Few careers are as unstable as those in the arts, and given the current state of the recording industry, many once successful musicians are now facing financial hardships. Add to that the disastrous state of our heath care industry, and the result is a whole lot of professional musicians who not only can’t afford to pay their rent, but also can’t afford the treatments necessary to ward off illness and disease.

When singer-songwriter Victoria Williams faced these same hardships after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993, a group of her friends recorded an album of all-star covers of her songs to raise money to alleviate her medical debt. Williams, knowing there were other musicians in similar situations, decided to use some of the proceeds to start the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund. Since then, millions of dollars have been raised and dozens of artists in need have been helped through Sweet Relief.

LA Music Blog recently talked to Sweet Relief’s Executive Director, Rob Max, about the artists the fund is currently assisting, how he became involved with Sweet Relief, and what the organization has planned for the future.

Sweet Relief

At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to work in music?

I was involved in music early. When I got out of college at the University of Maryland, I came back to northern New Jersey, and I was working in commercial real estate. I had been singing with some friends in a band locally, and over the course of about a year or so we expanded and we were playing in New York and clubs and parties and events around there. I ended up leaving the real estate career and singing full time with this band. It was called Crazy Fingers, and we were one of the original house bands at a club called the Wetlands Preserve in New York City.

How did you get from that point to getting involved with Sweet Relief?

My first involvement in volunteerism was when I was at college. I was involved in a service fraternity called Alpha Phi Omega, and as a requirement for our charter, we would have to perform a community service or good will activity. What we got involved in was the Big Brother program, and we actually worked with some young kids that had about 40 big brothers with the fraternity. It was at that age—I must of been only 18—that I saw what a great value it was to be of service, so I continued throughout my youth and up to this day being involved in service. I’ve been on boards of panels at hospitals, and I’ve been working with teenagers and a variety of challenging situations for most of my life. I’ve also always been active in local fundraising for things like breast cancer and autism, so that’s always been a component.

I also had other careers in the music industry besides performing in a band. I worked for a retail record chain, and then I ran a night club performance venue in Laguna Beach for a bunch of years [The White House]. I think it was through that experience that I really started to get close to musicians who were passionate about what they did. Through those various combinations, I had interest in music, I had interest in volunteerism, and then I ended up having kids. I went back to New York City and worked for 10 years off of Wall Street in risk management and the commercial insurance markets, so I really got to fine tune my business/entrepreneurial skills and understand what it takes to deal at high levels of business.

I came back out here to California and expanded with that company, and then a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine, Bill Bennett, who’s the president here at Sweet Relief, and I started doing some volunteer work together. It was over that time that I realized I was extremely passionate about doing the volunteer work, and I just wasn’t interested anymore in being involved in commercial insurance or finance or risk management. It had no energy or passion for me. I made a decision to move out of that and take a full-time role here.

What first grabbed your attention about this type of organization?

I think the key about Sweet Relief Musicians Fund was the story about how it was founded by Victoria Williams. Her battle with multiple sclerosis really short-circuited much of her career, although she’s really a national treasure. She was touring, opening for Neil Young back in the early ’90s, got diagnosed, and did not have health insurance.

I think what this organization did was really the basics of charity service, which is to help provide for urgent medical and personal expenses of people who are facing challenging circumstances. We try to raise awareness, but the basic thing this charity does is raise money and use it to change peoples’ lives. I like that combination. Not that I have any doubts about any other charitable organizations, but a lot of them are not as direct. They involved a lot more informational things, which certainly is important, but this is what appealed to me. The dollars coming in are going directly to help people in desperate need.

I was a musician, but I didn’t have the passion, and I think my talent was marginal. When I was managing this night club in Laguna Beach, I can recall specifically we used to have one band that was a rhythm and blues review band. They used to drive down to Los Angeles, an hour and a half plus, and I think there were like 12 people in the band. They had a horn section, they had a guy who would travel with a Hammond B-3, and they had a whole line of back-up singers and guitarists. I think the money that they made might have amounted to about 20 to 30 dollars a person, so maybe it covered their gas and a meal. They came down every Thursday night for a couple of years, and they just loved playing. Some nights we had two to three hundred people at the club and some nights we had 10, but they didn’t change how they played. They were passionate.

I saw this with a lot of musicians, and I started to understand what it means to be driven to be a musician. I realized that for 99 percent of them, it’s never going to be about the money. So few will make it to an exceptional level, but these folks, they’ve practiced, they’ve gotten talented at their craft, and they’re gonna work their tails off to keep in it. Seeing this guy with a Hammond B-3 in his truck, unloading this thing to bring it in the back every Thursday, it showed me a passion, and I really grew a new appreciation for musicians.

I think sometimes there’s a misunderstanding that people who choose a life as a musician don’t want to work hard or do the things you need to do, and I would disagree entirely. First of all, the level of practice and determination it takes to be a professional musician is beyond most people. That ability to take up an instrument or practice your craft to get to a professional level takes years and years of work. Then there are the sacrifices you make, most times financially, to remain in the business. It’s admirable because I think the arts and music are vitally important here in America, and so we’re grateful to do what we do and to be able to help that constituency.

Sweet Relief Album Cover

So what’s been going on with the Sweet Relief Music Fund lately?

We recently had a big show with the Smashing Pumpkins at the Metro. That was for Matthew Leone of Madina Lake. We administer and perform all the fundraising activities in conjunction with Matthew, his family, friends, and management, and it’s been a tremendous outpouring really from around the world, let alone the Chicago area. Joe Shanahan from the Metro is just a legend for what he did with that club in Chicago over the years. He and some of his folks got together and got a hold of Billy Corgan.

Then of course we have the show at the Nokia August 12th, which will be Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal raising money for Brian O’Connor of Eagles of Death Metal and his battle with cancer. We got some great folks and friends of people stepping up, and it helps on what we call our “dedicated artist” programs. It also brings a lot of awareness so we can grow our general fund and help the musicians who don’t have that kind of support or fan base.

If musicians are in need, how do they or their families reach out to be considered for help through Sweet Relief?

They can call, they can email, or they can reach us through our website. They touch base with us at first, and we let them know the parameters, which are that we help musicians, singers, composers, and songwriters and only deal with professionals, so they have to have a track record of being a professional with multiple years of participation or inclusion on albums or recordings. Then we just go through an application. The trigger is someone has to be facing a medical situation, an illness or a disability, or they are what we call an “elder musician.” That age cut off is not a specific date age, but it’s between 60–65. If they’re facing financial challenges that are related to being a musician as a senior, they also can qualify.

If someone who’s not a musician wants to get involved by dedicating time or helping put together a fundraiser, how can they get involved on that level?

They can contact us directly through email or our website. We have two kinds of portals on our website. One is for applicants and one is a little section called “How I Can Help.” We get people everyday looking to reach out. Whether it’s someone wanting to put together a benefit, or musicians who want to do a show that might help other musicians, or friends of musicians we’re helping, people are always reaching out.

Through our directed donation program, we work with artists that have a significant following. It can be local, like Matthew Leone in Chicago, or national like Richie Hayward, the drummer for Little Feat and Robert Plant, and Brian O’Connor, the bass player for Eagles of Death Metal. We really bring a turn-key solution to their management and friends. Urgent activity is needed, and we come right in.

Obviously we’re already a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We know all the steps to get fundraising up and active. People feel very comfortable donating through us because as our bylaws, we make sure the funds go to urgent medical needs or personal needs. We will pay direct to the doctors and to the hospitals. If the musician can’t afford their vital personal expenses, we’ll pay their rent to their landlord. I’ve purchased food cards at local super markets, so we’re very specific about making sure the funds go to the right places that are in the best interests of the musician and to the people who are donating.

In the cases of Matthew Leone or Brian O’Connor, we’ve had well over a thousand people donate to both of those programs. In responding to all of them and offering them thanks, we end of up getting a lot of folks saying, “Hey, what else can I do?” or “I live in Florida. We want to do a show down here.” In those kinds of cases, if it’s tied to a specific artist, I’ll work with their management to see if what this person wants to do is well within the artist and the management’s desires. In the case of Richie Hayward of Little Feat, I work very closely with his manager Cameron Sears. He gives me the go ahead on a certain level of activities. If it’s something larger, I’ll consult with him.

We really come in and bring our expertise to help these individuals get fast and significant fundraising. The benefit to our general musicians is the awareness that comes to Sweet Relief. What we do often brings more donations and interest to help our vast constituency of musicians that don’t have that kind of fan base and that they can’t muster that kind of activity.

You mentioned that there is a show for the Eagles of Death Metal’s bassist going on at Club Nokia. Where can someone get tickets for that?

Well, it sold out in a day. [LAUGHS] I’m talking right now to the management and the bands, and I think they’re gonna put together a special package. They’re gonna have some additional VIP tickets involved with maybe a meet-and-greet. I think I’m going to be putting those up for auction, and we may also do a few other things with radio and have some other things available. Right now, the fan interest was so great, it sold out immediately.

That was a 50-dollar general admission up to a 250-dollar VIP ticket. Queens of the Stone Age doesn’t play very often, and their fan base here in LA is phenomenal. Josh Homme has been really the guiding force. He’s a great friend of Brian O’Connor’s, and he did a benefit with Them Crooked Vultures at the Brixton Academy in England about three weeks ago. That was a terrific fundraiser, and there may be something following this.

Unfortunately, with treatment for cancer, the numbers can sometimes be exceptional. Without health insurance, you can start at $50,000 and it can exceed a quarter-of-a-million to half-a-million dollars for long-term cancer treatment. It’s great that there are willing musicians out there who can step up and really make things happen. Maybe there will be another show announced, but right now, that one’s sold out. People can look to our website or Eagles of Death Metal or Queens of the Stone Age about an announcement for some special tickets.

Queens of the Stone Age

What else does Sweet Relief have planned for 2010?

We’ve got a number of things going on for Richie Hayward. He was the long-term drummer of Little Feat and was also Robert Plant’s first drummer when Led Zeppelin ended. He’s recognized as one of the great drummers and so many people follow his style. Unfortunately he had liver cancer and is in need of a liver transplant. Again, he doesn’t have health insurance, and these are not musicians who just choose not to spend a few bucks to get health insurance. In most of these cases, there was a pre-existing condition that excluded continual coverage. Then the cost of monthly health insurance becomes astronomical; you’re talking two, three thousand dollars a month in many cases.

For Richie, Brian, and some other artists we’re working with, it really is a difficult system, and it just wasn’t possible for them to maintain a consistent health insurance policy that would cover everything. That being said, there’s a show being done up in San Jose by Drum Magazine, August 13th, that’s a Richie Hayward benefit. We are also expecting a larger benefit with some key artists to happen for Richie Hayward in the fall. I know that Bonnie Raitt has already committed to do something for Richie, and some other key artists are going to fill that in. We also have two more benefits in Chicago for Matthew Leone.

We’ve been working with Lester Chambers from the Chambers Brothers also. Lester is now 70 years old, and he and his family reached out to us this spring. Due to royalties not coming through, he found that on his meager income he wasn’t able to afford housing anymore. He couldn’t afford all the medical treatments he needed, and he was sleeping on a couch in a recording studio up in San Francisco. They contacted us, and of course the Chambers Brothers are one of the key rock bands out the ’60s. “Time Has Come Today” has probably been used in 30 different films.

We put the word out to a few of Lester’s friends, and within a two-week period, I was contacted by Yoko Ono and her people. They sent us $20,000 for Lester, out of which we were able to get him into a house up in Petaluma and begin medical treatment for eye tumors. He also needs back and neck surgery and some extensive dental work. We’ve gotten donations from Sammy Hagar, and we’ve gotten commitments from Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, and Alice Cooper’s manager, Shep Gordon. We’re going to be expanding that list a little bit, and we should be looking at a couple of benefits for Lester, one up in San Francisco in the fall and then hopefully something here in Los Angeles.

I’m gonna be creating some specific donation opportunities for people who want to get involved and help Lester Chambers. He is one of the sweetest, most humble men I ever met. He wouldn’t let us do any fundraising for him until I told him that if we did that for him, we’d also be able to help other musicians. He was just gonna go about and try to get by. He didn’t have a problem going public with what he was doing, he just didn’t want to take money he knew other people might need. I said, “Listen, you going public is going to let the world know that it’s not only you. We’re gonna have a whole generation of musicians that are going to be reaching this problem over the next 10 years.”

All the great artists of the pop rock era from the ’60s and ’70s are all reaching their 60s and 70s in age. You take into account that so many of them were looking for catalog royalties to take them into retirement, and those monies have dried up if not all but disappeared. The record industry and the music industry is trying to find its footing in the financial world, so support from there is going to be difficult. We’re going to have many great artists or members in bands that are not the super stars of the world that can still fill an arena, they’re going be in need of help, and that’s one of the expanded roles that Sweet Relief is looking to handle.

That’s great that so many people started reaching out immediately when they heard about Lester.

Yeah, those are terrific artists that reached out, and we certainly want to get the public involved. A friend of Lester’s was Stevie Wonder and Lenny Kravitz opened up for the Chambers Brothers many years ago. We’ve reached out to him, and we’re expecting to hear something back.

I think one of the off-shoots that people never realized would happen when music became digital was we’d lose not only the new sales but these catalog sales also. Nobody’s buying those albums, and it’s just not enough resources. Our intent is to reach out to corporate America. They’ve used music and catalog sales for years to support their products. We’re also reaching out to some large philanthropists throughout the country, and we hope that this cause to help the great American musician will get a little larger on the map and that we can continue to be a resource.

We’re not sure where the whole health care thing is going to go. We certainly support anything that can help people. We’re greatly concerned that it won’t turn out the way it’s looking or that things could get overturned, but we end up providing assistance that falls even outside health care: disability assistance, rent, bills, food. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that there’s a health solution in the next few years, but even with that option, basic expenses for career musicians is definitely vital, so we intend to be around for a while.