Be Good to Yourself benefit album raises funds for mental health

Ed Bumgardner was at a former bandmate’s funeral in September 2019 when he decided something had to change.

He was tired. Tired of seeing his friends in the music industry struggle with substance abuse. In some cases, and in the case of his former bandmate, addiction ultimately led to their deaths.

“I’ve lost…” Bumgardner paused to count aloud: “One, two, three, four friends to suicide, at least another half-dozen to overdoses, and came awful close to the same fate myself. I’m four years sober.”

Bumgardner, a 66-year-old bass player who lives in Winston-Salem, met his late bandmate through music. Bumgardner started playing the bass when he was 13, and spent much of his 20s and 30s touring with bands — a time that Bumgardner called “magical.”

But the music world also came with its perils. Bumgardner and the other young people he met on the road were making just enough money to survive. Most of the venues they played in were bars, where substances like alcohol and drugs — and abuse of these substances — were common.

His former bandmate died because he “drank himself to death,” Bumgardner said.

“We’ve got to do something about this,” Bumgardner told his friend and bandmate Rob Slater at the funeral. “This is just wrong.”

From that conversation came an effort to help other musicians dealing with substance abuse and mental illness through an initiative called Be Good to Yourself. Bumgardner and Slater decided to raise money for the program by recording a benefit album.

Over a year in the making, the album, also titled “Be Good to Yourself – The Music,” is slated to come out Nov. 8, with profits going to mental healthcare and substance abuse counseling for musicians. Two other albums, a vinyl LP and an EP, are in the works for later this year.

The album, initially envisioned as 10 songs, grew into an album of 27 songs with performances from dozens of collaborators, almost all from North Carolina. Bumgardner and Slater worked with Chris Garges of Charlotte, who played drums, and with Gino Grandinetti of Winston-Salem, who played guitar, to bring the music together.

The roster of musicians includes North Carolina musicians Peter Holsapple, Mitch Easter, The Chatham Rabbits, Snüzz and Don Dixon, among many others.

In the music industry, musicians are often the ones to help each other out when it feels like no one else will. With Be Good to Yourself, the collaborators say they hope to change that — to not only raise enough money to fund mental healthcare and counseling for some musicians, but to shed light on the ways that musicians have struggled during the pandemic and beyond.

During a time when so many musicians were struggling to make ends meet, and perhaps struggling with addiction and mental illness themselves, Bumgardner said it’s incredible that so many worked on the album for free. But it’s not surprising.

“You wanna know how great musicians are?” he said. “There you go. These are people who are out of work, and they’re still doing it for nothing, to try to help fellow musicians.”

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The founders of Be Good To Yourself are Chris Garges, Rob Slater and Ed Bumgardner. The mental health initiative seeks to provide mental health and substance abuse counseling for North Carolina musicians. The DeFacto Brothers

‘A dangerous business’

Before coming up with the idea for a benefit album, Bumgardner, Slater and other musicians had already been talking about how they could help their fellow musicians. They knew anecdotally that overdoses and suicides were widespread in the industry.

“The music business is a dangerous business,” Bumgardner said. “As beers after a gig turned into cases of beer after a gig, turned into whiskey after a gig, turned into suicide, that was a little too much to be able to sit around and not do something about.”

The data backs that up. A 2018 study by the Music Industry Research Association found that 50% of 1,227 surveyed musicians experienced symptoms of depression, as compared to 25% of the general population. Twelve percent of musicians reported having thoughts of suicide, while that statistic is around 3% for the general population.

As gig performers, many musicians don’t have health insurance. Many make so little that they struggle to make rent or pay for other necessities — and the idea of being able to afford medical help for addiction or mental illness is laughable to some.

Then, the pandemic began, when instances of mental illness like anxiety and depression rose across the country. With lockdowns, independent musicians lost the ability to make a living off of touring and performing.

To help provide North Carolina musicians with mental healthcare, Be Good to Yourself is partnering with the SIMS Foundation, which provides mental health and substance abuse recovery services to people in the music industry. Through the partnership, the SIMS foundation — which currently operates in Austin, Texas — is expanding into the Triangle.

Be Good to Yourself and the SIMS Foundation plan to work with a number of different North Carolina healthcare providers, including MindPath Care Centers, to get musicians the help they need.

“You’re less likely to succeed at beating an addiction if you’re just in Narcotics Anonymous, as opposed to getting clinical help,” said Louise Newton, the clinical director of psychotherapy at MindPath Care Centers. “But until we have equitable insurance for everyone, not everyone will have access to that.”

In the midst of a pandemic, the benefit album felt even more urgent, though, with restrictions on gathering, the logistics were tricky. The four musicians recorded primarily at Old House Studio in Charlotte, with most of the other collaborators sending in recordings of their parts.

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“Be Good To Yourself” is a benefit album with songs recorded by dozens of North Carolina musicians. The Be Good To Yourself initiative was created in three long-time musicians who will use album proceeds to help provide treatment for substance abuse and mental-health challenges for other musicians. Woodie Long, Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.

Pandemic struggles

Ashley Virginia remembers when she thought that live shows would be cancelled for a few weeks, at most. In March 2020, Virginia was starting to make a name for herself in the music scene of Greensboro. She had just gotten a regular gig at a local brewery and had shows scheduled through June.

For Virginia, this was a breakthrough. She felt like the music career she had dreamed of for so long was finally on its way. Then, venues announced that they were cancelling shows because of the coronavirus. Shows were cancelled for two weeks, at first. Then another two weeks. Then another.

When all of Virginia’s shows through June were cancelled, she knew there was no end in sight.

“It felt like I was staring into a black pit,” she said. “It was just soul-crushing. I fell into a really deep depression.”

Virginia suffers from diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder, major-depressive disorder, and complex-post traumatic stress disorder. Her symptoms worsened during the pandemic, she said, in part because she could no longer perform and share her music.

Libby Rodenbaugh, a musician based in Durham who collaborated on the “Be Good to Yourself” project, also remembers the feelings of hopelessness that came at the beginning of the pandemic, when gigs were cancelled for the indefinite future. Rodenbaugh performs as a solo artist and with the band Mipso.

Mario Arnez, who plays in the Chapel Hill-based band Blue Cactus, recalled feeling “an impossible level of depression” when he realized the pandemic meant he could no longer support himself with his music.

The people behind Be Good to Yourself want to provide support to those struggling in the industry, even when they’re not in the middle of a pandemic.

For many, that support can be life-saving. Virginia, for example, credits the treatment she receives for her mental illnesses for helping her cope with the pandemic’s effects.

She knows how easy it is to fall into substance abuse and addiction as a musician — she plays most of her gigs at bars and breweries. And if she wasn’t receiving treatment for her mental illnesses, she thinks she’d be more likely to abuse the substances she’s frequently around.

But not all musicians have access to that level of care. Because she’s younger than 26, Virginia is still able to receive health insurance through her parents, which covers therapy and medication. She also keeps a day job so she’ll be eligible for coverage once she ages out of her parents’ insurance.

Musicians who don’t have insurance and can’t afford mental health care are left to grapple with their mental health on their own.

“I think I would find other unhealthy ways to cope and self-medicate if I didn’t have access to treatment,” Virginia said. “If not for my treatment, my story would definitely be much different and more tragic.”

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Ed Bumgardner collaborated with Rob Slater, Chris Garges and numerous other North Carolina musicians to record a benefit album, “Be Good to Yourself.” The group is raising money to provide funding for mental health and substance abuse services for other musicians. Alex Forsyth

A culture of dependency

Because employers are the most common source of health insurance, independent contractors are left to buy their own plans or go without. And for those without insurance, coping and self-medicating can include using substances like drugs and alcohol.

When Bumgardner was on tour, he said it was harder not to partake in drinking and smoking than to just participate.

“When you’re working four to five sets a night, that’s what you do — you have a couple of beers,” Bumgardner said. “And after you’re done, you’re all wound up, you stay up all night, you dabble in drugs, you drink, and that becomes a way of life for a long time.”

John Howie Jr., a musician based in Chapel Hill who also collaborated on “Be Good to Yourself,” said he had a similar experience.

“When you’re on the road, you drink and smoke and do drugs, and it’s a blast, because you sort of feel like it’s your obligation to do that, like — on the road!” he said. “If you don’t do those things, you have to go to the bar hours before you start the show, so what do you do?”

For many musicians, this way of life seems sustainable when they’re young. But as Bumgardner got older, he said it began to take a toll on his health, both physically and mentally.

“As you get older, people start paying the price — the suicides where they just couldn’t see a way out,” Bumgardner said. “And even though, in some cases, they might have had insurance, they wouldn’t seek help because of the stigma associated with addiction and mental illness.”

Howie said he realized he needed help a few years ago, when doctors told him he had a tumor in his lung and an enlarged liver, both connected to his drinking and smoking. Howie, then 46, knew he had to get sober, though it took him years to do so.

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John Howie Jr., a musician based in Chapel Hill, collaborated on “Be Good to Yourself,” a benefit album to raise money for addiction treatment and mental health services for musicians. Kevin Clark

Quitting an addiction is notoriously difficult. And while there are free resources like Alcoholics Anonymous, getting professional help beyond that can be prohibitively expensive for people without insurance.

The pandemic, Howie said, has made it both harder and easier to stay sober. During the pandemic, many have turned to alcohol and substances to deal with stress. A study published in 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that nearly two-thirds of participants were drinking more during the pandemic than before.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to try to get sober right when the pandemic hit,” Howie said. “I had some friends call me and tell me they were struggling with it.”

But staying home also meant being away from venues centered around alcohol. As live shows resume, Howie expects that it’ll be hard to return to those spaces.

“A lot of my coming shows are in places where they’ll be serving alcohol, so we’ll see,” he said. “I’m sure that won’t be easy, but I’m used to it not being easy.”

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Chris Garges, a Charlotte-based musician, collaborated with Ed Bumgardner, Rob Slater and numerous other North Carolina musicians to record a benefit album, “Be Good to Yourself.” The group is raising money to provide funding for mental health and substance abuse services for other musicians. The DeFacto Brothers

A larger problem

Without insurance, musicians struggle to get any kind of healthcare and can ignore their health problems. That’s what happened with Garges, who for a long time would do whatever it took to not go to the doctor when he thought something might be wrong. He would look up symptoms on the internet, ask friends and family for advice, or just ignore pain.

“I didn’t have insurance, and I used to be avoidant when it came to health stuff, because it was — ‘I’m afraid to go, I’m afraid to have to pay for a doctor’s visit because I’ve got this pain in my knee that may lead to another doctor’s visit that’s gonna cost more money,’” he said.

For many uninsured musicians, experiences like Garges’ are common. The difficulty of getting insurance as a musician is a systemic problem that many musicians interviewed for this story linked to larger problems with the insurance industry in the United States.

The Affordable Care Act, some musicians said, was an improvement when it was passed in 2010, but still far from perfect.

Garges was able to get health insurance through the ACA after being uninsured for many years. It’s been a relief, he said, but it’s still “a stretch financially” to pay for his own plan, Garges said.

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Rob Slater collaborated with Ed Bumgardner, Chris Garges and numerous other North Carolina musicians to record a benefit album, “Be Good to Yourself.” The group is raising money to provide funding for mental health and substance abuse services for other musicians. The DeFacto Brothers

Before the ACA, Howie said he worked odd jobs to make sure he always had insurance. He then enrolled in ACA, which he said was “great for a few years there.” Still, Howie recalled he once had a copay that was over $1,000 for a CT scan when doctors found a tumor in his lung, even with insurance.

Because independent musicians often make so little money — a typical band can expect to make the same amount of money playing a gig at a bar in 2021 as they did in the 1970s, according to Slater — insurance and healthcare are simply often “out of the question,” he said.

Be Good to Yourself hopes to mitigate that cost for some musicians across the state.

The price of sponsoring one counseling session a week for a year for one musician is over $3,000, according to the Be Good to Yourself website. Organizers hope to raise over $100,000 to help fund the counseling initiative, according to a news release.

The organization expects to start small with a handful of people, eventually growing the project so more people can be sponsored, said Mike Allen, a Be Good to Yourself board member.

“We’d like to sponsor as many musicians as we can,” Allen said.

With the expansion of the SIMS foundation into North Carolina, the people behind Be Good to Yourself hope to lay the foundations for a mental health service infrastructure that will last for years to come.

“But I think when this thing hits, we’re going to have more applications than we know what to do with,” Allen continued.

Crowdfunding efforts to pay for healthcare or other necessities are common in the music industry. Musicians help each other out, as Bumgardner said.

Allen recalled seeing countless social media posts from local musicians who were struggling both financially and mentally at the beginning of the pandemic.

Virginia said she’s also seen crowdfunding efforts for musicians struggling with issues like finances or illness.

“But it’s a Band-Aid for a bullet wound,” she said. “If some people are able to raise a certain amount of money to help a handful of people, that’s great, of course. But I’m still on my healing journey, and I’ve been receiving treatment for six years — that’s six years of insurance, six years of therapy, six years of medication.”

Slater noted that insurance is inaccessible to so many because of the system used in the United States.

“One of the great faults of insurance in this country is that it’s such a monetized consumer entity,” he said. “It’s so expensive, and most independent musicians won’t be able to afford it.”

Virginia said she hopes there comes a time when people have access to health insurance that allows them to seek treatment for illnesses, physical or mental, without worrying about whether they can afford to do so.

But until the health insurance industry changes, musicians will continue to help each other out. And as the lengthy track list of “Be Good to Yourself” shows, there’s no shortage of musicians who will be there for each other.

“If there’s a chance that one person benefits from this, we’re good,” Slater said. “If there’s one person out there who benefits from this, it’s all worth it.”


For information on Be Good to Yourself and how to buy the benefit album, go to begoodtoyourselfmusic.com or facebook.com/Bgoodtoyourselfnow.

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