In an ironic twist that could teach Alanis Morissette a thing or two about the word, the most generous and beneficial endeavor that I’ve undertaken in my life grew out of a selfish goal.
While bartending at the Fat Black Pussycat in the West Village, I began to notice our Tuesday night live performances were failing to attract customers and produce anything resembling an enjoyable musical experience. Living in a city teeming with local musicians, I was convinced that I could assemble a line-up of talented local artists that would bring in a much larger crowd than we were currently drawing. If I charged an admission at the door and paid the venue a minimal fee for staffing, I could keep the rest of the profits to help fund a short film that I had been writing and re-writing for months. It was the perfect way to enjoy myself and hopefully take the first step toward the film career that I’d been dreaming of.
Little did I know that two of my co-workers were having similar thoughts, only theirs were slightly less self-serving. Tal, a musician who also worked as a booking agent, had come to New York from Israel. He saw the promise in Tuesday nights at our venue and wanted to fill the space with local talent. Meanwhile, Chad, a childhood friend, was hoping to raise some extra money for his involvement in Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, which is a program that raised over $1 billion for cancer research through participants who fundraise through marathons. One post-work conversation with the two of them pushed my self-serving interests to the back and, after several beers, as the clock ticked toward six in the morning, Rock Against Cancer NY was born.
I’d known Chad since I was about seven years old. We played baseball and basketball together in the Greenwich Village Little League and later were rivals on the court in high school. My family had lit a candle at his bar mitzvah and my mom had made him many a tuna melt on weekends growing up. Late last year, when I found out that Chad’s mother had passed away from breast cancer, my heart went out to him. Not one to show much outward grief, Chad put the energy from his emotions into other aspects of his life and I was only too happy to dive in headfirst when Rock Against Cancer NY became an opportunity for me to do more than just tell him I was there for him. It became a personal effort for us. More than just a night of good music, but a night where we could step out of our daily grinds and dedicate ourselves to something that wasn’t just about us.
We started out fast. After securing the permission from our venue, Chad used his connections at Team in Training. Tal set about contacting musicians that he had made connections with over the years, and I organized, drawing up flyers, confirming commitments and spreading the word anyway I knew how. We had no idea what we were beginning, but were motivated by the simple fact that we loved music and wanted to help Chad raise money. Everywhere we turned, we seemed to find willing associates. We had four bands agree to play before we knew it and countless others who pledged their attendance and help spreading the word.
Paying for everything out of our pockets, we limited expenses as much as we could. All the bands agreed to play for nothing more than drinks and a few slices of pizza. I printed hundreds of flyers in black and white on basic printer paper at the internship I was working at and spent hours hunched over a rusty paper cutter to slice them into the required size. We inconspicuously left them at coffee shops and the Dean and DeLuca eating area, sent out emails, created Facebook groups and told everybody we knew.
But our early optimism was kept in check by the venue. Since we were inexperienced concert promoters with no track record to our name, they continued to peer over our shoulders, failing to hide their pessimism at our ability to attract a crowd. As much as we believed we were going to prove them wrong, I couldn’t help but feel doubt creep into my mind. August drew to a close, our event was a couple weeks away and we still were a few bands short and had no firm idea how many people were going to show up. We scrambled through our connections, watching YouTube videos and listening to MySpace pages of anybody we knew who happened to have a NY-based band. Ever the worrier, I was freaking out, while Chad and Tal remained relatively upbeat. After all, whatever we were going to put on couldn’t have drawn much worse than the typical Tuesday entertainment.
But that wasn’t enough for me. We had put in so much hard work. I couldn’t bear the thought of watching only 20 people come through the door and us having to pay the staff fees out of our own pockets, staring at our managers in admitted loss.
A little over a week before the show, we locked our last band into place, but my nerves didn’t ease any. Without pre-sales and with the well-known flakiness of Facebook event responders, we still had no idea how many people would show up. So on the night of the show, we put on suit jackets, cool demeanors and took control as if we had all the confidence in the world. And everything seemed to fall into place.
Two hundred people showed up to our first concert, paying $10 to see six local bands on a Tuesday night in September. The crowd thoroughly enjoyed themselves, the bar made more money than they had on a Tuesday in a while and we raised over $2,000 for the charity (after the bands generously donated the proceeds from their CD sales). Just like that, we were off and running.
With an inch of momentum, we started to take a yard. We added a raffle to our next concert, selling tickets for a chance to win autographed sports memorabilia, bar tabs and gift certificates to local businesses. We added one sponsor to give us a small amount of money for operating costs and printed up legitimate color flyers. In the chill of January, on a snowy night, we held our second show and raised almost $2,000 more dollars for the charity.
As we prepare for our third show, at Southpaw in Park Slope, we’ve continued steadily moving forward. We’re taking baby steps, but taking them with more confidence. We’ve secured bigger sponsors. We’ve reached out to larger bands and larger venues. We’ve activated a Twitter account, begun building a website and started incorporating social media into our promotion. We’re working with local NYC music blogs to cover our events and we’ve begun the process (a long and difficult one) of becoming a legitimate non-profit organization.
But perhaps the most exciting part for me has been becoming a part of the burgeoning New York music scene. Ever a music lover, but with no scrap of talent in me, it’s a thrill to meet these musicians and follow them as they pay their dues. Just keeping an ear open to local bands has left me staggered at just how many talented individuals go through their days in this city largely unnoticed. It’s a whole new experience to follow a band to different venues, buy the musicians a drink afterward and just enjoy the music.
It’s a long road ahead, but what first came to me as a one-night scheme to raise money for myself has turned into an expanding organization committed to raising money for all different kinds of cancer charities. It’s become my opportunity to do some good. I’ve been blessed with a supportive family, a healthy life and have been fortunate enough to have already had my fair share of incredible experiences. But there has been nothing that has made me feel as fulfilled as my involvement in Rock Against Cancer. It’s the one thing in my life that isn’t focused on me or my career. It’s simply about passion and goodwill. No matter how I came to find myself in this position, I’m proud of my involvement.