Here comes the sun
Kevin Wall taps Al Gore and other rock stars to fight global warming.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Three months ago, Kevin Wall sold his Mercedes. He still misses it. "It was a brand-new, unbelievable car," Wall says. "I had to take a financial hit to get rid of it."
Blame it on Al Gore. Like a lot of people in the Los Angeles entertainment world, Wall, founder and CEO of Control Room, a Beverly Hills company that digitally distributes rock concerts around the world, traded his luxury car for a hybrid after seeing "An Inconvenient Truth." Now he drives a hybrid Lexus.
He also set out to produce Live Earth, only the biggest charitable rock event ever, to raise awareness about global warming. It will take place on seven continents on July 7 (that's 7/7/07), with performances by, among others, Madonna, the Police, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Snoop Dogg.
Wall, 52, predicts that Live Earth, which will be broadcast by more than 100 television networks around the world and streamed digitally on Microsoft's MSN, will be seen by over two billion viewers. "This will obviously be a major red alert," he says.
Wall has played key roles in the music industry's largest charity events. Remember Live Aid, the concert that raised more than $245 million for Ethiopian famine relief in 1985? Wall handled the sale of the U.S. television rights. Two years ago he helped produce Live 8, an event that elicited a pledge from the G-8 to lower African debt and increase aid to the continent by $50 billion a year.
This time Wall enlisted former Vice President Gore as his partner in Live Earth. "Kevin is an extraordinary guy," Gore told Fortune. "He has limitless energy and creativity."
But saving the planet is tougher than relieving famine or reducing debt. With barely a month to go before showtime, Wall is presiding over his weekly planning meeting with his staff in Beverly Hills. He has yet to announce the full lineup for an Istanbul concert, but he has a plan to attract attention. "Get Cat Stevens in the press conference," Wall says.
"Call him Yusuf," warns Aaron Grosky, Control Room's executive vice president of music programming, recalling that the musician changed his name to Yusuf Islam. "It will freak him out to call him Cat Stevens."
The Control Room CEO is told that Live Earth finally has permits for the Shanghai show. He gets an update on efforts to make biodiesel fuel from used cooking grease for the Johannesburg concert. How does Wall keep track of all the details? He says it helps that he has ADHD. "I have a hard time micromanaging," he says, "but I tend to know all the top-line information, and I can connect the dots. That's a positive attribute of ADHD." Wall isn't guessing about his condition; his wife, Susan Smalley, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, discovered the genes for ADHD.
Wall got his start in the music business when he was 13, spinning records at his family's roller rink in Fort Wayne. "Remember roller rinks used to have the organist?" he asks. "I brought in rock & roll and increased the crowds from a couple hundred people a night to 1,000 people on Saturday night."
After high school Wall designed a portable stage for rock concerts and toured with the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Then he started filming concerts and selling the rights to television. One of these shows was Live Aid.
Wall was now well-known in the music industry. But he got rich in the '90s when he founded Box Top, a company that designed websites for clients like Fox and Frito-Lay. In 1998, Wall sold Box Top to IXL, an Atlanta-based consulting firm, and ended up with a lot of IXL stock after the company went public. Wall sold 503,702 of his shares for $35 each, making $17.7 million. Soon after, Wall left IXL and sold most of his remaining 1.7 million shares before the tech bubble burst. "It was more luck than being smart," he says.
Wall was wealthy, but he was restless. "He kept telling me he was bored stiff," says Harvey Goldsmith, the British concert promoter, who had worked with Wall on Live Aid.
So in 2005, Goldsmith enlisted Wall to work on Live 8. "Live 8 was tough," Wall says. "It was perceived as being very political here in the States." Wall persuaded CBS (Charts, Fortune 500) and MTV to broadcast the event, but his biggest deal was with AOL. "Kevin called me on a Saturday and said it was coming together quickly and I had to tell him that day," recalls Jon Miller, AOL's CEO at the time. Miller signed on, and users of his service streamed the event more than 100 million times. This enabled Wall to found Control Room, now affiliated with MSN.
After Live 8, Wall told his wife he would never do another charity concert. He broke that vow the day after his longtime friend, former Viacom (Charts) CEO Tom Freston, invited him to the premiere of "An Inconvenient Truth" last year.
Wall was so moved that he sought out Gore and talked him into lending his name to Live Earth. He teasingly calls his partner "Mr. Rhythm." ("This guy is a little stiff," Wall says.)
But Mr. Rhythm turned out to be a magnet for rock stars, many of whom are fans of the movie. On stage at this year's Grammy Awards, the Red Hot Chili Peppers told Gore they would perform at Live Earth when he presented them with the Grammy for best rock album. Madonna wrote a song, "Hey You," for Live Earth. "The reason I'm doing Live Earth is because next to world peace, global warming is the most important issue facing the world today," she told Fortune in an e-mail.
Madonna and others have been criticized for using private jets while preaching conservation. Wall defends them: "This isn't about what someone did last year. What did you do last year? Were you environmentally conscientious? Me neither. But now I'm driving a hybrid. Now the generator at my home is biodiesel."
Live Earth is providing its stars with "green counseling" to balance environmental concerns with the desire for bling. Grosky says producer-turned-rapper Pharrell Williams was overjoyed to learn that the Toyota Prius wasn't the only green car on the market, telling him: "I had no idea you could get a biodiesel Benz." (Has he told Wall about this?)
Almost all the waste at the concerts will be recycled or composted. Ticket holders are being urged to take public transportation to the shows. Live Earth is investing in carbon offsets to compensate for the greenhouse gases generated by air travel for the rock show. Wall is a little nonplussed that environmentalists are scrutinizing the show so closely. "I didn't anticipate that whole thing when I told Al Gore that I was going to do this big project," he says.
Live Earth may end up changing the rock concert business. But what will it do for the larger cause of stopping global warming? That's not clear. In May, Bob Geldof, the driving force behind Live Aid and Live 8, complained to a Dutch newspaper that the event didn't have clear enough goals. "I would organize [Live Earth] only if I could go on stage and announce concrete environmental measures from the American presidential candidates, Congress, or major corporations," he said. "They haven't got those guarantees, so it's just an enormous pop concert or the umpteenth time that, say, Madonna or Coldplay get up on stage."
Wall says Geldof has assured him since then that he meant no harm and that his comments had been blown out of proportion: "Look, he's a great guy. He's done a lot of great stuff."
But Wall has difficulty articulating what Live Earth will accomplish. He insists that something magical will happen on July 7 when some of the world's biggest rock stars take the stage and talk about climate change: "When you take these artists and they play a song and you can connect that song, transfer that emotion to this message, it will grow for years. It's just like Bob Dylan's 'Blowing in the Wind.' It's just like Eric Clapton when he played 'Tears in Heaven.' You get choked up when you hear it. The fact is, it can work, and it can work great. That's our goal."
It's also possible that if enough rock stars in this celebrity-obsessed age actually begin to tread lightly on the earth, millions will imitate them. Then this would be more than just another enormous pop concert.
From the July 9, 2007 issue