Elton John is currently on his long-running Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour that thus far has grossed more than US$44-million this year alone. At Toronto’s Rogers Centre in September, the 75-year-old pop icon sang, “You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plow.”
Was he smirking? Because he and his Canadian-born husband, David Furnish, had just purchased a swish penthouse in Toronto. It’s their sixth home. John told The Globe and Mail he wasn’t sure what his pending retirement from touring would bring him. He’ll be fine, though – no tag sales for the Rocket Man.
It goes without saying that most musicians are nowhere near as comfortable in their golden years as John. To that end, the Slaight Family Foundation Legacy Program has been created to financially support individuals in the music community who are retired or experiencing long-term medical challenges.
“There’s no benefits in this industry as a rule,” Gary Slaight says. “If you’re a musician or someone in the business, there’s nothing to rely on when your career ends.”
Slaight, 71, is president and chief executive officer of the Slaight Family Foundation, a prominent private philanthropic foundation founded in 2008 by his late father, Allan Slaight. The foundation just pledged $10-million to the Canadian music industry charity the Unison Fund, to be dispersed over the next five years.
The funds will be split between the existing Unison Industry Assistance Program (which has provided more than $8-million in financial aid to more than 5,000 Canadian music workers since 2015) and the newly created legacy program.
Back in, say, the 1980s, the music industry was flush with cash. Ozzy Osbourne began the decade singing Flying High Again in an era marked by the advent of compact discs that turbo-charged the business. Pension plans? They were for teachers and fogeys.
“I don’t think young musicians back then thought about their future,” Derrick Ross says. “You were trying to make enough money to get by, and if you had any extra cash, great, you bought a car.”
Ross was the drummer for the Canadian new wave band Spoons. He later became an executive with EMI Music Canada and is currently president of music incubator company Slaight Music. He says sophisticated young musicians are much better organized today, often soliciting the services of business managers. And while 40 years ago Spoons was able set up a corporation and set aside money for such things as a supplemental health care plan, most musicians don’t have that luxury.
“We had some success, so we could afford Blue Cross,” Ross says. “Not every musician has that success, though.”
Even musicians with recording deals do not have benefits covered for them.
Neither do the many industry workers (roadies, music publicists, tour managers) who are not employed by a major record label or corporate concert promoter, such as Live Nation Canada. They operate as freelancers and independent contractors without a safety net.
“We lost everything in a house fire in 2017 and we were homeless for a month or so,” says Kathy Hahn, an industry stalwart who helped launch MuchMusic in the mid-1980s. “The Unison Fund gave us rent for our new place and some grocery money.”
Montreal-based singer-songwriter John Cody has also received assistance from the Unison Fund. Suffering from chronic health issues including a debilitating neurological disease, the 59-year-old is no longer able to work as a professional musician. In the past, Unison has paid medical bills and provided counselling services.
“If I’m in trouble, they help,” says Cody, who wrote songs for Bonnie Raitt and sang on recordings, including Tom Cochrane’s Life is a Highway.
Cody wonders why the Canadian music industry isn’t doing more to take care of its own. “If not for Gary Slaight, who would be helping us? Why isn’t CARAS helping?”
CARAS is the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, a not-for-profit organization that looks after the Juno Awards and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. It’s also associated with MusiCounts, a music education charity.
While its American counterpart the Recording Academy runs the MusiCares Foundation, CARAS doesn’t underwrite a program that covers health, financial and rehabilitation resources for music professionals. But that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t doing its share.
The Unison Fund relies on donations, including support from the three major record labels in Canada: Warner Music Canada, Universal Music Canada and Sony Music Entertainment Canada. And major donor the Slaight Family Foundation is nothing if not part of the Canadian music industry.
Founder Allan Slaight was a Canadian media magnate who in 1958 became the program director of the upstart Toronto rock ‘n’ roll radio station CHUM. By 2007, his empire included 53 radio stations. The Slaight family made their money from music – and they’ve plowed a lot of it back into the ecosystem. For example, the foundation donated $10-million to the recent Massey Hall Revitalization Project.
But for those helped by the Unison Fund, it’s not just about the money. “It’s about caring,” Cody says. “I have no idea how I would have survived the last few years without Unison.”
Unison offers counselling referrals to those suffering from mental-health issues. According to Unison statistics, crisis interventions doubled during the pandemic, when the live music industry was shut down for long stretches.
“I had a therapist who was very helpful,” Cody says. “But he retired a year ago.”
There’s a lot of that going around.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that singer-songwriter John Cody wrote songs for Joni Mitchell.