“Think of Music as Nutrient:” How a Kansas City Nonprofit Helps Artists Keep Playing
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Just under 15 years ago, a group of people came together in hopes of playing music and doing good.
Kansas City musician Abigail Henderson, 31, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. To support her, her friends did what musicians do; they gathered to play a show.
The group organized a three-day performance called apocalypse meow – a nod to Henderson’s love of cats – to raise money for his healthcare expenses. Several local groups stepped in to help, and Henderson vowed to give back to the music community for stepping up when needed.
But the idea had already germinated in Henderson’s mind. After receiving medical treatment from New Orleans Musicians Clinic while touring there with her band, she knew she wanted to bring something similar back to Kansas City. This effort would become the Midwest Music Foundationa coalition dedicated to providing career and health care Resources for Kansas City musicians. The foundation aims to elevate musicians in a in various waysfrom providing wellness resources to connecting them to concert venues.
When Henderson died in 2013, her friends promised to keep the foundation going.
“Music is a crucial part of everyone’s life,” said Rhonda Lyne, a friend of Henderson’s and the foundation’s executive director. “We just want to provide a support network for musicians, just to show them how important what they do is and kind of give them the resources they need to be able to make a viable career out of it.”
This is partly through health care subsidies. In addition to Abby’s Fund for emergency health expenses, the foundation also offers grants for preventative services, such as mammograms and dental care. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this extended to free COVID-19 tests.
It all comes down to Henderson’s vision. She wanted to look after the welfare of musicians so that music was a livelihood, not just a hobby.
“She was just kind of a force of nature,” Lyne said. “It’s a very unstable business, and it’s very difficult to make a living, but she was convinced that you should be able to do it.”
Cody Wyoming, a longtime Kansas City musician and friend of Henderson’s, was there for the early days of Midwest Music Foundation brainstorming. Pursuing music comes with a lot of joy and a lot of risk, he said, and Henderson understood that.
“She was kind of crusading on that front,” he said. “Not just for health care, but to make sure musicians are not overlooked in any way.”
After helping with the initial design of the foundation and watching it grow, he also experienced it later. When Wyoming had to pay hospital bills, he said, the foundation’s health resources kept him from having to sell his instruments.
“It not only literally saved lives, but also very life-saving,” he said. “I love my gear. It’s part of who I am. And I didn’t have to worry about losing anything because I was sick and because it was the only thing I had. which had real financial value.
In a pandemic world, the management of health and work has been particularly important. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the foundation began creating emergency grants and helping musicians take COVID-19 tests.
The absence of shows has also created financial and emotional challenges for local bands. Videographer and musician Matthew Dunehoo has experienced this.
“Artists feed off the crowd, and the crowd feeds off the artist,” he said. “It’s a mutually symbiotic and beneficial thing. So when that is taken out of society, we waste away.
After a bicycle accident in May 2020 left him with a broken wrist, Dunehoo said financial support from the Abby’s Fund grant made a huge difference. As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, Dunehoo also admired the foundation’s approach to mental health. This year donation campaign is dedicated to the subject.
The past two years have been particularly difficult for Kansas City’s music community, he said, and the work of the Midwest Music Foundation to uplift them shows just how important that community really is.
“I just think we have a special relationship here between the people and the musicians, and I think that’s maybe something mystical about the location of the city here in the absolute center of the country,” said- he declared. “There’s a tight network of people who care to see music thrive here, and the last two years have been so absolutely heartbreaking. Watching my bandmates struggle to try to innovate how to survive and persevere in these exceptional times has been heartbreaking, but also very inspiring.
The pandemic hit the service industry hard, making it difficult for musicians who also worked in the service industry. Sondra Freeman, MMF’s director of promotions and artist relations, said for many of these musicians, that meant having to start over.
“A lot of people complain about crowded restaurants that aren’t fast enough,” Freeman said. “It’s because all your musician friends had to reinvent themselves and find different jobs.”
But even when artists struggle, live music is just as important as it always has been. That’s part of what makes the Midwest Music Foundation important, Dunehoo said.
“You have to think of music as a nutrient,” he said. “You have to see community gatherings as nutritious and you have to have advocates. And I think the MMF is just the epitome of advocacy.
Since its inception in 2008, the foundation has meant many things to many people, just like music. Freeman said it looks different from person to person, for both performers and volunteers.
Some told him that the Midwest Music Foundation had made the music community in Kansas City less divided. Others saw it as a safety net and a way to make the saying “help each other” tangible. But for her, it’s about repaying a debt.
Growing up, Freeman said music and gigs were something she and her brother shared. During difficult passages, the music was there. Sometimes, she said, it felt like the only thing they had.
In return, she wants to make sure live music continues to thrive. With the work of the Midwest Music Foundation, it is possible.
“I honestly think it’s important in its own way for everyone individually,” she said. “But for me personally, it’s just about paying back the music and making sure it always happens. Because without it, I’m lost.
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