Here Caryn Rose discusses Sweet Relief, an organization which was designed to help ill musicians get the kind of financial support that they need, before online crowdfunding was as commonplace as it is now.
Guest post by Caryn Rose of CASH Music
It’s become a deeply sad and all too familiar pattern: the revelation that a musician has a catastrophic illness, followed by the launch of the now-inevitable GoFundMe and an announcement of some kind of benefit performance(s) to help raise money towards medical expenses. Fellow musicians rally their loyal fan bases and donate time, merchandise, music; bandmates raise awareness, fans chip in with cash, purchase concert tickets, or bid on silent auctions. Everyone hopes for positive outcomes, whether financial—fundraising goals that exceed their original target, sold out shows—of course, medical—a successful treatment, a shrunken tumor, a cancer in remission. At the very least, a financial cushion to support the afflicted while they undergo care and hopefully get back on their feet.
But long before crowdfunding, tragically, became an acceptable way for ill musicians to obtain financial support, the organization Sweet Relief was providing similar services. Founded in 1993 when Victoria Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Sweet Relief (according to their mission statement) “provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability, or age related problems.” Many people became aware of the organization from the benefit album of the same name that came together to assist Williams. Others notice the charity’s name on their credit card receipt when they buy a T-shirt or a poster at a fundraising gig.
“Where we really figure in is when people are facing life-threatening cancer, illness, or other disabilities,” said Rob Max, executive director of Sweet Relief. “The vast majority of the people we help actually have insurance. What most people aren’t aware of is that insurance coverage in this country is limited. And if you get a life-threatening disease, like a cancer, you’re going to be in a lot of challenge financially, besides everything else: physically, mentally, spiritually.
Even if you’re fully insured, insurance doesn’t cover living, insurance doesn’t cover housing, insurance doesn’t cover food or other necessities, insurance doesn’t cover many things that fall outside insurance.
So Sweet Relief comes in and [fills the] gap for all that.”
Sixty percent of bankruptcies in the U.S. are the result of medical debt. “There’s a level of illness that someone will have in this country, and...short of having a million-dollar net income, you’re going to be in trouble,” Max said. “You’re going to need help from your community. I mean, I’ve seen successful people that had great careers in music or in the business of music or just in general [who] lose everything with cancer treatment that extends a few years. They don’t have income coming in. I’ve seen people lose houses. So I think it’s good that we talk about the challenges of the musician in choosing that career...
It’s bad enough when people get cancer—can you imagine going homeless while you’re battling cancer? I mean, it’s a reality that everybody faces if you get ill these days. Being a musician just adds more challenge when you become ill—typically, they [don’t have] steady careers with steady income.”
Max points out that the physical nature of a musician’s job presents a dynamic familiar to anyone who uses their body in their work. “The illness has removed from them their way of making a living—they can’t suddenly switch to another profession that will support them at the same level,” he said. “When you're facing cancer, or some of these other things, there’s no job that you can do. If you’re going through chemotherapy, if you're beginning to become debilitated—many people we’ve helped with Lou Gehrig’s disease, people we’ve helped with severe MS—it takes away any working capability.”
Sweet Relief is not just there for “name” musicians, Max points out. They are a resource for musicians in need at any stage of their career. “We help local [musicians] as well—not just people who are significant in the music world, we’ve done dozens and dozens of directed funds,” he said. (Directed funds are the larger fundraisers executed under the Sweet Relief umbrella.) “As long as there’s a community that wants to help somebody, they can come work with us...Sometimes we just provide information, sometimes we set a fund up, people can work through us. We’re here on any level that people need us, if we can help...We’ve done more directed funds for people you’ve never heard of than [for] famous people.”
Max stressed that the most important thing, before offering to set up any kind of fundraiser for someone you want to help, is to make sure that the beneficiary is comfortable with the idea.
“Make sure this person wants to go public with their position,” he said. “A lot of times people want to keep it private. They do not want their medical conditions, or what they’re going through, out there.”
Usually, there’s one person who’s the impetus behind the fundraising drive. Sweet Relief refers to them as the “angel advocate.” Max elaborates: “That’s the person—sometimes it’s a wife, sometimes it’s a child, sometimes it’s a parent, sometimes it’s a best friend, sometimes it’s a co-worker—these people are heroes. They’ve got someone close to them, and they are going to take on a second job in their life. And that job is to make sure that this person is not forgotten, and they get the help they need. And those are the drivers that really do amazing things.”
Max also had some advice for those whose first instinct to raise money is to put on a benefit concert: “You really have to be smart so you don’t end up losing money, or don’t end up making money, or spending money that you shouldn’t,” he said. “It always depends upon what community is available, but you can raise significant money with a bake sale at a school—just as much as you could trying to put on a show. The other mistake I see is that people don’t realize how much time it takes to produce a show. Even in a local situation, all the stuff that goes into it, sometimes I see people get overwhelmed, and I would caution somebody: be very careful. Don’t take on something that might be outside of your capabilities or resources, because then you’ll get resentful when it turns into too much for [you] to handle.
“The key thing,” he continued, “is [to] delegate, and get people to give their time and things for free. What people don’t realize when they want to do shows at clubs: venues can’t just give away their venues. If they’re personally connected to somebody they may do so, but venues are not making money hand over fist, so you can’t just get them for free.”
It’s not just the advocates who must mentally adjust to unexpected contingencies, but stricken musicians as well. “The greatest gift you can ever give some person is letting them help you when you need it most......any person that’s ever in need, realize you’re giving somebody a gift when you let them help. It’s hard for people to see that.
We get humble when we’re in our worst situations, and we shouldn’t let being humble be confused with being humiliated.
Because you’re not being humiliated; you’re giving people that love you a chance to help you, and that’s a true gift.”
It’s important to remember that Sweet Relief isn’t the only resource for musicians in need. Max identified MusicCares and The Actor’s Fund as charities that have the capacity fund larger amounts than Sweet Relief can handle. “They help many, many, many musicians that need help, and they’ll give substantial grants—$1,000, $2,000—our general grants are small, they’re $400, to just help somebody pay a bill for a month, maybe help them along,” he said. “In directed funds, we’ve raised from $10,000 to half a million dollars to help somebody...the directed funds that we do, which now we’ve done several hundreds, we’ve paid for brain tumor operations. We’ve saved someone’s home. We’ve been able to get people treatment to really help them.
“Often [people] come to us when it’s terminal, and they’re just trying to survive, or get treatment to stretch out life. And we’re part of the people who can make that possible.”
p.s. Fuck cancer.