How the Music Industry Helps its Addicts

By Kristen McGuiness 10/28/11
The group that hosts the Grammys also helps rock and rollers after alcohol and drugs have taken their toll.
Slash & Tyler rocking out a MusiCares event Photo via

When regular alcoholics and drug addicts hit bottom—they empty their accounts, rip off their friends, alienate their families and hand their earthly possessions over to their habits—they oftentimes have few options. Sometimes, they take to the streets.

If you’re a professional musician, however, with a little bit of luck you'll land in a safety net provided by MusiCares, a sophisticated national foundation supported by the likes of Lady Gaga, crooner Steven Tyler and guitarist (and onetime Jack Daniels devotee) Slash.

Founded in 1989 and run by The Recording Academy (best known for throwing the Grammys), MusiCares came about when a brilliant jazz clarinetist and band leader named Woody Herman died homeless and alone. According to MusiCares Executive Director Debbie Carroll, the circumstances of his passing led “a number of musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, to come together and say no one in our music family should end up in this type of situation.”

The fact is that musicians often have no insurance—a significant issue if you combine that with bouts of unemployment, a depressed economy, and, as is often the case, addiction. Though there are similar programs for writers and other artists, including Writers in Treatment, few share the breadth and scope of MusiCares.

Out of offices in LA, Nashville and New York, MusiCares has eight full-time employees serving over 2700 clients a year—as well as consultants in Austin, Fort Collins, and New Orleans. According to Carroll, addiction recovery services comprise about 30% of what they do—the other 70% is dedicated to helping people through the other bumps in the road: financial, medical, and other needs.

While the needs of the community grow every year, MusiCares is—thanks to their fundraising efforts—able to grow with it. “In the last year, we've served 2,700 clients with $2.9 million in aid,” says Carroll. “The year before, it was roughly 2,500 with $2.7 million. As people become more aware of us, they want to help.”

One of the growing programs that MusiCares offers is the Musicians Assistance Program (MAP), which is committed to helping out those who need it as quickly as possible, from the drug-addled old timer who would fit right in on Behind The Music to the struggling artist who can't rub two nickels together. Says MAP’s manager, Shirren Reid, “We help everyone—from roadies to engineers to songwriters to the musicians themselves. And it can come in many ways: financial assistance can mean rent, utilities, car payments, insurance, burial, dental, or medical bills. Through the MAP Fund, we do everything from offer scholarships to treatment centers and sober living houses to helping music professionals who are already in recovery—through counseling, education, or ongoing needs in recovery.” 

With Bob and the Monster, a critically acclaimed documentary focused on Celebrity Rehab counselor Bob Forrest currently making festival rounds, the word about what MusiCares does is spreading. In 1998 Forrest was desperately trying to get former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, whose heroin habit had led him to the brink of death, into a rehab. It wasn't easy. "I walked into Music Assistance Program's office with John and I had no idea what it was," Forrest says. "John wasn't convinced he needed to go to rehab, and I didn't think it could happen anyway, but the counselor found a bed for him in 40 fucking minutes. I've never in my life seen something like that." 

Reid takes a special pride in surprising people like Forrest (who ended up working for MAP). “We have never had to turn a client away because of lack of resources on our end.” 

Since Reid joined the organization six years ago, new projects sprout up regularly. “One of the services I’m most proud of,” she says, “is our Safe Harbor Rooms, where we host a space for musicians and crew members in recovery who are working a show or event and need a safe place to be anytime throughout the show. We hold them at many music festivals, concerts, shows—including the Grammy Nominations Live Concert, the Grammy Awards, the Latin Grammys, the CMAs, Coachella, Stage Coach, NAM, ASCAP, Treasure Island, Sunset Sessions, Sasquatch, and the Nationwide Vans WARPED Tour. We have impromptu 12 step-meetings, coffee, and food, which can attract anything from a handful of people to 30 or more at a time.” 

In addition to one-on-one services, MusiCares also hosts workshops and panels throughout the year on topics like Women in Recovery and Artists in Recovery. At music industry health fairs, they also provide information to promote medical well-being—bringing together health care professionals to offer free services like flu shots, hearing tests, medical screenings, mammograms, and dental care. And then, of course, there are the weekly 12-step based support groups at their offices in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, Austin, New Orleans, and Ft. Collins, Colorado that anyone in recovery is welcome to attend. (They also connect those on tour to people in recovery and 12-step meetings wherever they are. "If they have no way to get to a meeting," Carroll adds, "someone will bring one to them.”)

But who is eligible? According to Reid, the criteria are five years of professional experience in the music industry. It doesn’t have to be consecutive but it does have to be documented: potential clients need to have credits or papers proving that they have been paid as a music professional—but that can be anything from liner notes to gig flyers from clubs. Six commercially released singles or videos would also qualify them. However, Carroll confesses, “We err on the side of generosity. If a candidate might not meet all of the eligibility requirements, but is close and the need is great, we can consider providing assistance on a case by case basis."

Like many non-profits, MusiCares has seen a greater demand since the economic downturn. “Because of how much the numbers have increased, fundraising is especially important to us,” says Reid. “We have one campaign right now called Be A Part of the Heart where we have created an online photo mosaic. For one dollar, people can download their own photo and write a note about what music means to their lives. We also do Grammy Charity Online Auctions throughout the year with donated items from artists such as the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Keith Urban, and many more.”

MusiCares also has two major fundraisers every year. The first is the Person of the Year tribute dinner and silent auction, which takes place two nights before the Grammy Awards and honors a recording artist who has made important contributions to the world of music and demonstrated extraordinary humanitarianism and philanthropist efforts. (2012’s Person of the Year honoree is Sir Paul McCartney; in the past, the dinner has honored Neil Young, Neil Diamond, and Barbra Streisand, among others.)  There’s also a smaller dinner and concert benefiting the MAP Fund—“a much smaller version of Person of the Year,” says Carroll—which has honored Slash and Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode in the past.

But the glamorous, A-list gatherings are only a very small part of what MusiCares does. According to Reid, their main goal is to educate the music industry about the services they’re already providing so that they can continue to expand. “We’ll start our programs in X number of locations and then we grow them each year,” she says. “As long as we’re needed, we plan to just keep growing.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about the 13th step and dreaming about drinking, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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