The charity assistance to out of work musicians and supporting actors in Canada's music industry has been under siege with requests for money from people nationwide sidelined by the pandemic and desperate for a way to feed, shelter and clothe their families or badly in need of counselling for various reasons including imminent mental collapse. It's a heart-wrenching story that weighs heavily on the volunteers who handle the requests, take the phone calls and help to steer the ship through rocky times. Bill King speaks with two principals at the org; meantime, please support the cause and make a donation today by using PayPal, Interac or by cheque. The how and where can be found at Unison online here.
The long view at the not-so-distant horizon is growing clearer with each passing day. Four vaccines in play and the probability of every Canadian inoculated by July a possibility.
Covid fatigue is the greatest obstacle in the long haul towards normality. It’s said summer will seem near routine, yet the catastrophic economic issues confronting the entertainment industry will take decades to repair.
Our business has been decimated.
Job losses beyond calculable and those current expenditures in place to help ease the burden will either be eliminated, or replaced with something less than substantial depending on which federal political party holds the reigns. Below are some current gut-wrenching stats to consider, as provided by the Canadian Live Music Association (CLMA).
Since March 2020 the industry has reported a 92% average revenue loss,
60% of the industry is at risk of permanent closure,
1 in 4 arts, entertainment, and recreational workers lost their jobs in 2020
85% of professional musicians agree that without live performances, they will have a difficult time making a living.
I caught up with talent manager Bernie Breen, who replaced chair Derek Ross to take the reigns of the Unison Fund last year, and Executive Director Amanda Power, about ongoing issues with the fund and goals.
Bill King: This must be a difficult period in raising dollars for the Unison Fund?
Bernie Breen: Ultimately, all our fundraising initiatives have gone south with Covid. We’ve had support from some private individuals and a couple of corporates who have kept us alive. You said much about this in your piece, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? in so many ways, and in terms of what has happened to our industry. We are a direct casualty.
The fact is The Unison Benevolent Fund is officially Canada’s music industry charity and I think that has been lost on people a bit, and what the word benevolent means.
We are simplifying what we do right now, and the message is: the Unison Fund is in peril.
We are on life support.
We’ve given away $2,500,000 over the years, but the Covid relief has all but emptied our shelves.
We are on a a mission to educate, to create awareness out there. We are encouraging people to give back. We need to let people know there is trouble at home and they can help.
We are close to being forced to stop.
We’ve had to ration over three times, reduce what we can give and yet the demand reaches round the block.
B.K: The music industry as such doesn’t seem to have a cohesive central voice when it comes to matters of health, job security, pensions, and addressing calamitous events such as the pandemic. How do we get those in our industry who have risen to the top to better understand and lead the way?
Bernie: Most famously The Weeknd, a talented global artist, donated publically to Musicares in America to the tune of $1,000,000. I don’t think he knows we exist so that’s where our awareness campaign comes in. We need to reach the artists, managers, agents, the fans.. There are a lot of global Canadians out there in the world who love music and we need them to know we’ve got a problem at home. We are trying to pay rents, offer the necessities of life beyond what the government is doing. Wouldn’t it be nice if the government gave us a good shot of money to help administer recovery? It’s a long line when it comes to lobbying and we’re in it. It would certainly make a lot of sense if we were given a sizeable amount of money to help this huge sector in need. It’s sing from the rooftops time for us.
Bill: How do musicians apply?
Amanda Power: When someone applies, they must follow the application process. It’s very simple and quite basic. What situation do you find yourself in? The stories are all too familiar and isimilar. 'We are out of work,' 'we are trying to pay rent and put food on the table.'
We do ask for some detail, but we don’t go into the depth as we did before Covid. Before Covid it was a lot more extensive, and now it’s 'this is what I do, this is what I’m looking for,' and verify you are in the music industry and in need of support. It is a multi-step process that can take anywhere from a couple of days to a week depending on how quickly the applicant responds to our requests.
Bernie: Pre-Covid our maximum for emergency relief was $5,000 per applicant. We’ve had to reduce this six or seven months ago and further reduce it now. We’ve had to lessen just to ration what we have. We are perhaps at the point of having to stop giving so we can keep alive for when the world does come back to normal. Thankfully, Jodie Ferneyhough and Catherine Saxberg had put some great forethought into what might be potentially happening when they created the emergency relief program for those who work in our industry. It was designed not for a pandemic but to help those when they fell onto hard times and needed a leg up to get to the next gig or get through a rough period, but now it’s everybody.
Bill: I for one know the benefit of such emergency lifelines out there. Fifteen years back I was struck with a heart attack and directed to the ACTRA Fund which assisted in covering monthly prescription bills and rent until I was capable of working. I will also argue the importance of music in our lives. More than ever people are turning to music, books, radio, the arts to comfort, communicate and aid in the mental stress of everyday life.
Bernie: Ninety percent of most artists' income is from live, as you know, and that has been taken away. I believe or am confident people aren’t going to walk, they are going to run to see live music again. It will be a different experience, but it will be an experience they are dying to get back into their lives. Well beyond us spoiled types who have spent so much time working or performing in it, I’m talking about the people who built our successes: the fans. my neighbours, the teachers, the plumbers, electricians, these types of people who can’t wait to get home and listen and discover new Indy bands. Those who are out on the Danforth on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday night who just go to experience that feeling of live music.
I can’t wait for that to happen and whether or not a thousand people will have to be in a four thousand seat room and socially distanced, it will still be there. It will have to be a new way to present, and there’s some hope there. We’ve got to get live music up and happening and hopefully people will have the resources to pay for tickets. I do think it’s going to take a while before we will get back to ticket prices that people can afford.
We’ve been set back a decade or probably more in terms of our ecosystem. Who’s going to pay four or five hundred dollars for a set of a superstar? I don’t think that’s happening, but I think a lot of people will spend twenty to twenty-five bucks to see something cool. We’ve got to get there in six or eight months from now. Get our musicians back on stages.
Without the Slaight Family and the Foundation and Derrick Ross’s support for Unison Fund, much of this wouldn’t be possible. Before I was at Unison, I’ve said our industry owes the Slaight Family a debt of gratitude.
Bill: Amanda, what are some of the issues musicians are encountering?
Amanda: I think I’ll refer back to a recent study done by the Canadian Live Music Association. One in four arts and entertainment workers lost their job in 2020. The stories that are coming to us are: 'We need to put food on our table', 'We are trying to pay the rent,' or 'we have medical expenses and we have no coverage..' Most are looking to cover basic living expenses. They just want to keep food on the table and a roof over their head. That’s what we are trying to do.
Everybody is coming to us with almost the same story. 'I have no work or foreseeable work coming and can’t seem to get jobs in other industries when I try.' Their fallback has always been as bartenders, servers, or something like that, but those industries are also closed. Their mental health is struggling too. This is also taking a huge toll on the music industry. It’s depressing not to be able to maintain your home and buy groceries and feed your children. We are trying to provide resources, not only with the financial things we’ve been talking about but counselling as well. We are trying to ensure everybody in the industry is aware of that, so that they know they are not alone. Just ask for help, and you’ll get professional services provided.
During the pandemic, we saw a two hundred and eight percent rise in urgent mental health crisis intervention cases and a total increase of one hundred and forty-two percent in counselling services.
Unison Fund, Canada’s music industry charity, provides counselling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community in times of hardship or difficulties. For over a decade, Unison has been committed to helping producers, engineers, singers/songwriters, musicians, production crews, and thousands more through our financial assistance and counselling and health solutions programs.
We are deep into the global pandemic and there is still extraordinarily little indication as to when live music will come back. That means more and more musicians and music industry workers losing job opportunities or cancelling tours that they and their crew rely on. The need is unprecedented but reminds us of Unison’s mission and purpose to provide emergency assistance in times of crisis. However, at a time when our services are needed most, the organization is also struggling.
Now more than ever, Unison is a critical safety-net for members of the Canadian music industry. I urgently ask you to donate today to help keep Unison alive; play a part in providing Canadian music and entertainment workers and their families with the resources they desperately need so that we can all make it through this pandemic, together.
Please make a donation by texting the word ‘UNISON’ to 45678 and follow the prompts to donate $10, $20, or $25. Every donation counts. Every donation helps. Let’s keep Canadian music and entertainment ALIVE.