When artists started canceling shows in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in February, Harvey Mason Jr., the chairman and interim CEO of the Recording Academy, saw that the music industry was headed into devastating, unprecedented territory.
“We knew right away when one or two tours got canceled,” he tells Fortune. “If people aren’t able to do concerts, it’s going to be really hard for our community to continue to make money. That’s musicians, cartage people, engineers, lighting—everybody who works to put these things on, not just the people you see on the stage singing.”
That’s why the academy and its affiliated charitable organization MusiCares quickly established the COVID-19 Relief Fund, which provides financial assistance to music industry professionals whose jobs and lives have been disrupted by the pandemic. To kick things off, both organizations donated $1 million each, and more contributions are coming in from all over the industry. Payments are already going out to help people with rent, medical bills, groceries, mental health treatment, and other needs.
Considering that many people in the music world operate independently, without benefits or protections afforded to typical full-time workers, the situation is particularly dire. “It’ll be the worst thing to happen to a lot of industries, but definitely for ours,” Mason says. “During Katrina, MusiCares served around 3,500 people and gave away almost $4 million. If you take that huge disaster and extend it across the country and think about how many musicians in the U.S. alone are going to be needing help, that gives you an idea of the scale.”
To be eligible for the MusiCares fund, applicants initially had to have at least five years of employment in the music industry (or six commercially released recordings or music videos), but the board voted to relax the criteria to help more people. Now, the minimum is three years, though those with less will be considered. The amounts given out are determined on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to a set amount like the government’s proposed stimulus checks, while the fund awaits more donations. “If we could give $10,000 to everybody who asks, we would rather do that,” Mason says. “But it’s just going to be a matter of how much money can we raise and how many people need help.”
So far, the donations are pouring in, thanks to Mason and his colleagues hitting up all their contacts in the industry for help. On Tuesday, they announced that the fund has grown by millions, thanks in part to donations from Amazon Music, Facebook, SiriusXM and Pandora, Spotify, Tidal, and YouTube Music. “It’s been just person-to-person, one-on-one outreach. Steve Boom, who’s the chairman of MusiCares, has been very active and has done an amazing job. I’ve been calling, emailing, using relationships that we both have,” Mason says. “It’s been targeted to the streaming companies, the labels, the publishers, managers, artists. There have been estates who call and say, ‘Hey, we want to donate.’ We’ve been really surprised and excited about that.”
Musicians themselves have also been using their time off the road to pitch in with songs, performances, and partnerships. Father John Misty released a live album via Bandcamp to benefit the fund; Dirty Projectors released a cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation”; Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell are soliciting donations during their daily at-home live-streaming concerts; concert site Bandsintown is raising money through a weeklong marathon of online shows; and Alicia Keys teamed with Amazon to spread the word via Instagram and donate up to $100,000 each, with fans encouraged to like, comment on, and share the post.
Going forward, the Recording Academy and MusiCares plan to hold concerts and “festivals” with long-running productions “rather than just one person in a room, playing,” as Mason says. Aside from helping boost the fund, he believes it has a secondary purpose—helping the fans at home who are also struggling financially and/or emotionally. “Music and art are things that people need when they don’t feel as good as they normally do. That’s why we’re really pushing to get more performances going for people in their homes. Not being able to come together and rally around music like people normally do is a hardship for everyone, so we want to be able to provide something in this crazy time.”
Even as he oversees round-the-clock claims for assistance and encounters so many people in pain, Mason views this effort and the spirit of community imbued in it as reasons to be optimistic.
“I would say signs of hope are how generous people are being around the initiative that we’ve started. I would say the signs of hope are that people in need are starting to get to take advantage of the fund that we’ve raised. And I think the ultimate sign of hope is going to be when we start gathering around music performances that are generated specifically not only to give back to the community but also to try and give back to our culture in a time when we need it. You’re seeing more people create more music, more people sharing—people reaching out to bring people together. Hopefully, that can be a positive that comes out of this. I just know music is going to be an important part of the healing.”