Two-and-a-half years ago, Bill Bell, long-time guitarist for Tom Cochrane, was lying on the floor of his Toronto home in the midst of a nervous breakdown when he received the call that changed his life.
Bell’s friend, music executive Allan Reid, had phoned to check in on him and recommended that he reach out to the Unison Benevolent Fund for help.
“In my mind, I didn’t feel I should reach out to Unison because I should take care of it myself, “ Bell, 51, recalled. “And Allan said, ‘No you should call Unison, because they’ll help you and they’ll get you therapy right away.’ I listened to Allan in my dark moment and, within two days, they had me into therapy. I’m really grateful for that because Unison gave me a sense that someone was there and that they cared.”
John Cody, a Montreal-based songwriter who has endured 11 surgeries in five years due to severe illnesses that include cancer, autoimmune degenerative disease and Gilbert’s syndrome, is also grateful for the lifeline that Unison has provided.
“When I became disabled it took me two to three years to receive disability benefits,” Cody explained. “If it wasn’t for Unison sending me grocery cards I wouldn’t eat, period.”
Bell and Cody are just two of the more than 800 people who have received relief from the fund, a non-profit charity providing emergency relief and counselling to the Canadian music community since 2011.
Or as Alan Doyle, former frontman for Great Big Sea, describes it: “a safety net for musicians who really don’t have another one.”
Actually, Unison doesn’t help just artists and those who play an instrument: any music industry professional who has earned 55 per cent of their income from music-related activity for a minimum of two consecutive years qualifies for relief.
Applications and requests are strictly confidential and the list of qualifying professions — which can be viewed at unisonfund.ca — encompasses booking agents, marketers, promoters, road technicians and tour operators, to name a few.
But clearly being a musician is among the most vulnerable of vocations.
“There’s no stability in an artist’s life,” Bell says. “When you work a 9-to-5 job, you have health benefits. I have a friend who has a government job who just took three months off for a paid mental health leave.
“As an artist, you have to keep working through your hard times in order to pay the rent.”
Doyle echoes the concern.
“Most people can go to their jobs and function fine if they suffer a broken pinky,” he says. “If a pianist or a guitarist breaks their pinky, they’re off work for six months. A singer with a node is off for a year.
“There’s no employment insurance for musicians, so the Unison fund is desperately needed.”
Cody, whose larynx was partially removed in 2017, has been unable to work.
“Unison helps you take care of doctors and surgeries and rent, which is essential when going through hard times. I don’t think I’d survive without help from Unison. I’ve been in counselling for several months and I need it.”
Unison was founded in 2009 by a pair of veteran music industry executives, Catherine Saxberg and Jodie Ferneyhough, in response to the death of Haydain Neale, founder of the Juno Award-winning group Jacksoul.
Neale was critically injured in a 2007 auto accident in Toronto and died two years later of lung cancer.
“Haydain was a very dear friend of mine, had a catastrophic accident and it was really clear at that time that those sorts of terrible life circumstances, while they’re hard for anybody, are particularly challenging for people in the music business, a lot of whom don’t have benefits plans or backup plans or any kind of safety net,” says Saxberg.
“I came from the advertising industry where the National Advertising Benevolent Society had been in full force for many years. Jodie and I were having a conversation and I said it would be good if we did something like NABS, but for the music industry.
“We were at the Junos in Vancouver at a food court and we sketched out on a napkin what it might look like, and we thought what we’d might like to do is provide emergency financial relief and counselling services, and then started trying out how to make that happen.”
It took a while to get established: the charity didn’t offer counselling services until 2011 and has only been providing monetary aid since 2015, when the goal of establishing a $ 900,000 endowment fund was reached through donations.
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“The idea is that we had enough money in the endowment fund to sustain the organization, because what we didn’t want to do is raise so much money, give it all away and then that’s the end of the organization,” Saxberg says. “The goal of the organization is to raise its operating costs annually so that we don’t have to touch the endowment. The endowment provides the safety net for Unison.”
In 2019 alone, 71 per cent of the music community members who applied to Unison received counselling services, with 5 per suffering from urgent mental health situations; 29 per cent have received financial assistance.
But Unison itself may be facing a crisis.
Executive director Amanda Power says 2019 donations are “currently sitting at 44 per cent of our expected donation revenue to date. The amount going out the door for allocations — counselling and financial assistance — versus being donated is approximately 2:1.”
On the other hand, demand for Unison’s programs is growing by an average of 30 per cent a year, spurred in part by such factors as consumers favouring music streaming over music ownership, resulting in a loss of sales income to artists and songwriters.
“We are currently trending to exceed that percentage in 2019,” says Power.
Although music industry businesses have been generous with donations and fundraisers, Power says the time has come to look outside the field.
“The challenge that we’re finding is that we need people outside of our direct music industry to stand up and say, ‘OK, now I want to help.’ We’re looking at music lovers helping music makers — the fans and the large corporations and banks and the big investment companies who have told us they love music.”
Doyle says it’s not such a bad investment, considering musicians are usually the first to be called by charities for fundraisers.
“I’ve been joking for years in Newfoundland that if a house catches fire, people call the band before they call the fire department,” he chuckles.
“I think one of the facts that often gets overlooked is how much money for charity the Canadian music industry regularly raises. The amount of donated and dedicated time and effort is staggering.
“Without a healthy music community, you don’t have that resource to draw on when you’re raising money for other things.”
And those who have been helped, like Bell, are happy to give back by engaging in activities like public speaking in support of Unison.
“Asking for help is one of the hardest things I ever had to do, but Unison showed up for me and I’ll always be grateful. I feel that by sharing my story I’m letting the music community know that someone is there to help and listen. No one has to be alone.”