Sheila Hamiilton, Florence K and Amanda Power
Sheila Hamiilton, Florence K and Amanda Power

Unison Benevolent Fund Helps Musicians and Industry Folk in Crisis. Here’s How…

Ask a random member of the Canadian music industry to name the best party she attended in 2017, and odds are good she’ll say Schmoozefest, the Christmas-themed fundraiser hosted annually by Unison Benevolent Fund. Your music biz pal might even claim it as the best shindig of 2016, too.

The boozy, raucous Toronto-based Schmoozefest is a blast and certain to keep the punters coming year after year; a boon for the charity’s coffers.  And it’s a handy counterpoint to the decidedly clearheaded Unison Benevolent Fund which assists musicians and those in that orbit — booking agents, roadies, publicists, managers, promoters and the like — facing urgent emotional and financial distress. Those served by Unison are often expected to turn a happy face to the crowd despite hardship behind the scenes. Showbiz is weird like that.

With Amanda Power, Unison’s former Development Manager, taking over as Executive Director for long-time and founding Executive Director Sheila Hamilton — who moves to Director, Allocations and Services (a.k.a. the first point of contact for music workers in crisis) — it seemed like a good time to check in with Unison and see how they’re faring.

Absent a crystal ball; it’s impossible to accurately gauge the overall wellness of personnel within the Canadian music industry. But stats provided by Unison Benevolent Fund suggest that for many, being a professional within that industry can be precarious, especially if you’re female, aged 30 to 39 years and coping with personal stress.

Unison, which boasts an endowment of $1 million, helps via two channels: Counselling & Health Solutions (administered by a third party, employee- and family-assistance program Morneau Shepell) and Emergency Financial Assistance, handled by Unison directly and launched in 2015. Into the former bucket fall issues such as mental health, addiction, and parenting. Into the latter is rent, groceries, and utilities, with relief cheques delivered directly to the landlord or utility company as required.

All requests to Unison are confidential; not even the allocations committee approving financial requests know the identities of would-be recipients (though industry vet and Canadian Country Music Hall of Famer Hamilton does). It’s worth noting that Unison’s current board of directors are frontline music industry types: Skydiggers singer/songwriter Andy Maize and super-agent and former Harlequin drummer Ralph James, to name two.

And then there are the stats. In 2017, 66 percent of Unison clients sought counselling aid; 34 percent sought financial help. That split is consistent with 2016 (58 percent counselling, 42 percent financial) and 2015 (62 percent counselling, 38 percent financial). “I’m not exactly sure why there’s a divide between counselling and financial help,” Hamilton offers. “Maybe because [counselling] is an accessible and much-needed thing, just to have someone to talk to.”

To put those percentages into headcounts: in 2017, 105 people received counselling, and 55 people received financial assistance. In 2016, 53 people called the counselling hotline, and 45 people received financial aid. In 2015, 48 people received counselling services, and 30 people received financial assistance. So far in 2018, 13 people have received financial aid.

Overall, Unison has assisted 370 people since 2012.

The counselling hotline sees a distinct gender gap: 57 percent women to 43 percent men in 2017.  The split was the same in 2016 but wider still in 2015 (75 percent female to 25 percent male). Whether that’s a result of women being more inclined to seek help than men is debatable. It certainly seems to work that way in the outside world; think about most men’s aversion to consulting doctors.  But the gulf is striking nonetheless.

The vast majority of those seeking emergency financial help from Unison in 2017 were based in Ontario (66 percent) with Nova Scotia a distant second (15 percent) followed by Quebec (7 percent) British Columbia and Manitoba (4 percent each), PEI and "international" or Canadians living abroad when they’ve applied (2 percent each). Alberta, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan and Yukon applied for no emergency financial assistance at all. There is still work to be done in spreading the word about Unison’s programs nationally, something Power acknowledges. 

Click here for a further breakdown of details and demographics.

And those must-attend Unison fundraisers? The final tally for 2017 Schmoozefest was $35,000 while last month’s fourth annual Unison Rocks Charity Bonspiel curling tournament raised $25,000. As Power confirms, the charity's biggest annual fundraiser, the Canadian Entertainment Charity Golf Classic, is set to happen once again this June with nearly 300 players from across the music biz teeing up.

And that couldn’t come at a better time. In 2017, there was a 50 percent increase in counselling services provided as compared to 2016. That amounted to some 350 hours of counselling hours in 2017 managed by Morneau Shepell and their roster of professionals.

Similarly, 2017 saw a 39 percent increase of applications for financial assistance over 2016, resulting in a 13 percent increase in funds being distributed. Unison’s work continues apace, especially in the Christmas and post-Christmas season of January and February, when the org sees a spike in requests for both counselling and financial assistance services.

“The most important thing for people to know about Unison is that we’re here to help,” Power says, adding that Help Musicians UK and Support Act in Australia, which provide similar aid in their respective regions, have also been very co-operative in sharing knowledge.

Power continues: “There is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of, especially when you are asking for help from your community. Unison’s mandate is to assist people in the music industry in times of crisis. We don’t want people suffering in silence, whether that’s mental health, substance abuse or help with rent.  And people in this industry are often living paycheque to paycheque without a safety net.”

And why would someone choose Unison over other social services? “There could be many reasons, though one doesn’t preclude the other; people can access both,” Power says. “It comes down to an individual’s comfort level. Somebody might not feel comfortable visiting a food bank, but they’re comfortable calling us. It could also be that their situation has taken them past the point where visiting a food bank alone will help.

“We stress that people shouldn’t wait until the very last minute to call Unison. If things are looking shaky at the beginning of the month, give us a call and let us help you plan. That’s the point of convergence between our counselling program and financial assistance program.

“Someone can call Unison and say they’re having a difficult time. Sheila can say, ‘OK here’s what we can do. And here’s what I’d also like you to do: call the hotline and talk to a counsellor. They can help you with budget planning or manage a stressful personal situation that will make home life better.’”

Unison defines a music industry professional as someone who has earned 55 percent of their income from music-related activity for a minimum of two consecutive years. For those who are retired, or over the age of 65, a music industry professional is defined as someone who earned at least 55 percent of their income from work as a music industry professional. As for the parameters of financial assistance, it’s a minimum of $200 up to a maximum $5,000 in a one-year period. Financial requests are typically handled in less than a week, sometimes quicker.

And while the charitable sector is a noisy and very busy one, Hamilton says Unison’s unique position — essentially embedded within the music industry it serves — has made getting the word out much easier.

“The music community has really come together for us,” Hamilton says. “They buy tickets to our events like Schmoozefest, donate prizes… we couldn’t do it without them. Especially at the beginning when the Slaight Family Foundation and Music Canada bought in. They believed in us from the start and we have a lot to be grateful for.”

Adds Power, “We’re more recognized now. People who have been helped by Unison are coming forward of their own volition to talk about our work and share their stories. That kind of presence in the industry has helped us enormously. We are still growing [our profile] in different provinces, but once people learn about us, they are stepping up to help.”

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