“When Jerry died we had no idea where this thing was gonna go,” explains Cameron Sears, Executive Director of the Rex Foundation. “Now, looking at it 25 years later, it’s pretty impressive what’s been achieved. Both on the Rex side and in the Grateful Dead community.”
Indeed, since its founding in 1983 as the charitable arm of the Grateful Dead, the Rex Foundation has spread millions of dollars to a wide swath of meaningful organizations. Recent recipients of Rex Foundation grants include everything from the Give A Beat Foundation (which teaches incarcerated individuals music production, DJ and technology skills) to Color Outside The Lines (established by one of John Barlow’s daughters, Anna, which uses art therapy to help at-risk youth) to Abundant Earth (which will bring permaculture and agricultural education to the people of Togo, West Africa).
Phoning from Marin County, Sears describes how the organization has adapted to the COVID-19 age (their Days Between livestream garnered 3 million unique views and raised over $140,000), their upcoming projects (the Ain’t No Time to Hate Benefit is slated for Dec. 12) and more.
When the news of the pandemic started rolling in and impacting the music industry, how did those initial conversations go at the Rex Foundation?
It was a little scary at first, as it was for everyone. A lot of our fundraising efforts are connected to live events of one sort or another. Either music or we had a big program over the summer with Major League Baseball and various teams, hosting either Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia nights that then benefit the Rex Foundation, which we’ve been doing now for the past four or five years, and with great success.
One of our major tenants at The Rex Foundation, we like to put together events, we like to commune with everyone and enjoy music and we take that money and we redeploy it to do some good in places where it can really be most effective. So, when you don’t have that ability, you lost that feeling of connectedness as we all have, unfortunately.
So we started to think right away, “Well how can we kind of take lemons and try to make some lemonade?” and I had retained the services of a freshly created startup called Level Together which is run by two fabulous women, Tori Pittarelli and Hilary Gleason to help us with our digital strategy primarily. And soon after the pandemic hit, and things were starting to look a little dodgy for live events, and ultimately became impossible. By the beginning of the summer we started to take advantage of livestreams, and do our events in the digital space
What are the unique challenges to putting on these livestreams versus live and in-person events?
That’s an excellent question. It is a different landscape entirely, and the first challenge is how to make it meaningful to the people that are participating. I’m blown away by the amount of material that is coming out in all different kinds of formations. Artists need to create and fans wanna partake, you know? So how do you make that connection real? In our Days Between livestream, the musicians themselves spoke to why Jerry had impacted their lives musically and creatively as well as from a fan point of view. So trying to tie the loose threads into a nice tapestry was one of the challenges and I think we were able to do that in large part.
The other unknown is ‘Will they come? Will people get what this is about?’ And fortunately in this instance, they did. It’s different than a live show, for sure, but I think done well and done right, it maintains the connection that we all really live for. To be with one another and hear wonderful music and have our minds blown by what these fantastic artists in our scene are capable of producing.
A lot of people are kind of clinging to that, in these troubling times. In your eyes, how does the power of the Grateful Dead songbook play into these livestream events.
The songs that Jerry and Hunter wrote or the songs that Bobby and Barlow wrote… any of us that have connection to that music, it has a much deeper effect on our lives and our outlook on life. There’s a lot of motivating inspirational words that are contained in those songs that put a perspective in how to approach life in a very real way. And I think Deadheads and the Grateful Dead community at large is a very compassionate and thoughtful group of people. If the music didn’t have meaning, I don’t think it would have had the lasting effect that it’s had.
Can you think of any moments in that Days Between livestream that really struck you personally?
Hearing Molly Tuttle do “Standing on the Moon” for me, just kind of hit me right in my heart. It was just so powerful. It encapsulates everything I’ve been talking about, in the sense that it was such an evocative performance. It was so rich and emotional and it just made me stand still. I always loved it when Jerry would do that, we’d be in some far off place away from home and then, you know, he’d talk about San Francisco in that song and it just took us all back there. It was like a, “We’ll get home soon.”
Tell me a little bit about the Ain’t No Time to Hate benefit and what you guys are trying to accomplish there.
After we had this success with Days Between, we were able to catch our breath, because there was a lot of work that went into setting it up, distributing the proceeds and making the grants, etc. Last year, we had a theme surrounding American Beauty and last year I said, “Well next year we gotta do Workingman’s Dead.”
We’re selecting a bunch of different artists who, again, are going to interpret these songs in fabulous ways. It’s gonna be somewhat eclectic but very interesting and we’re really excited about that.
There’s a lot of elements to it. It’s a little challenging you know, putting this all together and getting the component parts to fit. The internet as we know, and technology implies one thing but doesn’t always deliver on every aspect of it, so we’re kinda shooting for the moon and I think we’re gonna have some fun.
Some of Rex’s recent grantees have been organizations like Backline and your own Rex Roadie Fund. Talk to me about how the COVID experience has impacted the people both on and offstage.
Our immediate organization has a pretty thorough understanding of life on the road and what it takes to do that work. I’ve been on the road myself for over 30 years now, and I have a lot of empathy for what that takes and how much those people in particular give of themselves to make a show happen. When the rug was pulled out from all of us, we all had to pivot, we all had a big shakeup in our economic lives. But for the road people in particular, it’s startling – you don’t necessarily have your bag of tricks all figured out on how to pivot, and you may need a little help to get from point A to point B. So when we started the Rex Roadie Fund, we had a board meeting and asked “What can we do that can make a difference?”
I’ve worked with Sweet Relief in the past, they’ve been amazing. Sweet Relief was established to help musicians primarily through difficult financial hardship, and it was an easy pivot for them to get into the roadie side of the need. When I called them they said, “Absolutely let’s do this,” and within a couple weeks we had it all lined up, up and running, and we were starting to get funds coming in and we were off to the races.
Recently, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which is an institution here in the Bay Area, caught wind of what we created and they came across with close to $40,000 that was close to 100% of the net proceeds of their merchandise sales from their recent internet Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival that they held in October.
Hopefully it will help bridge the gap a little bit for when we’re all back on the road and start to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Still acknowledging the uncertain nature of live music, does the Rex Foundation have anything else in the works for the near future?
I think we’re hopeful that maybe we can resume our baseball events in the summer. That would be awesome. It’s just such a great program that we’ve gotten established with teams like the Red Sox, the Giants of course, the Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, the Phillies, the Nationals and the White Sox.
It’s really interesting because baseball and Grateful Dead kind of have this thing in common of fever-ish fanbase. Wherever you grew up when you were a kid, you fell in love with your team. And they have this kind of passion that knows no limits, and loyalty as well. And it’s just really cool that the Grateful Dead and baseball has created this kind of synergistic relationship, and it’s all in good fun. They play Grateful Dead music at the ballpark, they create a cool little t-shirt or a bobble head or something that ties into the Dead and the team. So, I miss those events, I miss working with the teams. They’ve been very supportive of our work.
And then in my dream of dreams I’d love to do a live event, y’know, where we’re actually at one of our favorites–whether it’s the Greek Theatre or Red Rocks, or some pantheon of live music that we’ve inhabited. So we’re looking at ways that we can do that, again, once we get back to normal. But as Bobby would often say, “We’ve got our best people working on it.” Because we really like creating live events. It’s a big part of what we do.
It’s cool that the Rex Foundation has a hand in so many different organizations. Rather than focusing on one thing, you’re able to spread the love.
Yeah that’s exactly right! That’s sort of how Rex has always operated. We’ve given out over 1,300 grants, totaling almost $10 million from our inception.
Sometimes people will say, “Why don’t you just focus on music and schools?” or “Why don’t you just focus on rainforests?” or “Why don’t you just focus on clean air?” or whatever the case may be. All of those things are important to us, but we never wanted to be limited in that capacity in the event that something comes across our desks and we’re like, “That’s awesome!”
We keep coming back to this idea: a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit over there, and all of the sudden you step back and you see this tapestry that’s been woven of all of these things and it all starts to make sense. If you think, “I want to give a $100 donation this month, who do I give it to?” When you give a donation to the Rex Foundation, you’re touching all these things. And I think it’s a reflection of the community
I encourage people to go to RexFoundation.org to learn more about our grantees. And I think the fans and community can feel really good about where those grants are going.