Oasis favorite “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” which would turn out to be a theme of the town and of the night, adds that what made “One Love” unusual – and special – is that “no one has a particularly bigger role than anyone else.”
No one except Braun, that is. The former party promoter-turned-major music business player, whose SB Projects counts Bieber, Usher and Kanye West among some 20 clients, took on the role of promoter, booker and comforter, securing acts up until the last minute (Marcus Mumford signed on 24 hours before he hit the stage for a solo acoustic set), building out artist quarters in a snap, enlisting the help of PR firm the Outside Organization and revered live event director Hamish Hamilton, and locking down live broadcasts by the BBC, ABC and a slew of internet platforms.
There was but one rehearsal – Grande’s — in London’s Wembley Stadium the night before the concert, but all the acts agreed to use a Braun-curated house band rather than their own musicians, and share a backline – unusual concessions not made for even the biggest festivals in normal circumstances. The rest of the artists were able to rehearse the day of the show. “Some didn’t even get soundchecks,” says Braun. “We just said let’s see what happens. It was all hands on deck. Every person on this crew worked so hard to deliver something special to these people.”
As the stadium crowd filed in (14,000 tickets were earmarked for attendees of the May 22 Manchester show, but an additional 10,000 requested tickets as well, causing a major headache for Live Nation-owned Ticketmaster as the company tried to sort out legitimate claims), British parents old enough to remember the 1985 dual venue benefit Live-Aid, which raised more than 40 million GDP for famine in Africa, invoked that concert’s organizer and anointed Braun as the modern-day Bob Geldof. Asked about the comparison, Braun demurred, “If you don’t do anything, I think it’s harder to live with yourself.”
Whatever challenges the production faced, all impressively overcome in a tight run-of-show and executed with minimal amount of sleep, Braun says they paled in comparison to the difficulties face by the families and the kids affected by the bombing. Still, a concert can unite in ways political speeches can’t. Said Coldplay’s Martin: “There’s something powerful in thousands of people coming together especially when the environment seems a little tense. I find it comforting to be around other people and maybe that’s what concerts are for.”