A typical music career is full of financial ups and downs. The relatively new Unision Benevolent Fund (“Unision”) is here to help with the downs. I sat down with Sheila Hamilton, Unison’s Executive Director, to learn more about Unision and her career. Sheila is a Unison champion and several other music organizations.
Sam Arraj: Tell us about yourself and how you got into the music business.
Sheila Hamilton: I started out working at a country radio station in the late ’70s. During that time, the Canadian Country Music Association (“CCMA”) was formed. I started working with them right away, helping with memberships and many other things as part-time help, for about 10 years. As the CCMA grew, I started working full-time as the executive director from 1987 to 2005.
Sam: What was it that drew you to the music business?
Sheila: It was a passion. I loved the music. While I worked at the radio station, I met a lot of really neat people. It was an industry I wanted to be in. That’s why I continued working part-time with the CCMA for a long time. It was really a passion – just loved it, loved the people.
Sam: When you started at the CCMA, did you ever aspire to become the Executive Director?
Sheila: No. In the beginning it was so small. I didn’t know it would get that big, big enough to have staff. I just wanted to help out and be part of the organization.
Sam: You saw it all. The growth of Country in Canada in the ‘90s, including the first broadcast.
Sheila: The ’90s were lots of fun, and the growth of country music in that decade was phenomenal. The first CCMA Awards was in 1982, and the first television broadcast was in 1986. It was lots of fun, and lots of work. The host committees in each of the cities certainly helped out. Everybody was committed to the craft of country music and wanted to make it a success.
Sam: One thing I really admire about you is that you’re a go-getter. I see the work you’re doing in raising money for Unision and bringing that program to service now. Were you like this with the CCMA?
Sheila: Whether it was at the CCMA or with Unison, it is definitely a team effort – a great board of directors, staff and volunteers working together. Using their vision of programs and projects, we wanted to find innovative ways to come up with funding. It was great being part of the team.
Sam: You’re clearly experienced in raising money for not-for-profits. Has it changed much from the time you were with the CCMA?
Sheila: It hasn’t changed much. It’s a bit of everything, from government grants to sponsorships and donations. Now you have to be a little bit more inventive in finding ways to get raise money. You have to stand out in a crowd.
Sam: Throughout your career, you must have developed many relationships with artists, and you’ve seen artists come and go. What are the key items made the most successful artists successful? Was it their talent? Was it hard work or luck?
Sheila: You ticked off all the three main boxes. Great talent, plus hard work and a little bit of good luck. Having a great team around you and building a strong long-term strategic plan is essential. It’s not going to happen overnight, so plan for the future.
Sam: You’re the executive director of the Unison Fund. What are your responsibilities there?
Sheila: My responsibilities are to maintain the policies and programs of Unison. Unison Benevolent Fund is a non-profit, registered charity that provides counselling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community. We are here to help professional music makers in times of hardship, illness or economic difficulty. Working with a 16-member board, we offer couselling and support, developing programs and fundraising.
Sam: You’ve been working to bring the fund to fully operational status. The fund became open this year, right?
Sheila: In May 2015, a key goal of Unison’s was realized with the launch of the Financial Assistance program. In addition to the free counselling and wellness services that have been offered for years, Unison began to offer discreet, short-term financial relief.
Sam: Is the mandate of the Unison Benevolent Fund is to support artists in need?
Sheila: It’s an emergency relief program for people in the music community – and it can be anybody, from a musician, a lighting tech, a songwriter, to a publicist – anybody in the music community who needs emergency relief in times of hardship. It’s short-term relief. Our goal is not only to help people through trying times, but to do much more. We want to continue to provide support with the aim of getting them back to work as quickly as possible.
Sam: Where would someone go to apply for the relief?
Sheila: They could visit our website at: http://unisonfund.ca or call our hotline at 1-855-986-4766.
Sam: When should someone apply to the fund?
Sheila: Unison’s financial assistance program provides short-term financial relief to help music industry professionals in time of crisis. A ‘crisis’ is defined as an unforeseen situation that leads to a loss of work, an inability to work, or an inability to perform the same work as before.
The most commonly approved requests for financial assistance include support for groceries, rent, transportation and dental emergencies.
The applicants we hear from are in need of immediate help. Some stories are truly heartbreaking, and we do our best to help people to seek other support for long-term struggles. Applicants usually receive the allocated funds within two weeks of first contacting Unison. The process is kept simple and discreet. Support for living expenses is provided using gift certificates, and rent or medical and other bills are paid directly.
Unison’s would like to be seen as the music industry’s safety net. The majority of people in the music community are self-employed and have no benefits program. That is why Unison was formed.
Unison also offers a toll-free number to connect Canadian music professionals with counselling and health solutions for personal and practical issues. This service is free, anonymous, confidential and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in English and French.
The counselling and health solutions support line is sponsored by Unison and provided by Shepell FGI, the largest Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) counselling network in Canada. Counseling is provided by a multi-disciplinary team of accredited professionals who hold master’s degrees or PhDs in the fields of psychology or clinical social work.
Sam: What type of counseling support does Unision provide?
Sheila: Counselling can be provided over the phone or online, and can address a wide range of topics including, but not limited to: mental health support, managing relationships and family life, finding child and elder care resources, legal advice, financial guidance, workplace challenges, tackling addictions, improving nutrition and focusing on your health. Shepell FGI’s highly qualified, experienced and caring professionals help you select a support option that suits your lifestyle and best addresses the challenges you are facing. Unison generally offers five hours of counselling for music-industry professionals and their family members. Arrangements can be made for additional help, as it is needed. It’s available to anybody in the music community, and it’s at no cost to them.
Sam: So, anybody in the music industry – would it be somebody who’s running in the record label or publishing company?
Sheila: Yes. Even if they have something similar at their job, but don’t want to go through the company program. The counselling and health support is available to anybody no matter where you work. The only criterion is that you work in the Canadian music industry. No application is required to access the counselling. All Canadian music industry workers can simply register online at unisonfund.ca and call 1-855-986-4766 for immediate access.
Sam: How do you determine if someone works oin the music industry?
Sheila: Unison defines a music-industry professional as someone who has earned 55% of their income from music-related activity for at least 2 years. We are committed to a broad and inclusive definition of a music-industry professional.
Sam: With the state of the music industry, it’s very important to have an organization like Unison that is a safety net. How can people support this cause?
Sheila: The Canadian music community has never shied away from a worthy cause. From local school fundraisers to global initiatives, you don’t have to look far to see artists, venues, labels and publishers lending their talent and time to make this world a better place. It’s not surprising that a community that has such a strong spirit of empathy and compassion has embraced the Unison Benevolent Fund.
Without the financial support of the music community, Unison would not exist. We are thrilled that we have been able to assist dozens of members of our community this year in some pretty dark circumstances. But Unison itself is by no means financially set for life. Without ongoing donations from our industry, we won’t be around to help when our friends and colleagues need us.
Sam: If you're interested in helping out a worthy cause, you could dontate at the following link:
Sam: What advice do you have for artists?
Sheila: Network. Build your contact base and go to every single convention and conference or music industry event you can. You have to work hard at getting influential contacts. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my contacts and the network of people that I know.
Sam: You’ve absolutely utilized that in building the Unison. I see you out there working your contacts. People know you and repsect you. They want to help you. Obviously you have been fundamental to that organization, and that just goes to show that having a strong network is essential.
Well, thanks Sheila. I really appreciate your time and your insight.