Eighteen years ago, a little-known performer (and one of my favorite singers ever), Victoria Williams, was in the middle of an opening stint on the road with guitar god Neil Young when unexplainable, debilitating symptoms forced her to leave the tour. She was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Saddled with medical bills, she got by with a little help from some of her famous friends (including Lou Reed, Pearl Jam, and others), who put together a tribute album called Sweet Relief (after a line from Williams' song "Opelousas") to provide her with financial support. Knowing that other musicians -- often uninsured -- could use a helping hand during times of medical and emotional crisis, Williams took some of the proceeds she received from the album and started the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund. Since 1994, that org has provided financial assistance to all types of career musicians facing illness, disability, or age-related problems.
On October 15, 2011, musicians and venues across the country are banding together for "Night of Sweet Relief", a national fundraiser for the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund that will engage thousands of fans at hundreds of live music events all around the US. It's cool that participating venues are building in a $1 donation to the Fund for every cover charge or ticket fee collected that evening, but what's even more interesting is how the fundraiser is being propelled by an innovative music promotions and technology company called ReverbNation.
Passionate about the belief that nothing is more important to artists than the relationship with their fans, ReverbNation knew there was a way to gain momentum for Night of Sweet Relief: invite music fans to this one-of-a-kind evening by reaching out to its database of more 1.7 million artists the week of the show.
"A lot of artists don't have money [to donate to charities], so we don't ask them. But what they do have is influence," says ReverbNation CEO Mike Doernberg. "We give them the chance to raise their hand and back charities they believe in by participating in events and engaging their fans."
ReverbNation's venues were given the chance to "opt-in" for participation in Night of Sweet Relief, and fans will have the opportunity to see their favorite bands at choice locations for a good cause.
Although the biz's charitable record is strong (it also recently collaborated with Mission One Voice to give artists a chance to open for R&B singer NeYo on a tour of US military bases), ReverbNation is not a nonprofit. Since its inception in 2006, the goal of the company has been to "build a set of services that drives a revenue model" both for itself -- and for the growing number of artists, managers, and labels it serves worldwide.
Astonishingly, ReverbNation grew 300% in 2010, not an easy task considering the downward spiral of the music industry in the post-digital world.
So, how does it work?
Chances are, if you're a fan of an unsigned band, you've landed on ReverbNation.com before. It's not only a great place to discover new music, it acts as a hub for various levels of industry professionals. ReverbNation provides a wide array of distribution and promotional solutions that give bands (both established and up-and-coming), managers, and venues easy access to eachother -- and to many tools (such as targeted geographic outreach to fans) that they would otherwise be unable to maintain or afford.
Doernberg says "leveraging the power of aggregation" allows the company the flexibility to perform tasks even traditional major labels can't, such as offering artists licensing and promotional partnership opportunities and accessing millions of fans at once through its extensive database and its website, which receives more than 30 million visitors each month. In addition, ReverbNation is able to position targeted advertising brands to the widest or most localized fan demographics -- a big bonus when it comes to bringing in necessary corporate dollars.
For ReverbNation, being the "middle man" never looked so good.
"We're ambassadors for the music," Doernberg says. "At the end of the day, our most important customer is the artist."