This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Michael Raine
When Hill Strategies Research released its 2014 Statistical Profile of Artists and Cultural Workers in Canada, it was little surprise that artists (musicians, authors and writers, directors, choreographers, etc.) are significantly more likely to be self-employed than the wider labour force. Over half of artists are self-employed compared to between 11 and 15 per cent of the general labour force, according to the report. That has significant consequences for the music industry, making folks in it more vulnerable, which is why the Unison Benevolent Fund was so desperately needed.
“Unison was founded in 2011 when an accident befell a very well-loved community member in the industry and it sort of brought into focus that really, there is no safety net within Canada. Over 61 per cent of the Canadian music industry is self-employed and that’s really great – it’s that entrepreneurial spirit that makes our industry so wonderful – but we have nothing to help our people when they need it most,” says Amanda Power, development manager for Unison.
Started by Catharine Saxberg, then executive director, and Jodie Ferneyhough, president of CCS Rights Management, Unison offers professional counselling and emergency financial assistance to members of the Canadian music industry during times of need. Who qualifies as a member of the music industry is very broad. “It’s any role within the industry,” says Power. “You can be the musician, the songwriter, the performer on stage – those are the ones that come to mind first – but really, it’s the producers, the publishers, it’s publicists, the merchandisers. I often say you can be the bus driver on the tour and you would qualify because you’re earning your income from supporting Canadian music.”
Amanda Power, Development Manager for Unison Benevolent Fund
The counselling service, which has been available since 2011, is provided through a partnership with Morneau Shepell. Done by phone or online with accredited professionals, the counselling addresses a very wide range of topics, which Unison says includes, but is not limited to, mental health support, managing relationships and family life, finding child and elder care resources, legal advice, financial guidance, workplace challenges, tackling addictions, improving nutrition, and focusing on health.
The second service offered by Unison is emergency financial assistance, which was launched in 2015. “The way that works is whatever the situation that has come up – so if the person is unable to work due to illness or whatever challenges life has thrown at them – we’re there to support them to get through that situation. So we provide things like grocery gift cards for food, medical assistance – a lot of dental surgeries we help cover – and rent. A lot of people, the first thing, unfortunately, is the rent needs to get paid and they have to get some help and we help them with that,” explains Power. “The person has to be in a situation where they’re not able to afford whatever they need. So, if they become unemployed and have difficulty finding new work programs, if they’re ill and they can’t work, or if they are working and need dental surgery, well it’s kind of hard to focus on your job every day when your face is killing you because of dental pain. So it’s really whatever the situation is, we’re there to help and to listen and provide the services that we can.”
Because Unison is still a relatively new organization, one of its biggest challenges is simply making people aware of its services. Thankfully, there are folks like John Cody who are spreading the word about how Unison has helped them. Cody, an accomplished singer-songwriter and composer who has written songs for Tom Cochrane and Bonnie Raitt, among others, was diagnosed with cancer in his colon and then larynx a few years ago, which resulted in the loss of his singing voice and deteriorating health. While Unison makes confidentiality a primary concern, never sharing the names of those it helps, Cody made the choice to share his story to help raise awareness and money for the organization.
It was Frank Davies, the famed music producer, publisher, and founder of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, who told Cody about Unison when he was first diagnosed about five years ago. “It’s a fairly harrowing journey,” Cody says of his battle with cancer, “and I am not the kind of person who is squeamish about therapy. I don’t have some kind of peculiar sense of denial about needing it and so I took advantage of it as soon as I was aware of it.”
Like everybody who needs Unison’s help, Cody called and spoke with Executive Director Sheila Hamilton to share his situation. Hamilton is the only person at Unison who ever knows the identities of the people the organization helps. She creates a summary of the person’s situation and matches it with an ID number to maintain confidentiality before it then goes to a committee to approve assistance. “I thought they were very kind and I felt that they were very comprehensive and friendly and obviously non-judgemental,” recalls Cody of his first contact with Unison. “When one finds one’s self in a situation due to health or any number of things where you’ve come up short for bills or rent or whatever, having to fill out an application is the least of your problems. I don’t think that theirs is particularly complicated and they keep confidentiality 100 per cent. The only reason people know about what Unison has done for me is because I’ve come forward, and the only reason I came forward is because I don’t think enough people are aware that they are around.”]
In addition to the counselling services that Unison continues to provide through Morneau Shepell, Cody says Unison also provided financial relief by paying for one month’s rent and also supplies monthly grocery gift cards to help with food. “I felt very relieved and taken care of in a way,” says Cody.
“I think that Unison is one of the most important services available to people in the music industry today. It needs to be recognized as such, supported as such, and my personal vision is that Unison Benevolent Fund is the MusiCares of Canada,” Cody continues, referencing the larger and older U.S.-based charity associated with the Recording Academy and Grammy Awards.
To date, Unison has not rejected a single request for assistance and it plans to keep it that way, provided it can scale its private funding as demand grows due to awareness. Between 2015 and 2016, there was a 15 per cent increase in the number of counselling services provided by Unison, and its emergency financial assistance services grew even more. In 2016, compared to the previous year, Unison received 23 per cent more applications for assistance, which resulted in 70 per cent more funds being distributed to those in emergency situations.
“We do not have a complete picture of 2017 at this time, however, I can tell you as of June 30th that counselling services for 2017 have already risen 14 per cent over 2016, with a fairly equal split between males (48 per cent) and females (52 per cent) calling for assistance,” Power added in a follow-up email in late September. “For the financial assistance program, we’ve already surpassed the total number of applicants who received emergency assistance in 2016.”
In today’s music industry, where more and more jobs lack benefits and pensions, fewer songwriters get salaried publishing deals, and it’s just generally harder for independent musicians to make a sustainable living from their music, emergency assistance is needed more than ever.
“Without [Unison], rock and roll eating its young is a reality. It is so important to the survival of our industry and to its artists and the people who make the music that fuel this industry,” says Cody. “In terms of the people who need it, the most important thing I could say is, do not feel guilty and do not have shame. Do not feel undeserving or unworthy of help. It’s there for you; take advantage of it. Take the hand and let the hand pull you up.”
Michael Raine is the Senior Editor of ***Canadian Musicia*n.