[Sound Guy] Two Orange County Music Business Vets Revamp Sweet Relief Musicians Fund

Sweet Charity
Two Orange County music-business vets revamp a 16-year-old nonprofit that helps struggling musicians find health care

You can tell that Bill Bennett and Rob Max are serious about running a charity. Sweet Relief Musicians Fund is a nonprofit dedicated to helping struggling career musicians without health insurance pay their bills. The group’s only full-time employees, they work at facing desks in a small room inside a Huntington Beach office they sublet from new-media marketing firm Subset M. When a couple of their interns are there, the place almost becomes a fire hazard.

“Neither one of us takes any salary whatsoever,” says Max, Sweet Relief’s communications director. “We’ve actually done this full-time to try to get it back up and be in a position to help musicians. We’ve made this commitment, and we’ve gotten family help. We’ve cut our budgets; we’ve cut our expenditures. We’ve made sure that we’re very aware of how any money gets spent. But we believe strongly in it.”

Sweet Relief started in 1993 as a compilation CD benefitting singer/songwriter Victoria Williams, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) while on tour opening for Neil Young. Fourteen prominent artists of the time—including Soul Asylum, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, Pearl Jam—contributed cover versions of songs by Williams, a double bonus since that meant she also received publishing royalties. Sweet Relief then grew into a full-fledged nonprofit from there (and released another album in 1996, Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, benefitting Vic Chesnutt), with Williams on the group’s board of directors. Legendary LA punk band X have supported Sweet Relief since the mid-’90s and have mentioned the organization in recent press concerning co-lead vocalist Exene Cervenka’s MS diagnosis.

After Bennett became managing director of the organization last year, he moved its offices from LA to HB to save on rent and to honor his close ties to the Orange County music community. “To me, this is kind of the dream job,” Bennett says. “You get to continue to be around music, which is extremely important to me, but at the same time get to help people.”

Bennett had been working instead in the restaurant business when he was approached last year by Sweet Relief, after seven years away from the music industry. He was offered the managing-director position, in part, through a mutual friend of his and Williams’. “I finally, after all that time, decided it’s not worth the money to continue being this unhappy,” Bennett says. “I made an active decision to get back in the music industry in some way.”

He then brought onboard his old pal Max, with whom he had once worked for music-retail chain the Wherehouse (now called f.y.e.). In the ’80s, Max provided lead vocals for NYC’s Crazy Fingers, a band that Bennett managed. (Bennett is currently the manager for Fullerton band the Living Suns.) Later, Max managed the White House in Laguna Beach, while Bennett ran the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. But when Bennett called, Max had moved away from the business, too, spending a decade in New York doing what he calls “financial-world risk management, data management, communications and sales.”

Bennett’s and Max’s enthusiasm for their jobs is obvious, even while they’re well-aware this is pretty much the worst time in recent history to ask people to open their wallets—Sweet Relief went from taking in approximately $240,000 in 2005 to about $65,000 in 2008. Max says one of the potential roadblocks in getting people to donate is a lack of understanding of who Sweet Relief truly targets. “The musicians we help, they aren’t the ones that shot it at three years and they’re in trouble,” he says. “The vast majority of musicians who get in touch with us for help are musicians who stuck with it for life. They probably long ago gave up the dream of hitting million-sellers and being stars.

“They play because they love music. They play in local clubs; they play in local orchestras; they play in wedding bands. There are hundreds of thousands of these people across the country, and the vast majority have no health insurance.”

The duo are embracing what they refer to as the “Obama method”: getting numerous small donations and focusing on limited events and grassroots efforts from the community—especially young people.

“Instead of trying to find one big event that we can have every year,” says Bennett, “where we can raise $1 million in one event—which is great, I mean we should definitely keep trying to do that, too—the idea of having every community do their own small events, even if it only raises $500 bucks . . . Imagine if every community could do that?”

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