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