Playing for Change: How Charities Strengthen Your Live Music Community

Chris Brandt, Executive Director // Music Heals

In David Byrne’s book How Music Works he suggests that “As music becomes less of a thing – a cylinder, a cassette, a disc – and more ephemeral…we will begin to assign an increasing value to live performances again.” With the loss of record stores, music venues remain as the primary brick & mortar source for music culture. The venue is a temple for many music fans, and they have a unique captive audience with which they can share drink specials, news of upcoming shows, or the charitable causes they are most passionate about.

With social media and connections to their patrons year-round, this reach extends far beyond the venue and provides the establishment the potential to make a considerable difference to a worthy cause. In time, and with consistent efforts towards one or two charities, those charitable efforts become part of the venue or promoter’s brand.

Supporting a charity with no benefit in return is admirable, but what if there was a benefit to the venue?

The 2012 Millennial Impact Report suggested that “more than 85 percent of millennials correlate their purchasing decisions and their willingness to recommend a brand to the social good efforts a company is making.” Now this report was specifically investigating purchase decisions regarding major corporations and recognizable brands, but that doesn’t mean that the values of the consumer, or in our case the music fan, stop there.

International causes can provide powerful and recognizable stories, but generally any audience will even more enthusiastic about initiatives that are making a difference in their local community. Obviously fans are going to go where their favourite artists are performing, but millennial marketing, and new charitable fundraising tactics, are focusing more on making people feel better about the money they are already spending.

Even more motivated by this charitable story is the media. In and of itself, a new album release or local tour stop for your average artist is not a compelling story. Collecting food bank donations at every tour stop or speaking about climate change at local schools is.

As an example, Music Heals has an initiative called the iPod Pharmacy, where we collect old iPods and pair them with a brand new set of headphones (donated by Skullcandy) and an iTunes gift card, and give them to music therapists to use with their clients. Some of the artists who support Music Heals do so by collecting used iPods at their shows. While on tour, their approach to media is framed around their collection of iPods, the difference they make, and how they will be collecting them at a list of upcoming shows. This initiative gives the artist the story they need to spark media interest in touring markets. Even if they don’t collect that many iPods, the added exposure benefits both the artist and the charity.

The most common barriers to getting involved with a charity are usually around knowing what value you as the venue owner/promoter/artist can offer them. You already have a career, and a busy one at that. You likely don’t have the time available to manage the actual execution of your charitable pursuits (i.e. building a house in Nicaragua, teaching music in remote communities, or resettling refugees yourself). So picking a charity not only that represents your contribution to society, but effectively delivers upon that promise, is the greatest emotional labour one can be expected to put in.

The other main barrier is the belief that we can’t make a difference because we don’t feel we could generate enough money to donate. The truth is that you can make a huge difference in ways that don’t take a dime out of your, or even your fan’s, pocket.

Traditional marketing says that people need to see something eight times before they recognize the logo or the product catch phrase. This is why bands send you an identical tour poster every year. You promoting a charity with a poster in the bathroom or in your social media might be the first time your fans hear about it…or the 5th…or maybe the 8th. Your endorsement builds confidence, which might one day lead your patrons to support the same causes you do.

Speaking of social media, we all know that we should be limiting our “sell” messages (ie buy tickets to this show, watch the big game here, etc.) to 10-20% of our social media feed. The rest of the time we need to talk about something other than ourselves. Supporting a charity gives you a chance to be passionate and engaged about a subject that isn’t you, and yet provides a topic that you can have extended conversations about through your social media feeds.

The other way a charity can help you is by promoting your events. What if the local charity became part of your regular promotional plan? I guarantee that the Music Heals audience is full of fans of live music. Part of what we as a charity bring to the table for artists/venues who support us is that we do what we can to tell our followers about your event. The least we can do is support those who are supporting us. Everything else being equal, find a charitable organization that wants to create an ongoing partnership with you.

Charitable work can also help venues to build stronger relationships with artists. If your establishment is known for doing great work in your community, then simply by playing your venue an artist can say that they are making a contribution, and by extension create a positive story to tell their fans. You make them look good. If this reputation expands beyond the local scene, outside promoters/agents might hear about you first and even prioritize your stage as the place to put their artists when in your city.

March is Music Therapy Awareness Month in Canada and it kicks off on Saturday March 5th with the annual nation-wide event: A Night Out For Music Heals. For one night, bars, clubs and pubs across Canada will donate $1 from every cover charge (or the equivalent of $1/patron for those that don’t charge cover) to Music Heals to support music therapy programs in their home province. This campaign is specifically built to engage venues, performing musicians, and music fans. We have seen venues, artists and media connect over this topic, and build relationships that benefit all of them in the future.

Technology makes it easier to be philanthropic. Websites such as allow you to run a fundraising campaign that automatically generates charitable tax receipts for your donors, imbeds media to help tell your story, and delivers that final donation right to the charity. You can build a campaign in 5 minutes and share it through your social media for as long of a period as you like.

Don’t pick a charity for the sake of doing it. If your concern isn’t sincere the fans will see right through it. Find one that resonates with you, your family, or your community. There are lots to pick from.

You can always put on a benefit show or donate a percentage of the door for a period of time to a local charity. However the impact you can make doesn’t end there.

What can you do (that doesn’t involve giving money)?

  1. Post a photo on Instagram of your staff wearing a shirt from the charity
  2. Put out flyers on your merch table
  3. Share the charities campaign video on your Facebook page
  4. Add their logo to your website
  5. Ask how you can cross-promote a show or series of shows