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When Musicians ‘Crash and Burn,’ MusiCares Is There to Help

In its 30th year, organization dedicated to assisting “music people in times of need” wants to change the conversation around mental health and help fight the opioid crisis

Dolly Parton accepts her award at MusiCares Person of the Year, at the Los Angeles Convention Center2019 MusiCares Person of the Year - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 08 Feb 2019

Dolly Parton accepts her award at MusiCares Person of the Year, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Not long after Travis Meadows, an aspiring singer-songwriter, moved to Nashville over a decade ago, he hit a wall. “Every possible crisis a man could have, I had: a marriage crisis, a crisis of faith, a career crisis, all at the same time,” he says. “I crashed and burned, went back to the one thing that worked, drugs and alcohol. It got so bad that I pretty much threw up the white flag like, I can’t live like this anymore. I’m gonna die, I know it, and I don’t want to die.”

Meadows woke up the next morning in rehab thanks to MusiCares, an organization founded by the Recording Academy that provides financial and healthcare assistance to “music people in times of need.”

“We have an addiction recovery program where we’re able to get an individual into treatment in a matter of hours,” explains Debbie Carroll, vice president of MusiCares. “We’re one of the only organizations I know of that provide in-patient treatment nationwide to a specific population.”

Carroll joined MusiCares in 1998, and during her two-plus decades with the organization, it’s grown rapidly. “We served less than 200 individuals when I first came on board,” she says. “At that point in time there was one person located in the LA office and they had not expanded to anywhere else in the country.”

Compare that with 2018: “Last year, in totality, we served close to 15,000 people, and over 8,600 received financial assistance from us,” Carroll continues. “We distributed $6.5 million in aid.”

Making a life in the music business has never been easy, but it’s likely that MusiCares’ safety net is even more necessary now than it was 20 years ago: As album sales continue to plummet, musicians are increasingly reliant on meager profits from streaming for their income. In addition, the quality and affordability of healthcare in the U.S. varies wildly, depending on what state you live in, and natural disasters appear to be happening with greater frequency. Reynolds says MusiCares’ “core programs” include “emergency financial assistance to cover expenses for disaster relief — new to us after Hurricane Katrina — and we cover a lot of medical and dental expenses, whether that’s handling those directly or providing basic living expenses while an individual is on their journey to recovery from a major medical diagnosis.”

These benefits are not limited to members of the Recording Academy. “I am not a member, and I was stunned to find out that I qualified for their program,” says Sandy Carbary, a jazz singer in the Seattle area who has received financial assistance from MusiCares to help pay for surgeries. “I thought it would be for cardholding union people, and I thought I was going to have to write a novel [to apply for aid]. But I was amazed how easy it was to receive help from them.”

In addition to help with bills, MusiCares also offers “a variety of preventative services,” according to Carroll. “We offer over 300 different preventative health initiatives annually across the country — hearing, dental, vision, sober jams, panels and workshops that address health and wellness topics of interest to the music community,” she says.

MusiCares is celebrating its 30th birthday this year, and the organization is continuing to expand its purview. “What’s really on our radar right now is anything around emotional health,” Carroll says — a subject that Lady Gaga also singled out onstage during the Grammys on Sunday. “The suicide rate in this country is staggering, and certainly that’s affected the music community as well,” Carroll continues. “We do a variety of programs around that topic to get people comfortable with discussing things that are typically uncomfortable. The more we do that, the more we de-stigmatize any type of mental health issues.”

In addition, MusiCares is trying to increase its efforts to combat the opioid crisis. “We’ve embarked upon several different educational workshops to address that topic in addition to expanding our addiction recovery services,” Carroll says. “We have also recently, within the last year, embarked on some NARCAN training, the drug that is used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. We know that’s not going to solve the problem, but what it can do is keep somebody alive to get into treatment and get the help that they need. Our hope is that everyone on the road [touring] has access to NARCAN.”

MusiCares’ operating expenses are covered by the Recording Academy, and it uses fundraisers to help raise additional money for its programs. Its national reach makes it a unique resource for musicians. “On that scale, nobody comes close [to providing those sort of benefits],” Meadows says. “We had a flood here [in Nashville] several years ago, and a number of friends of mine lost all of their instruments: MusiCares replaced all of their instruments. I have friends go through rehab because of MusicCares, medical bills taken care of, glasses and hearing aids bought for people.”  

Carbary also testifies to the one-of-a-kind nature of MusiCares’ operation. “I’ve had to do a lot of research [about medical care], and there’s one [program] in the music industry in the Seattle area — the Washington Blues Society has a program,” she says. “But it’s a one-time, $300 maximum shot. I need more help than that.” 

On Saturday, MusiCares’ Dolly Parton tribute brought in another $6.7 million. “We hillbillies need MusiCares too,” Parton told the crowd. “We may not have sex, drugs, and rock & roll, but two out of three ain’t bad.”

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