Don’t be clouded by the artists you see at the Grammys or on MTV, when they play videos late at night. The average American musician is always one bad tour or health scare away from being in debt. With many musicians living middle- to lower-middle-class lives with no medical benefits, they must have a genuine desire to reach people with their art.
Fortunately for those artists, a nonprofit overseen by Rob Max is there to help when medical or other expenses become too much to bear.
Max is the executive director of the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, based in Fullerton and Laguna Beach, Calif. A small 501(c)3 nonprofit charity, Sweet Relief helps raise money for career musicians, including singers, songwriters, composers and arrangers, who are facing financial hardship due to age or health issues. The money raised helps pay for musicians’ food or medical expenses. According to Max, since its inception, the nonprofit has raised about $7 million.
“It’s always been a known charity within the music community, and certainly there are a lot of supporters, but we’ve never been an incredibly large charity,” Max told the AmNews.
While not large in size, Sweet Relief has made a huge impact. Artists from Donald Glover to Carrie Underwood, Xzibit and Meshell Ndegeocello support Sweet Relief. Dave Grohl, Peter Frampton and Jackson Browne are major contributors to the charity. And it all started with the founder, whose own health issue sparked the nonprofit’s birth.
“There was an artist by the name of Victoria Williams, a singer-songwriter,” said Max. “It was 1992-1993, and she was touring the country as an opening act for Neil Young. She became ill, she had to leave the tour and it turned out she had multiple sclerosis. She did not have any health insurance.”
Williams was a significant figure within the music community, and other artists organized a live concert and a compilation album, with proceeds going to cover her medical expenses. According to Max, the album sold over 300,000 copies.
“On the album were folks like Pearl Jam and Lou Reed and a bunch of other great artists. The album raised well over $1 million,” said Max. Williams had more money than she needed for her medical expenses, “So she got together with a bunch of folks and decided to take that extra money and start this charity.”
Things were sailing smoothly for the little nonprofit that could, but it suffered a setback that aligned with the music industry’s decrease in revenue and sales in the early 2000s.
“The industry began to see sales suffer, and major labels were going through divisions being eliminated and jobs being lost,” said Max. “Sweet Relief was one of those entities that saw a pullback from record labels from 2005 to 2008. I came in 2009, along with our president, Bill Bennett. We came in and tried new, creative ideas and new partners to increase funding.”
Some of those ideas include remaking the website to make it easier for people to donate online and partnering with individuals to create new programs, like the directed artist program. This particular component of Sweet Relief allows people to donate to a specific artist they set up a direct fund for. But Sweet Relief only puts together direct funds on one condition.
“All of these directed funds that we raise, all of them contribute a percentage to help artists who don’t have as big of a following,” Max said. “Seven percent of every major directed fund goes toward artists that aren’t well-known.”
Sweet Relief’s funds have helped everyone from members of Parliament to the Doobie Brothers with funds dealing with medical and other issues. Most recently, it helped Lester Chambers, of 1960s soul-rock group the Chambers Brothers, stay afloat.
Chambers spoke at a Sweet Relief fundraising event last month in Manhattan, detailing his situation. He is a three-time cancer survivor, nearly faced cataract blindness and was on the verge of homelessness, mostly due to an exploitative record contract that left him with little money despite his voice having appeared in numerous TV shows and movies. Donations from friends and from Sweet Relief helped him with his medical expenses and helped him find a home.
The fundraiser raised $10,000 for New York City musicians in need.
With everyone from major to middle, from well-known to obscure artists covered, the charity remains a godsend for working musicians. And Sweet Relief understands that not all people support all genres of music. The charity has made it easier for those to donate not only to directed funds, but have the funds placed with artists from a particular genre and more.
“As soon as they get to the website [sweetrelief.org], they can choose to donate to the general fund or to specific artists, or the genre of music and musician to direct donations toward,” Max said. Donations can also be designated to a specific geographical area.
Not bad for the little nonprofit that could.