Arcade Fire and non-profit leaders discuss musician-cause collaborations at SXSW panel

By Laura Ferreiro

A fascinating panel at Austin’s SXSW Music Festival titled “Doing Good, Only Better” on Thursday brought together renowned musicians and members of the non-profit world to discuss how musicians can most effectively use their reach and influence to bring good into the world.

Arcade Fire’s Marika Anthony-Shaw discussed her band’s efforts to raise awareness about issues plaguing Haiti, and non-profit leaders and band managers talked about ways for musicians to get involved and actively engage their fans in good causes.

Shaw gave great insights into Arcade Fire’s efforts to support Partners in Health, a non-profit that provides medical services and support to Haiti’s poorest communities. She explained that Haiti is especially important to the band because her bandmate Regine Chassagne’s family emigrated from there. “Haiti had the first slave revolt but it remains one of the poorest countries in the world,” Shaw said. “When we got to reflect on it a couple of years ago, we thought it was important to give back. We found Partners In Health, an organization that gives free quality health care to the poor. So we’ve been using the $1 per ticket method – we give $1 for each ticket (Arcade Fire sells) to Partners in Health.”

Arcade Fire performed following their lecture on Haiti and service at the University of Texas

Shaw explained that they wanted to do more than throw money at the problem – they also wanted to raise awareness about the situation in Haiti and promote social justice among their fans around the world.

“We were wondering how we could start a conversation with our fans,” she said. “So we had sign-up sheets at shows and we trained volunteers at all our shows in social justice and human rights. The ripple effect has been incredible of starting that conversation five years ago – we now have 10,000 volunteers who start those conversations. Now we hear back from fans who run marathons and have fundraisers at schools to donate to Haiti. It’s become something beyond fan and band that we’re all connected to.”

Erin Potts, executive director of Air Traffic Control Education Fund, which serves as a resource for musicians and managers on activism, philanthropy and advocacy, pointed out that musicians have tremendous reach that goes far beyond the reach of a typical non-profit. She explained that bands who sign fans up at shows to become involved in cause-related projects are often reaching these people for the first time, which is significant because it means they’re able to connect with them in a unique way that wouldn’t have been possible without the musicians’ involvement.

Andy Bernstein, executive director of Head Count, which works with musicians to register voters at concerts, said that musicians have clout and credibility and are very effective at getting young people engaged. “We’ve worked with everyone from Pearl Jam to Dave Matthews to Jay-Z to register voters and bring these issues to the forefront,” he said. “Musicians have the unique power to bring social currency to the election.”

Mike Martinovich, who manages bands including My Morning Jacket and Flight of the Conchords, said that My Morning Jacket wanted to engage with their fans and find ways to support local non-profits around the country that are doing good work. As a result, they employed a system that gives $1 from every ticket fans purchase to their shows in a particular city to local non-profits, often focusing on arts education. They also invite the organizations to their shows to set up shop next to the band’s merch booth to give concert-goers information about their work.

After the panel, several members of Arcade Fire including Chassagne and Win Butler mingled with attendees and discussed their efforts in Haiti. They also gave a lecture at the University of Texas last night about their work in Haiti, and performed a few songs for the students.

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