Corporate sponsor or corporate censor?

August 10, 2007


  • The controversy over the censorship of political lyrics in a song by Pearl Jam during the Webcast of last weekend's Lollapalooza music festival has become a major issue among advocates of Net neutrality.

    But the incident also raises a larger question about whether corporate sponsorships in the concert world are the benign force that advocates claim, helping to lower ticket prices, or if they potentially compromise a vital forum for free expression.

    Since its reinvention as a three-day destination festival in Grant Park, Lollapalooza has aggressively courted corporate advertisers, selling naming rights to its eight stages and even renaming the historic Petrillo Band Shell for the weekend. One of its biggest sponsors is the telecommunications giant AT&T, which Webcast Lolla performances all weekend on its Blue Room Web site.

    A suburban Chicago company provided a live video feed from the park to AT&T, and a freelance company in Los Angeles broadcast that stream on the Web several seconds later, after the footage was reviewed by a "content monitor" who could "bleep" or edit the footage because of objectionable content, much as network television does with shows like the Grammys.

    "Ordinarily, they would not be at all interfering with the performance of a song -- with lyrics or anything along those lines," said Tiffany O'Brien Nels, AT&T's Austin, Texas-based spokeswoman. "A good example of what they're there for would be an artist engaged in typical stage banter where the profanity gets excessive. The reason we have that person in place is the Blue Room [Web site] is not age-restricted."

    But AT&T's content monitor also decided to edit the Webcast of Pearl Jam's song "Daughter," which singer and Evanston native Eddie Vedder merged into a reworked version of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2," adding the lyrics: "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush, find yourself another home."

    People in Grant Park heard those words, but people watching on the Web did not -- and Pearl Jam was outraged.

    "This troubles us as artists but also as citizens concerned with the issue of censorship and the increasingly consolidated control of the media," the Seattle band wrote in a post on its own Web site. "AT&T's actions strike at the heart of the public's concerns over the power that corporations have when it comes to determining what the public sees and hears through communications media."

    O'Brien Nels said she could not say how many other Lolla artists were edited during AT&T's Webcasts, and she insisted that the Pearl Jam edit was "an unfortunate mistake -- somebody slipped or was overzealous. It's not the company's policy to censor or edit performances."

    What was the benefit to AT&T for being part of Lollapalooza? "Obviously, we want to reach that important demographic," O'Brien Nels said. "And in the case of Lollapalooza, AT&T's sponsorship at the beginning helped make these concerts possible."

    What was the benefit to Pearl Jam from this corporate sponsorship? The musicians clearly feel they were unjustly silenced on the Web (they plan to make the unedited song available on their site soon), and they'll forever suffer the indignity of seeing hundreds of pictures of themselves performing on a stage adorned with the name "AT&T," as if they endorse that company's actions.

    In the end, this underscores the real problem these sponsorships pose in the music world: Artists and corporations often have very different and completely incompatible messages and goals. Major concerts like Lollapalooza have to choose which side they're on, and so do the artists and their fans.

    Pearl Jam not first to be censored by AT&T

    August 11, 2007

    AT&T’s controversial edit of comments about President Bush from a Webcast of Pearl Jam’s performance at Lollapalooza last week was not the first time the telecommunications giant has silenced political statements by musicians.

    An AT&T spokeswoman initially characterized the sudden audio edit that silenced Eddie Vedder’s lyrics “George Bush, leave this world alone” and “George Bush, find yourself another home” during Pearl Jam’s performance in Grant Park last Sunday as “an unfortunate mistake” and “an isolated incident.”

    But yesterday, a reader e-mailed the Sun-Times saying AT&T’s Blue Room Webcast also had silenced comments during two performances at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee last June, cutting remarks by the John Butler Trio bemoaning the lack of federal response to Hurricane Katrina and comments about Bush and the war in Iraq by singer Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

    “The sound did not cut out at any other time — only when someone was talking about George Bush or the government in a negative way,” the reader, who identified herself as Andrea K., wrote. Flaming Lips management said the band was unaware of the edit but was investigating, and the John Butler Trio could not be reached.

    But AT&T did confirm that other, unspecified political comments have been cut from its Webcasts.

    “It’s not our intent to edit political comments in Webcasts on the Blue Room,” Tiffany O’Brien Nels, AT&T’s Austin, Texas-based spokeswoman, said Friday in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, it has happened in the past in a handful of cases. We have taken steps to insure that it will not happen again.”

    O’Brien Nels would not confirm the specific Bonnaroo edits or provide any information about other edits during the Lollapalooza Webcasts. “What I gave you is our statement,” she said.

    In a statement on its Web site, Pearl Jam echoed the concerns of many advocates of Net neutrality, who are angered about what they call a violation of free speech. “This troubles us as artists but also as citizens concerned with the issue of censorship and the increasingly consolidated control of the media,” the Seattle band wrote.