05/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Creating Community in LA: A Safety Net for Singers

Like a lot of LA musicians, my friend Matt is an amazing vocalist who works killer hours and earns barely enough to get by. He lives in a tiny one-room flat and has no health insurance; he drives to Mexico to get his teeth fixed. He has virtually no social life, no savings and no safety net. But at least he's working and keeping his head above water, and in that way he's better off than the 3,000-plus singers helped by the Sherman Oaks-based Society of Singers (SOS), the only organization solely dedicated to helping singers not only in Los Angeles, which has long been the center of the American music business, but all over the world. (Disclosure: I have served on the SOS board of directors.)

SOS CEO Jerry Sharell is a veteran record executive, well-loved in a business infamous for its sharp-elbowed competitiveness. I first "met" him over the phone in the early '70s, when he persuaded me to review a mediocre record for the music magazine for which I toiled. "I don't care what you think of it," he yelled -- loud enough I'm not sure I needed the phone -- from what I imagined to be the palatial offices of Buddah Records (spelled differently than the founder of a certain Eastern set of beliefs and, with its bubblegum roster, not quite as enduring). "It's a hit." He was right.

Sharell, a pretty good Sinatra-style singer himself, works with colleagues Wendy Garfinkel and Judy Varley to raise money via private appeals to music lovers and public events like the ELLA Awards, whose recipients have included Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and Ella Fitzgerald herself.

Marie, a successful jazz singer, came to SOS recently in dire straits. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she'd lost her health insurance and couldn't begin to pay for the six-month treatment plan her doctor said she needed to survive. SOS handled the complex details of referrals to community programs and partner agencies that allows her to cover her basic expenses while she's getting treatment and is unable to work.

Whether the issue is doctor visits, counseling, or basic and often emergency assistance with transportation or a place to live, the bottom line is that far too many singers have few if any assets after decades of performing and recording. And since most work as independent contractors, they generally don't qualify for government help via Social Security, Disability and the like.

A small but mighty outfit, the 25-year-old SOS leverages its links to an array of complementary organizations to get things done. MusiCares -- established by the Recording Academy (producers of The Grammys) "to sustain music and its makers as a force in all of our lives" -- chips in with SOS clients in various ways; in Marie's case they'll help with her rent. MusiCares executive director Debbie Carroll explains, "MusiCares's mission is similar to that of the Society of Singers. We offer a safety net of critical assistance to music people in times of need. We have many music people reaching out to us with very difficult and complex issues. Some are such that the need is much greater than one organization can provide."

Other groups which serve their communities in conjunction with SOS include the Actors Fund, AFTRA, AGVA, California Jazz Foundation, Career Transition for Dancers, American Federation of Musicians, Motion Picture Television Fund, SAG, Sweet Relief, and the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation.

Sharell helps promote singers in another way via his weekly 3-hour Great American Songbook broadcast on Los Angeles radio station KGIL AM. Recently, he played "Let Me In" by Deborah Ash, one of the singers SOS has been instrumental -- pun intended -- in helping.

Community can be created in many ways -- geographically, electronically, or around a shared interest or cause. The community of singers which has formed around SOS and its sister organizations needs help from another community: us listeners, whose lives have been so enriched by the wonderful singers -- past and present -- performing in Los Angeles and around the world.