Q&A: Questions Answered About Accessing the Music Industry's Unison Benevolent Fund

By Karen Bliss 3/25/20 | www.samaritanmag.com

iSplash photo credit: Sebastian Irvi

The Unison Benevolent Fund, an emergency relief charity that provides both financial and counselling services to members of the Canadian music industry, experienced a 1900 percent increase in registrations since the coronavirus outbreak, prompting the creation of the specific Unison COVID-19 Relief Program.

Executive director Amanda Power tells Samaritanmag, “With so many people applying Unison staff are responding to each applicant personally and reviewing the persons most pressing needs first.  We are working diligently to ensure the Canadian music community is being assisted as quickly as humanly possible for our small team.”

Just yesterday, following the announcement more than 400 people registered.

The Unison COVID-19 Relief Program was launched with a $250,000 seed donation from the Slaight Family Foundation, which was matched by Unison. The charity is hoping more sponsors come onboard. The money will be allocated towards housing costs, medical expenses and groceries. The application process is the same.

Unison filed as a registered charity in 2011 and after raising $1 million from within the industry began the financial assistance program in 2015. Each year, its profile and need has grown.

Samaritanmag spoke with Roo Kailey, Unison’s marketing and communications manager about who qualifies, how to apply, and other possible scenarios.

Before COVID-19, at Christmas time Unison said there had been a marked increase in demand for its services.

We had a massive jump in 2019. Almost all of our services increased double or triple the amount of the year prior.

Roo Kailey — photo provided.
Maybe because more people are starting to know about it as well. 

Exactly. Unison has finally started to raise a lot more awareness of the organization. We have a lot more people engage with Unison on social media. For example, the overall increase in services had gone up by 125 percent and that is just within the past year. Urgent mental health crisis cases increased 583 percent in 2019. So definitely we had been seeing crazy increases pre-coronavirus. And now, especially, it would be impossible to tell, but definitely we’re getting so many new registrations come in every single day, nonstop.

Now you will get requests from everyone from club bookers to managers, lighting people, publicists, maybe even music journalists, but what constitutes urgent financial assistance? If a person has little or no work for the next month or two or three, owns a home but doesn’t have a lot of savings, would he or she be eligible? What constitutes urgent crisis?

I get where there's a little confusion with what exactly constitutes that.  Every request that comes in for our financial assistance is gone through by our allocations director, Louise Berube. She goes through every case. It's all dependent on your specific circumstance. They are aiming to help everybody or try to help everybody that reaches out.

But for emergency financial assistance, it really is an emergency relief when the individual is unable to pay rent, or buy groceries, requires medical assistance, rather than “I had a few concerts canceled, but I'm doing good financially. I just want to see if I can get any money back for those concerts.” That type of grant funding situation doesn't apply.

A lot of people in the music industry do live hand to mouth or only have enough savings to get through a couple of months so this could be a huge blow and quite worrisome because their lifelong skills, like booking bands or being a drum tech, are unique and not transferrable to other industries that might recover from this faster. 

For all of those people, they can reach out to apply for the funding, and in extreme circumstances we have an executive committee put in place on top of our allocations committee to figure out next steps, how we were going to set this up and look at our plan. They've come up with a really good plan in terms of finding ways in order to help as many people as possible. A lot of how they're doing that — and once again, it always depends case to case — is they’re going to be tapping assistance at a certain amount so that they can give to as many people as possible.

There are people uncomfortable about filling in a form to register and telling someone at Unison their hardships. In my case, it was grief counselling. I filled the form in and then I never called, but if it’s financial assistance or someone has fallen off the wagon because of the stress or isolation of COVID-19, what would you say to them?

Oh-no. It's unfortunate because, if you qualify for it, it's such a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing. It's completely confidential. We have so many people that use it. Myself and my coworkers, we don't know who uses the program.

All of the counselling services are provided by Morneau Shepell, who we have licensed therapists and psychologists through. Our entire counselling and health solutions program is provided by Morneau Shepell. They're our support line and they have the North America's biggest EFAP [Employee Family and Assistance Program] or counseling network. So it's accredited professionals who work in psychology and do clinical social work that handle all of our counselling and they handle the phone lines.

So what happens when you call? It all goes to them, once you register. That's the only information that we have or I have access to, but everything else is on their end. It's completely professional. It's incredibly private. So all counselling records and all of your confidential discussions, even when you just call initially, that is all private.

In the case of the current coronavirus crisis, people could apply for groceries or could apply because maybe they’re short a little bit and can't pay their electricity bill or it could be rent.

Absolutely. We believe that emergency financial assistance [requests] will be rampant for at least six months to a year, especially because a lot of summer gigs have been cancelled.  People might have a little bit saved now, but in a few months we definitely don't see it dying down anytime soon on our end. That's why we're really starting to push for donations and make sure that in a couple of months, we'll still be able to help as many people as we can.

What about musicians who might make a living playing a pub every Friday. Are they also eligible?

Absolutely. For example, if a person is a musician or a performer and 55 percent of their income is coming from working in the music industry for at least two years, they're eligible.

Do they have to supply their tax information? 

Yes, if the person has filed their taxes we request it, but realistically not everyone is caught up on filing, so we would request other documents to support your application. You outline what your source of income is and, after that. Louise figures it out. It’s not incredibly complicated in terms of documents.

So you don't have to be destitute. You could have a mortgage that you can't pay this month. You could have an RRSP [Registered Retirement Savings Plan], but you're not told to cash that out instead of getting assistance from Unison?

No, no, no, no. It’s nothing like that. Although I don't know exactly the documentation that Louise asks for, I know it's definitely not that invasive. It's more of just, “This is what I need help with.” And if it's a surgery, “What's the cost of it? Do you have any insurance? Is insurance covering any of it? How much can we help you with that?”

Sounds like it's the honour system, of asking applicants if they do have 20 grand in the bank but aren't working for six months, maybe they don't need financial support from Unison. 

Yeah. We definitely state that it is an emergency relief fund for those that really need it. Although we do want to help as many people as possible, we want to make sure that we can help the people that really need it. Everyone's more than welcome to register. We have so much resources and Louise is really amazing with stretching whatever she gives people to really help them out in long-lasting ways, and she always provides them with other resources that can really help. It's not just, “Here's that money and go.”  It's how can we help this person in the long run so that they won't need assistance again or they won't be in that situation again?

That's why I think Unison is amazing. Even though we do have that financial assistance put in place, we also have all of these counselling services and other resources that can help independent musicians. And especially now, with musicians having to figure out how to work remotely, there's something for everyone, even if they register and don't necessarily feel like they need to access the services.

What many people might not know is immediate family can also access Unison's counselling services. If, for example, my mother wanted grief counselling. How would that work?

You would call and speak to someone at Morneau Shepell first, explain who requires the assistance, and then have your family member follow through with the counselling.

Do you also know how many requests you've had just in the past week or two because of the coronavirus crisis?

No. That's all of Louise. I wouldn't know how many applications. One thing that is just awesome to see right now is how the music community is really coming together and offering each other support. I think that's wonderful because, especially at Unison, we had just put out a blog post about the other resources that people can use during this time because it's not always that people need financial assistance. Maybe somebody's having a hard time navigating how to deal with all the cancellations. And it's really great to see how everyone's really helping each other and how even during such a terrible time for the industry. it's showing how wonderful the music industry can be when we all need to come together and help each other out.

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