37 rock stars cut million-seller to aid Ethiopia

''Do They Know It's Christmas?'' The record whose title asks this question - performed by a collaboration of British pop and rock stars aptly named Band Aid - hit United States shores last week. The single has already become the fastest-selling disc in British history. It may sell up to 6 million copies here.

Why such a splash? Many believe the reason is the record's purpose: to raise money for the victims of Ethiopia's famine.

By harnessing Christmas commercialism to the needs of the hungry, project organizer Bob Geldof says he has already raised more than $1.2 million for famine relief from British sales. Income from American sales could reach $12 million - half of which should reach Ethiopia.

''We played it as soon as we got it and got instant response,'' says Steve Strick, music director of Boston-area radio station WFNX. Mr. Strick says he's waited for weeks for the release of the heavily promoted disc. He says US producers of the record, Columbia Records, should have no trouble selling 6 million copies - the goal that Mr. Geldof says ''will produce more money than the entire budget of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) for that area of Africa.'' British sales resulted in a contribution surpassing its yearly UNICEF contribution.

To put sales numbers in perspective, Columbia's product manager, Jeff Jones, recalls that recent rock hits, such as Michael Jackson's ''Beat It'' and The Survivor's ''Eye of the Tiger'' (from the film ''Rocky III''), sold 1 million and 2.5 million copies, respectively.

Band Aid's 37 pop stars - including members of Duran Duran, Wham!, and Bananarama, as well as Boy George, Sting, and others - was organized by Mr. Geldof, member of England's Boomtown Rats band. ''I will be asking Americans to suspend taste, choice, and judgment to keep someone alive this Christmas,'' Geldof says.

But disc jockeys both here and in Britain say that there is no need to suspend musical judgment - that the music is good enough to appeal beyond altruism to high standards of artistic taste.

''People love the music - which makes it nice that they can go out and buy something they really enjoy, and at the same time help a worthy cause,'' Strick says.

Mr. Jones says Columbia is donating all its profits from the project, and has yet to find a record chain that isn't doing the same. The discs sell for $1.49 to $2.09, 22 cents of which, he says, go to cover production costs. ''CBS isn't making a dime,'' he adds.

The record represents a collaboration of donated time and effort donated by the pop artists and their managers. In England, the vinyl and costs of pressing were donated by various companies as well.

''It's a throwback to the early '70s,'' says another radio station manager, reminiscing about the historic 1971 Concert for Bangladesh put on by ex-Beatle George Harrison, sitarist Ravi Shankar, and rock stars from Bob Dylan to Ringo Starr. That Madison Square Garden showcase of rockers brought in $250,000 for homeless refugee children.

This latest incarnation of relief-through-rock-and-roll is so popular, say record store owners and chain managers, that they can't get enough of the new record. Maximum allotments of 500 to 1,000 per store are selling out within hours, with some customers buying as many as 20 at a time.

''We had to limit them, two to a customer,'' says an attendant at a major Boston chain, Strawberries. He says the store is sending its own truck to collect an order of 20,000 from a New York pressing plant.

But others raise warning flags.

Frank Jermance, a professor of music management at the University of Colorado , Denver, says buyers should ask how much of the record-sale profits will actually make it to Ethiopia.

''Even though a good number of people have donated their time for free to such a project,'' Mr. Jermance says, ''there are still personnel, lawyers, agents, and management teams that must get their cut.'' So the actual amount of money that is often quoted in association with any fund-raising project is high, he says, though a much smaller amount actually goes to the program in question.

He cites the Jacksons' Victory Tour - the proceeds of which, many thought, were earmarked for charity. But in reality, he says, only Michael Jackson's portion of the profits are slated for charity. ''Much of the public didn't understand this,'' he says.

''I want to assure everyone that this is all above board,'' says Columbia's Jones. ''The accounts of this project in England are open to the public and can be examined anytime. We're keeping monthly audits on all the cash flow so anyone can see their money will really mean food in someone's mouth.''

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