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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Night of Sweet Relief with Bill Bennett

          Recently, I sat down with the President of Sweet Relief, Bill Bennett, to discuss his role in the non-profit organization created to aid musicians facing major health issues, as well as his personal upbringing in the music industry.  After spending over three years revamping Sweet Relief with his partner, Rob Max, Bennett has expanded the success of the non-profit in a huge way since the initial conception by Victoria Williams in 1994.  Nothing shows this better than the Night of Sweet Relief this upcoming Saturday, October 15th, in which hundreds of venues from all of the country are pitching in to raise funds for artists in need.  Locally, House of Blues Anaheim will host its own Sweet Relief event featuring Kiev, Jeremiah Red, May McDonough & Co., Paulie Pesh, and I Hate You Just Kidding.

How long have you been in the music scene?

I’ve personally been in and around music forever.  My first jobs were in record stores.  I was always the kid with the most albums of all my friends.  I’ve always been infatuated with music, and I always wished I was a musician, but never had quite the talent to pull it off—at least in any real satisfying way.  Although, these days I could probably pull it off because not as much is required.

It’s true, you can get away with a lot with the electronics that are available.

Well, yeah.  When I was 20 years old, the concept of being a professional musician was very different from today.  The labels controlled the industry, and there were five or six of them.  If you didn’t get on a major label, you didn’t exist.  So the number of people who actually made a living as musicians was very small.  It was very much a filtered process that you kind of depended on the labels to decide for everybody what was considered good.  If the labels didn’t think that you were good, then you just fell through the cracks for the most part.  You didn’t have a ton of indie labels out there putting stuff out.  Obviously things have changed extraordinarily over the past few years.

Musicians are producing their own stuff without labels.

There’s no need for anyone else.  That’s good and bad.  If you’re a music fan, it’s a double-edged sword because it’s great that there is all this music to listen to…but, there’s all this music to listen to, and no one telling me which ones are the good ones.  That’s why blogs have become so important, because they are similar to the record labels because they dictate what is considered good.  If something is hitting it hard on the blogs, then that’s what people will listen to.  So getting back to your original question… From my teenage years, I was always doing something music related.  I managed my first band when I was 21, which was a Grateful Dead cover band in New Jersey.

Is that where you’re from?

Yes, I’m originally from New Jersey.

When did you come out to California?

I came out here when I was 23, which was 1991, and ended up working for Wherehouse Entertainment where I was a general manager.  I was doing that for a couple of years, and then I left Southern California to go to Boulder, Colorado.  I went there with the intention of working in a venue.  I wanted to run a venue, or I wanted to own a venue or something to that nature.  I knew I wanted to be around live music, ‘cause I was very much over retail at that point and wanted nothing more to do with that.  I remember I showed up there with no place to live, no job, and I had brought a buddy with me.  I always got wingmen to jump off the cliff with me for some reason.  We saw this place called the Fox Theatre, which was right across from the University of Colorado, in a section called The Hill.  It’s an old movie theater similar to The Yost—it has that kind of a vibe to it with the old-style marquee.  On the marquee when I got there was Sheryl Crow.  This was right when Tuesday Night Music Club had only recently come out, and so she was still relatively new.  The Fox Theatre held around 700 people, so it’s a modest venue.  I looked at that, and thought, this looks pretty cool.  I walked in and it had a café—almost like diner-style food is what they served in the lobby there and it was open during the day.  You could walk into the venue and it was totally dark, but you could still see what the layout was and I just kept looking around.  I said to my friend, ‘Yep, this is it.  This is where I’m gonna be.  This is gonna be my home for awhile.’  He looked at me like I was crazy, like what did I see in this place, there’s nothing here.  I went upstairs and asked about a job.  I was very presumptuous.  I asked, ‘Do you have any management positions available?  I’d like to be a manager here.’  The girl looked at me like I was crazy, like ‘What do you mean manager?  Who are you, first of all, and we’ve been open for three years and everybody who is a manager here, including myself, has been here since the day it opened and none of us are planning on going anywhere, so you should probably put that thought out of your head.’  So I said, ‘Oh, alright…well what do you have that’s available?’  She asked me what could I do, and I told her I could do a little bit of anything, and I’ve done some sound work before.  She goes, ‘Ok, this is the person you need to talk to for that.  You look like a big guy, have you considered being a bouncer or a doorman?’  I told her, ‘I’d rather not, but whatever it takes.’  I ended up talking to the sound guy, and he was like, ‘We can certainly bring you on, but you would probably have to work for free for a while and just kind of intern, and then we would work you into the schedule if you were good and stuck it out.  You should really talk to the head security guy ‘cause I think he’s looking for people.’  I ended up talking to security, and sure enough he did.  When he took one look at me, he said I was hired.  Even though that was the last thing that I really wanted, ‘cause I hate that kind of vibe—I don’t like being the enforcer and I’m not a violent person, despite my size.  But I took it and started working two days later.  Within three months, they had created a new management position for me, and within a year and a half, I was a general manager of the Fox Theatre.

Stuck to your guns, eh?

Once I saw it, I knew it was the right thing.  I just took the approach that this was where I needed to be.  I would literally go in there and, even though as a bouncer I only needed to be there from 9pm to 2am on any given night, I would show up there at 9am to10am in the morning and just answer the phones and do whatever.  I’d just hang out, help out, and kind of act like an intern basically—do whatever work they needed.  It showed them that I was serious about it and that I was willing to learn and do whatever it took.  The job we ended up creating was a box-office, one that didn’t exist.  Prior to that, they were just selling tickets through the restaurant and it was kind of sloppy.  We opened up a box-office across the street that was going to sell tickets for the Fox as well as other venues in Denver and Boulder.

When did you end up leaving Colorado?

I left Colorado in ’01, literally the week of 9/11; which of course was not planned, it just happened that way.  I remember driving from Colorado to LA stopping in Vegas, and this was 9/16 or so and it was empty.  Vegas was empty.  There was nobody there.

Nobody was traveling?

No one was that first week or two.  I think airplanes had just started flying again, but people were not anxious to go anywhere because they were still in shock.  Thinking of going to Vegas and having fun?  No.  It was surreal.  The roads were empty even.  People were at home, in shock, thinking, ‘What the fuck just happened?’

Meanwhile your whole life is changing?

I came out to California specifically for a job, and this was not in the music industry.  I was leaving the music industry to ‘grow up,’ and I was going to work in the Hospitality industry.  I had been offered an executive position that paid well, offered benefits, and had upward mobility.  Seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  I was 33, and I’d had a good run in the music world.  It felt like it was time to settle down, so to speak.  Worst decision I ever made.  If I could change anything about my life, it would be the day I decided to do that.  I spent seven years in the Hospitality industry and was miserable for every second of it.  I thought it was the right thing to do.

It was the expectation?

Yeah, it was the expectation in my own head.  I should be able to buy a home, and I should be able to have a family, and blah blah blah.  You know, whatever that was.  I was looking at all my friends, basically, and they were all doing well.  They all had houses and nice cars.  Not that I care about that.  There was a lot of possibility with this company.  The potential for it to blow up into something big for me was pretty huge.  I was hoping that I would like it, and I guess I just didn’t.  It wasn’t music.

For seven years you were out of the music industry?

I stuck with it for seven years.  I stayed with it for as long as I did, partly out of loyalty to the person who brought me on ‘cause it was someone I was close with and they needed help.  Part of it was that it was solid and I was making good money.  I threw in the towel, I guess you could say, of ‘living the dream.’  I’ve always been a dreamer, but I thought that it was time to let that go, being the age that I was at.  But after seven years of misery, I decided that I was wrong; that I had made a big mistake.  I started thinking about how I could rectify that and change it.  I think I had met The Living Suns at that point and had gone to see them play.  Basically, the 2000’s had been a non-musical decade for me—at least the early part of it.  I’d go to shows here and there, but very little.  I really left it.  Meeting those guys—I met them at a Starbucks right across from where I live.  It was a changer for me, because I saw in them what I used to be, and how I used to feel about things.  We got to know each other, and it’s kind of random that we would have even decided to talk to each other.  They were a bunch of scraggly long-hairs, and I was a relatively mature business guy.  Typically when they saw me, I was dressed nice and going to or from work.  I’d seen them enough times where I felt compelled to ask them who they were.  There was always a group of them, ‘cause they all hung out there, and they just had this look about them.  I think I’d overheard some conversations about music and it peaked my interest to say, ‘Who are you guys?’  They explained who they were and we started talking.  I would tell them about my past history and eventually they started saying, ‘You should manage us.’  I’d tell them, ‘I’m making good money now…and your not making any money…why would I do that…?’  But it kind of stuck in me a little bit, ‘cause there was a part of me that really enjoyed having those conversations with them and being involved in creating their world, so to speak.  I reconnected with a musician friend of mine from Colorado who now lived in Los Angeles.  This girl’s name was Nina Storey, who’s a singer songwriter, and she asked me to come see her play in Santa Monica.  I did and it was the first time I had seen her in a couple of years.  She had done well, and as an independent artist, she had sold about 50,000 records, had a tour-bus at one point—all on her own, never with a label.  Great, incredible talent, and just a sweet girl too.  Although it was relatively smaller place she was at, her performance was amazing as always, and it was just her and her bass player doing a duo thing.  We ended up sitting down and talking afterwards, and we ended up talking for like three hours.  She told me about what she had been up to, and how frustrated she was because she couldn’t crack through and how things had gotten really hard for her career.  I told her where I was at and how I was miserable, and at the end of the conversation she asked, ‘Would you ever consider managing me?’  She’s someone who I had always thought very highly of, she was a touring musician, and made money.  That’s when I started seriously considering making the switch.  I thought about it, and I went for it.  I quit my job, and changed everything about my life to make it simple and inexpensive, ‘cause I knew it was going to be rough.  I had some money saved up, but had no idea what the future was going to bring, and I went for it.  So I started managing both her and The Living Suns.  I didn’t really know what I was doing.  I’d been out of the industry, so it wasn’t like I knew anybody, but I was supposed to be ‘Mr. Connection Guy,’ for both of them.  Except that a lot of the music people I had worked with had stayed in the music industry and were now big.  Same time that this was happening, Facebook was really catching on, so it was perfect timing for me.  I got onto Facebook and I started connecting with everyone I could.  A lot of them were people I used to work with in Boulder in the music industry.  The guy who used to book the bands at the Fox was now the Vice President with AEG.  He was booking all the shows at Red Rocks, the Pepsi Center arena there, so he had gotten much bigger.  The guy who was his assistant was now working for Live Nation in Denver and was a Vice President for them, and he was managing a band called Sound Tribe Sector 9 that was blowing up and doing well in the live electronica world.  People had gone on to pretty cool things.  The guy who took my place was the general manager of a place called Fiddler’s Green, which is a 20,000 seat amphitheatre in Denver.  That’s what everybody had kind of moved on to for those who had stuck with it.  So those were all the things that I felt I should have been doing, but regardless, it was cool reconnecting. 
How did you officially get connected with Sweet Relief?

One of the people I reconnected with was this photographer who had been in Boulder at the time and had taken a lot of pictures at the Fox.  When she lived here, she lived in Long Beach.  We went and hung out at some show like Que Sera or some place like that, and ended up talking and catching up.  She says to me after we’ve been talking for a while, ‘Do you remember introducing me to Victoria Williams?’  I go, ‘Of course.’  Victoria Williams is a singer/songwriter, who’s the founder of Sweet Relief.  She goes, ‘Well, we’ve become good friends.  We’ve been hanging out ever since.’  I go, ‘Wow, that’s really cool, that’s awesome.  How’s she doing?’  I knew she had MS.  She goes, ‘She doing ok physically.  But she’s having a problem with Sweet Relief.’  I go, ‘What’s going on?’  She tells me, ‘The person who’s running it has run her course, she’s been there way too long, she’s lost interest, and apparently they may close it ‘cause she’s just not into doing it anymore.  Victoria has asked her friends to be on the lookout for somebody who might be willing to take it over.  I think you would be perfect for that.  Would you consider that?’  I had a huge respect for Sweet Relief, and I was familiar with it from the day it started.

This was in 1994, correct?

Mmhm (nods).  So this is ’08 when this conversation is happening.  My mouth dropped, like, really?!  I couldn’t even fathom that because I always had Sweet Relief on this big pedestal as a well-known, successful charity.  She goes, ‘Yeah, do you mind if I connect you with her?’  I go, ‘Yeah, please.’  I think I met with Victoria very shortly after that.  Within one conversation, I was in charge of Sweet Relief.

That’s all it took?

That’s all it took, it wasn’t like a huge vetting process.

Can you tell me about the role you were accepting when you decided to take over Sweet Relief?

If I had known, I probably would have said no (laughs).  Hindsight being 20/20…  Like I said, in my mind, Sweet Relief was way up there, and a massive thing.  Little did I know, it was pretty modest.  Don’t get me wrong, they did a great job, and they helped a lot of people, but it was kept small and very casual on purpose.  It was designed in a way that wasn’t systems oriented at all.  If she was doing the work, then it was happening.  If she wasn’t, then it wasn’t.  Being a business man, you can’t run anything like that.  That’s a big problem with charities—charities are run from the heart instead of the head.  So they are all set up to fail as a business, ‘cause it’s all based on an individual’s concept or idea.  If the individual stops, then the organization stops.  You just can’t do things that way.  I walked into the organization, and it needed some organizing.  Not much money had been raised, and there hadn’t been many events going on to fundraise.  The website was out of date and needed updating.  There was no database—everything was paper.  I asked where I could find a list of all the people who have donated, and I was pointed over to boxes with record in them.

Nothing had been recorded digitally?

Everything was paper.  Nothing had really been digitized.  The accounting on Quickbooks was the only thing.  It was very challenging.

And outsiders don’t see what goes into building a business…

There’s a lot to building a business behind all of the art.  Just the music industry in general or non-profits, whichever way you want to look at it, there’s a lot that needs to be done in order for the end results to be what you want them to be.  I took a look at Sweet Relief and went, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be tough.’  But the good news was that it still had a great name.  If you brought the name up to certain people, they would light up, know what you were talking about, and want to help.  We started with that.  Almost immediately, I went to my friend Rob Max.  The first band that I managed—he was the lead singer.  At the time, he was working in the insurance industry, and he had been for ten years at a very high level, as well as Wall Street for many of those years.  He had just recently moved out here, so I approached him and told him this is something that we should do together, ‘cause I had a lot of respect for his business skills.  He can talk his way out of anything—he has the gift of talking.  Who’s the person who could really go out there and get those donations or get people to buy into what we’re doing?  This is the guy.  He came and took a look at it and loved it.  He said, ‘This is great and I’m really glad you’re doing this…but I can’t do this ‘cause there’s no money and I have to take care of my kids.  Call me anytime you need help, of course.’  It put the thought into his head, and he was like me—miserable in his job and he did it because the money was good.  He had given up on the thought of dreaming and being who you want to be.  But seeing me do it got him thinking, and sure enough, within a couple of months, he was in.  I knew he would, but I also knew it was very tough to leave what he was leaving.  We both took it on, gutted it out, and started from scratch.  At the time, the office was in Pasadena in a really nice office that was too expensive, so we moved it down to Huntington for a third of the rent.

Tell me about Night of Sweet Relief October 15th.  This is only one of the many ways you fundraise, but it’s definitely the most pivotal?

At this point, we have a couple hundred venues signed up which is great.  Goldenvoice signed up and has been a big supporter.  Live Nation just came on board and added about 28 shows or so to it.  A lot of the ticketing companies have been helping out as well, either by making the donation part of the service charges for the show that day, or, at the very least, they have allowed us to use their mailing systems to get the word out to their clients and bands they work with to help spread the word.  We’re excited that it’s become such a community effort and that people are into it.  We wish there was more we could do.  There have been a couple of times where a venue has called up and said, ‘We’ll give you the venue for the night if you want to book something.’  We’re not really set up to do that.  This is more about taking pre-existing events and tagging onto that.

It’s all about just adding a dollar onto the ticket price, right?

Yeah, just a dollar.  Think about how many venues there are in the country.  There’s thousands.  If we can make it that this is the thing to do once a year for all these venues, then it’s not coming out of one particular pocket.  Spread out, it could raise millions.  The amount of change that we could affect with that would be astounding.  Last year was by far the best year in Sweet Relief’s history.  Five years before Rob and I took over, it averaged about $80,000 to $100,000 per year in what it would take in and give out.  Last year hit about $900,000, and 91% of what we took in went to musicians.  If you look at a lot of the other charities, closer to 65% is going where it’s supposed to be going.  We’re very proud of the fact that we were able to give back so much, and not have to say no to people. 

In order to qualify for aid, what are the stipulations?

Three years spent as a professional musician, and we’re pretty lenient on what that means, especially in this day and age when it’s not necessarily about being on a record label.  It’s about being able to show that, for the most part, this is what you do for a living—from all walks of life, from punk to classical and everything in between.  Orchestras are a huge part of who we see reaching out to us.  There is an issue because when the Beatles came out, all of a sudden there were a ton of musicians.  Those people are now in their early 50’s to late 60’s, and now they’re starting to have health problems.  Especially if they’re in their late 50’s, they’re not old enough to receive money from a government assistance program yet, so they’re falling between the cracks.  Another issue that they are all having is, even if they have had a successful career, their royalties have dried up because no one is buying records anymore.  A musician who was getting $20,000 in royalties then is now getting $1,000, and they were depending on that to be their retirement fund.  Right now a lot of what we do is connect them with people who can help them with a particular aspect of their treatment, but we’re also finding that these smaller solutions that we’re giving them are just putting off the inevitable—that they’re going to need that same help again.  We’re very interested in finding long-term solutions for all of these people.