Q&A: Former Manager of The Tragically Hip Discusses New Role As Chair of Music Industry Charity

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Bernie Breen “used to manage a little five-piece out of Kingston,” as he playfully puts it. He recently resigned from managing The Tragically Hip, explaining “it was time for a change, not only for me but for the band.”

Frontman Gord Downie died in October 2017 of brain cancer.

He still manages actor and singer Hugh Dillon (who is currently in Montana shooting season 4 of Yellowstone) and his band the Headstones; Matthew Good (who is working on a new project to be announced “soon”); and producer/musician Colin Cripps of Blue Rodeo, but has accepted the role as chair of Unison Benevolent Fund, replacing a hard act to follow, Derrick Ross of Slaight Music.

Created almost a decade ago, Unison is a non-profit, registered charity that provides counselling and emergency relief services to the professional Canadian music community from artists to industry workers.  Quick to recognize an increased demand for financial assistance as the pandemic shut down the industry back in March, a Covid-19 Emergency Relief Program was created immediately.

The Hip is currently selling a "Courage" face mask with proceeds going to Unison. “Not only do I wish them nothing but the best, but they are great supporters of Unison,” says the president of Bernie Breen Management in Toronto. “It just became time for a change. They're supporting Unison and we're supporting Jake [Gold, the band’s original manager] and his re-involvement. He’s doing a great job. So, yeah, it’s interesting the way things worked out, the void from the commitment to The Hip has allowed me to spend more time on Unison, which has just been a gift.”

Unison was the brainchild of Jodie Ferneyhough [CCS Rights Management] and Catherine Saxberg [SOCAN] back in 2011, who first launched the Counselling & Health Solutions Program, provided by Morneau Shepell, a year later, supported by the RBC Foundation.  Finally, after years of fundraising, the Financial Assistance program launched in 2015.  Sheila Hamilton was Unison’s first executive director, succeeded by Amanda Power in 2018.

Besides the new appointment of Breen, there are other changes at the charity. At the leadership level, Brian Huston (urArtist Network) has been named treasurer, and Charlotte Thompson (Red Umbrella P.R.) the secretary-treasurer.  As well, departing board members Jesse Kumagai (Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall), Dan Fraser (Nettwerk), Ralph James (APA), and Melissa Bubb-Clarke (Live Nation) make way for new voices: Jully Black (singer-songwriter), Erin Ashley Lowers (hip hop/R&B content specialist), Sandy Pandya (Pandyamonium Management), and Mark Watt (music industry executive).

The four take a seat alongside Huston, Thompson, Erin Benjamin (Canadian Live Music Association), Daniel Glick (evenko), Jennifer Hardy (Music Canada), Shawn Hook (artist), Vanessa Thomas (Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame) and Dawn Woroniuk (Sakamoto Promotions) for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. 

In this interview, Breen talks about his new position as chair and what plans he has for Unison, as the pandemic continues, the music industry virtually halted, leaving thousands without the ability to make a living.

Were you involved with Unison right off the bat and what appealed to you about what they do?

Late in 2014, Matthew Good was performing at a Unison benefit show at the Phoenix [in Toronto] and Derrick Ross approached me about joining the board. I said yes immediately, as the idea of helping those in our industry who fall on hard times was a no-brainer for me. I officially became a board member in the spring of 2015.   At the time, the idea of emergency relief for people who work in the industry, not just artists, but the workers — the label people, the agents, the managers — when they fall into hard times, made a ton of sense.  At some point, any one of us could fall on hard times and there but for the grace of God go I kind of thing.  So while I can, I certainly would help.

Up until that time, you had worked with an artist who struggled with substance abuse and another with mental health issues. What was there in place back then for people going through those things?

Well, that's just, it; there wasn't anything. It was an easy decision [to join Unison’s board] because people need help at every level, financially and certainly emotionally. A big part for me was the counselling and health solutions part of what Unison was about, having a number for people to call and get mental health assistance. It's hard to compare artists that I was managing because I was the last stop, to some degree, for certain clients at different points to talk to, or to direct them, to get some help. A lot of people who are working in the industry don't have managers or advisors to help them figure out how to be creative or to get up and go to work in the morning, whether it be rolling cables or making sounds. 

You’ve had a difficult few years losing Gord. Did going through that change your perspective and interest in getting more involved with Unison?

No, I can't say it changed because I was involved prior to losing Gord, and others in my life. If anything, it reconfirmed the need for me to continue to try and give back any way I can and to help anybody I can in any way I can. 

Did being around someone as caring and selfless as Gord was at the end of his life make you want to help more?

Yes, it continued to inspire me certainly. And Gord did. When I told the band that I was joining the board, I remember distinctly that day, I just sent a note, “Hey guys, FYI…”  kind of thing, and, of course, they were all very encouraging and positively responsive to the note, but particularly Gord — in only Gord's way —  was just brilliant, something along the lines of ‘You're the man for the job, Bern.’  So yeah, it certainly inspired me to continue, but most importantly I’ve got friendships and relationships — our industry is small —  and I know a lot of people at every level and every job description, bus drivers, truck drivers, crew guys, sound people, people at every level in our industry that I encounter, no more important than the other. A soul’s a soul, a person's a person, struggling and committed to music and to making the music happen and getting our artists on stages, and to and from places. All that stuff. 

Just the idea [of Unison], again, I applaud Jodie and Catherine for having the vision to start something for emergency relief and, wow, what vision to foreshadow covid. Thank God we were where we were seven months ago when this [pandemic] hit because we were the first people that a lot of people could turn to before government assistance. Before CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit]; we were giving people money. We were there.  And that's what we were promising during our fundraising, and all the things that have happened over the five or six years, and the education of the industry, particularly, to the people who are doing well within the industry.  We were able to say, “Hey, help us for that rainy day when people need it, when our industry needs it. We need to stock the shelves.”

Fortunately, when covid hit, we were really lucky that some of the people who had supported us in the past, stepped up: Spotify, the Slaight family, Sony, Sirius, RBC, Amazon. And Jackie Dean, who’s the head of our finance committee, has been instrumental in advising us during this time.

We've already given away $1.2 million just from the Covid Relief Fund from coast-to-coast. That’s substantial in a country this size. As well, the Morneau Shepell counselling service numbers are doubling. To have people be able to call and get some help financially, mentally, or being pointed in a direction is really helpful. 

In your new role as chair, going forward, what would you like to see amped up or changed at Unison, since covid will be affecting us for some time?

Being on the board was a great experience and working with great people in our industry over those years.  Derrick Ross being the chairman was inspiring; he's big shoes to fill for me. So it's a daunting task to walk in behind DR. It’s a time for me to get creative and innovative, to continue to stock our shelves so we can continue to give money.  Our pillar fundraising events — our golf tournaments, our [Holiday] Schmoozefest, Jaymz Bee’s Caravan of Music — have all been cancelled since the pandemic hit. The demand was overwhelming and we were concerned about staying alive. How do we do that? 

Fortunately, the list of people — Spotify and Slaight Family, the major labels, and so on — stepped up and helped us with an influx of cash to deal with the demand, then CERB came along.  That helps us a little bit, but it's still very difficult.  So, my biggest challenge is to continue to raise funds so we can keep doing this to get through covid, and then be back and available when the industry gets back and going, to help those continue to get back on their feet, and deal with the things we started [Unison] to do, which was to help people in emergency situations and emergency relief for counselling, and/or finances through the month to pay the rent, to get some groceries.

There's a whole sector that we don't come into contact with that frequently, but are eligible for Unison’s help, and that's professional musicians who play in pubs or wedding bands or the orchestra pit at theatre productions or symphony musicians.  How are you going to get the word out to these people?

It’s a good question.  It’s a bit of a catch 22 situation because we don't want to advertise “Hey, come and get the money” because everyone's going to come and get the money and we're going to go broke and close. But at the same time, our allocations committee is really stringent as to who qualifies, but if you're in trouble and you've earned your living in the music industry, in any form or fashion, if you need it, you can apply.  Of course, it's confidential, which is a huge part of this for everybody. And so, my biggest challenge is to continue to raise funds in new ways. We're working on a couple of great initiatives. One is a [virtual] holiday event that we'll be announcing soon to help raise some funds.

The beautiful thing about what Unison stands for is the artists who are successful at all levels, it's just so easy for them to say yes [to help Unison] because they know the guys and gals in their crew, the people that they've worked with from the beginning to where they are now,  are the people in need. It's very simple to want to help out because those friendships go beyond the stage. Bands will go on and do their hour-and-a-half onstage, but they have great friendships and relationships with their label, their managers, their agents, their teams, all the people who helped them get to where they are and were there for them along the way. 

What do people familiar with Unison perhaps not know they can access? I got three months of grief counselling for my mom.

Counselling is one of the things. Life planning, management, mental health, personal, physical, parenting, family, work-related, personal stress, addictions, all those things are part of the counselling services that are offered. 

What about for their children — if a child stutters, or is on the spectrum, and could benefit from personalized therapy, but the parent can’t afford it?

The beautiful thing about Unison is it's a common-sense approach to deciding who qualifies for what or how much. Our allocations committee is unbelievable. 

So they could just ask. “Hey, this is the issue. Is there any help available?” 

Yes. And they have the autonomy and the ability to say, “Yes, of course, we can help you,” or “No, we can't.” Generally, they figure out a way to help anybody who comes to them in need the best they can. 

We’ve had to be very careful with covid, because, as I said, the demand is so high. We've had to adjust our mandates to make sure that we’re able to share it out a little bit. We’ve always had a maximum of $5,000 and we've had to reduce the covid number to $1000, and then they can repeat after that [60 days later]. We needed a covid program, as well as our regular program. So again, the allocations committee decide very quickly whether this is a covid-related situation or more of a longer-term industry or non-related situation. But right now, 90 percent of our asks are covid-related.

Do you know how many people have applied since covid? 

There’s been a 5500% increase in financial assistant application inquiries. We've seen a 29% increase in demand for counselling services and there's been a 61% increase in urgent crisis intervention for mental health cases since the start of covid-19. 

You've got four new board members. The press release says they will be bringing their various areas of expertise to the board. How might each one help?

They're all wonderful people, who bring different levels of experience, to Unison. I just look forward to getting to know them all. I don't know some of them very well. I know all of them certainly by reputation and to say hello.  Enthusiasm and experience are two of the main things that we’re looking for. These people have committed their time and their Rolodexes to help us help others. And that's what's most important. 

Is there a concerted effort to reach out to people of colour (POC), as well as to the indigenous music communities, often in remote areas and not as connected to Toronto and the industry at large, and might not even be aware of Unison? A higher percentage deal with depression and suicide.  We lost a rising star Kelly Fraser last Christmas.

Without question, there's an awareness and a desire for equality and inclusion. The BiPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour] population is a part of our mandate to have either board members, advisers, people involved with what we're doing. It’s very high up on our list to ensure that we're representing all forms and fashions of people and their existence. So to answer your question, yeah, very, very important that all are represented at the table and are all offering to assist and give us some vision and direction as to what the challenges are that we as individuals might not be aware of, but now collectively with this group of executives and artists are able to make sure that we're current with what's happening out there.

Do you have representatives — I know you've got ambassadors; maybe it's similar, but people on the ground in those communities to do outreach?

One of the things that I'm really trying to build on is not just necessarily the ambassadors, but an advisory committee and [vice-chair] Andy Maize [co-founder of the band Skydiggers and label MapleMusic] is heading that up. Because we only have so many board positions, when we were looking for some board members, the list was 50 people potentially qualified to help us. We don't want to turn anyone away; we want to make sure that everyone feels welcome and that they can help.  So with the advisory committee, and then some subcommittees, we're trying to expand that to make sure we have everyone's help.  So inclusive for sure. Industry inclusive. All of the above. We certainly don't discriminate. We just say 'yes' to help wherever we can get it. All the new board members specifically I'm thrilled and can't wait to work with. They've already brought things from their first board meeting to the table that'll help us.

* This story originally ran on the music industry trade site, FYI Music News for which Samaritanmag founder Karen Bliss is a regular contributor.

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