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Kreviazuk benefit show is music to their hearts

Show support fund for musicians going through hard times

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He died a Canadian icon, but beloved, black-hatted troubadour Stompin' Tom Connors also lived many hard years on the road, literally singing for his supper.

We like to romanticize musicians as artistic free spirits who can follow their bliss unencumbered by the mundane routines of the 9-to-5 world. But ask anyone who's trying to make their living in the music industry these days and a different picture emerges.

First off, only the very lucky few have a major record label behind them, so drumming up gigs becomes key to survival. Of course, you want to get the right gigs and not end up the acoustic guitarist playing to a room full of heavy metal fans or folks craving '80s cover tunes.

And if you do make a record, a major financial undertaking in itself, who's going to promote and sell it -- and where, since record stores have become an endangered species?

Employment can be inconsistent in any aspect of the music business, but the situation is even more daunting for the self-employed.

For every arena-filling, bestselling headliner there are thousands of musicians who are one emergency or crisis away from financial hardship. Or maybe the stress of living from gig to gig has already taken an emotional or mental toll.

Until recently, members of the Canadian music industry -- musicians, agents, roadies and various creative types behind the scenes -- were often living and working without a safety net: no insurance, no benefits, no long-term disability coverage or access to counselling.

The Unison Benevolent Fund is aiming to change that.

The charity was co-founded in 2010 by Jodie Ferneyhough and Catharine Saxberg, Toronto music publishing professionals who had both had friends in the industry fall on hard times, due to illness and accident. They recognized that although community fundraisers and benefits can help someone get back on his or her feet, there's a need for ongoing and discreet assistance in times of personal hardship and crisis.

"It's a temporary, short-term thing, so it's not like a major disability insurance, but when something catastrophic happens, it's a bridge to a better time," says Sara Stasiuk, executive director of Manitoba Music and regional liaison with the Toronto-based fund.

Unison's goal, according to the website, is to "provide emergency financial assistance and crisis management" to all members of the music industry -- from songwriters and musicians to sound techs, indie publishers and promotion staff. That includes 24/7 telephone access to private counselling services (personal, financial and bankruptcy, career and legal).

Free counselling is already available, but the fund needs to raise $1 million before it can start offering emergency relief funding. It currently sits at just over $850,000.

"We're in fundraising mode, which is the mode we're going to be in forever, I think," says Stasiuk.

Manitoba Film & Music and the West End Cultural Centre plan to give the Unison Fund a benevolent boost on Friday, April 12, when Winnipeg-born pop chanteuse and two-time Juno Award winner Chantal Kreviazuk performs at the West End Cultural Centre.

All proceeds from the intimate concert, which is part of WECC's 25th anniversary celebrations, will go to the venue's charitable programming and to the Unison fund. Tickets are $60, plus fees and available through Ticketmaster.

Winnipeg singer-songwriter J.P. Hoe will be opening the show. As a touring independent musician who has supported the fund since its inception, he can speak to its need.

Unlike most small businesses, a musician who wants to get ahead and to grow has to leave the city, says Hoe, who spent around 100 days on the road during the last 12 months.

"Travel expenses are massive and you don't build an audience overnight, so it's years of paying to go out on the road to build your fan base so that maybe four years later you start making money."

Four years is about how long Hoe, who has released five albums, has been doing music full time.

He's lucky, the recently married musician says, because he has access to benefits through his wife, who works for a pharmaceutical company. "Without my wife, I would not have those same benefits. It's almost scary to think otherwise."

It's not that musicians are feeling sorry for themselves for the costs of the life they've chosen, Hoe says. "It's just the reality and this is a tangible solution to some of their worries and troubles."

The only criteria for accessing Unison fund services is that recipients must have worked in the music industry for at least two years and be earning at least 55 per cent of their income from it.

Winnipeg singer-songwriter Dan Frechette, who started doing music full time in his late teens and is now in his mid-30s, says he's thrilled there's a support system out there for musicians like himself -- "the ones who are going to do it no matter what."

"I've invested my life in this, with or without the support of the world around me, so it's nice that a program like this exists. We're on our own out there," says Frechette, who currently spends about 100 days a year on the road but aims to eventually bump that up to 300 days. He can recall times when he got by on as little as $500 a month.

"My life force is sharing my music. As long as I'm on a stage every night, I'm happy."

For more information about the Unison Benevolent Fund, or to register, go to www.unisonfund.ca.

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 11, 2013 C3

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Updated on Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 9:54 AM CDT: adds fact box

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