Ivan Julian
Magazine Feature

Crowdfunding for His Life: How GoFundMe Helped Save a Punk Legend's Life

In early October, songwriter-guitarist Ivan Julian did something that he hadn’t done in quite awhile: He stepped onstage and played some music. The crowd at the Bell House in Brooklyn was a little grayer, a little less hard-living than the ones he had played for in the past, back when he was an East Village punk, playing with Richard Hell & The Voidoids. But they didn’t look much worse for wear.

The same could be said for Julian, who is 61 years old. His hair is the same thick shock of black curls as it was in the 1970s, his stage presence still an alluring blend of confident and aloof. These days, both count as near miracles: In the fall of 2015, Julian was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer (a particularly aggressive form he prefers not to disclose). He had started feeling badly months earlier, but, like 9 percent of Americans even after the Affordable Care Act, “of course, I didn’t have insurance,” he says today over coffee. “A: because I’m a musician. And B: because I’m a man and I think I’m invincible.”

Roberta Bayley/Redferns
Richard Hell and the Voidoids. 

A handful of doctors offered him preliminary exams, “but they said, ‘We cannot go any further, not even with a biopsy, until you get health insurance,’ ” recalls Julian. “I said, ‘Well, how much could it possibly be? I can maybe pay for it.’ They said, ‘Well, the anesthesiologist alone is something like $750 an hour.’ ” He bought an insurance plan and got diagnosed. Soon, he was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation five days a week. He also was confronting mounting bills.

The music community has long had to organize for itself when it comes to health care. Benefit ­concerts are common, and during the past couple of decades, ­nonprofits like Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, the Haven Foundation, Howl Arts, the Musicians Foundation and the Jazz Foundation of America have sprung up, offering support to artists who find themselves in dire financial straits when ­serious ­illness strikes. But as Julian found out, even with the help of those donations, a serious diagnosis brings serious extra expenses. So on the advice of a close friend, Julian — like an ­increasing number of aging musicians without a lucrative record contract — turned to crowdfunding, launching a campaign on the No. 1 platform, GoFundMe. So far, he has raised more than $17,500 of his $20,000 goal.

“Communities have always fundraised this way,” says GoFundMe chairman/CEO Rob Solomon. “But they couldn’t do it on this scale until the social web arose.” Since its inception in 2010, GoFundMe has raised more than $3 billion for assorted causes; in the last year, $700 million for medical campaigns alone. “Especially in the last two years, we’ve seen an increase in ­general fundraising for ­artists when they’re going through a major ­medical situation,” says Josh Chapman, CEO of GiveForward, another ­crowdfunding site, which focuses solely on medical causes. “If you’re an artist who's diagnosed with cancer, you can’t perform; there’s lost wages and a lot of ­secondary expenses that get incurred. We see very accomplished folks who are independent, and when something unexpected like this comes up, they need help.”

Courtesy of GoFundMe
Rob Solomon, Chairman/CEO of GoFundMe

Julian fit that description to a tee. When he moved to New York in 1976, “I put an ad in the paper: ‘Musician, have gear, will travel,’” he said. One of the first people to answer was Richard Hell, a ­founding member of the band Television. “It was funny: My ad was in the back of the paper, and there was a huge picture of him on the front of the paper,” recalls Julian. “I had no idea who this Richard Hell character was.”

Hell invited Julian to an audition. “I walked in and they liked what I did and I liked what they did,” recalls Julian. “Richard had this song I thought was called ‘Black Generation.’ It was called ‘Blank Generation.’” The album of the same name became a sensation among New York’s disaffected downtown ­bohemians, and the band Hell and Julian co-founded, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, went on to become a seminal punk act, influencing ­everyone from The Sex Pistols to The Ramones.

Roberta Bayley/Redferns
L-R: Ivan Julian, Jerry Antonius, Elvis Costello, Robert Quine, and Richard Hell performing live onstage.

Julian wasn’t quite famous, but he was beloved. He made a steady income and accrued some savings, running a recording studio, gigging, doing session work, occasionally touring and even securing an adjunct teaching job. But he had no insurance and was unable to work for the past year-and-a-half. “As a musician myself, I can’t really rely on my work to provide the money for health ­insurance,” says Lenny Kaye, the Patti Smith Group guitarist who is a friend of Julian’s. “The money comes, the money goes, and you’re kind of at the mercy of the cultural and creative winds.”

When Julian’s medical problems began, a bandmate pointed him to organizations like Howl Arts and the Musicians Foundation. “They really reached in and said, ‘OK, what are your problems? What do you need?’” says Julian. “‘We can help you with your health insurance premium. We can help you with your rent’ ” on the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his wife, Sammy. Julian remains grateful for the aid, but once his ­treatment began, his expenses piled up and he quickly became too sick to play music. “It was very painful. I couldn’t sit and play the piano,” says Julian. “I could barely walk. I could hardly do phone calls. It’s the darkest place I’ve ever been -- and I’ve been to some dark places.”

So Nick Tremulis, a singer-songwriter and longtime friend who became Julian’s mouthpiece in fundraising efforts as he got sicker, enlisted publicist Sharyl Holtzman to help set up the ­crowdfunding campaign. GoFundMe’s Solomon says it’s ­especially ­successful by the site’s standards: Julian’s page has been shared more than 1,000 times, viewed several times more than that, and the ­visitors-to-donor rate is high. Solomon praised the 18 updates to his page thus far: “Keeping people in the loop, letting them feel like they’re ­helping, is crucial.”

Musicians like Julian are in some ways ideally suited to crowdfunding. “If you have a built-in ­audience, this is an ­interesting and intimate way to connect with your fans,” says ­crowdfunding consultant Alex Daly. “Fans who love a ­musician and are asked to help them will jump out and ­support them as much as possible. They love to be asked, because it means they’re giving back in a substantial way.”

Bobby Bank/WireImage
Ivan Julian, Richard Hell and Austin Julian attend the Heart On Fire: Concert For Ivan Julian at City Winery on May 4, 2016 in New York City. 

A look at current campaigns proves Daly’s point. In September, the renowned jazz bassist George Mraz and his wife, Camilla, set up a GoFundMe page after Mraz was diagnosed with a ­pancreatic cyst: They already have raised $32,000, nearly double their ­initial goal. In a GoFundMe campaign started in July, Austin-area ­bassist George Reiff — who has played with the likes of the Dixie Chicks, Jakob Dylan and The Jayhawks — raised more than $126,000 for his Stage IV lung cancer treatment. (Reiff is insured, but much of his ­treatment is performed in the context of a clinical trial that his insurance doesn’t cover.) Colleen Duffy, frontwoman for a Los Angeles-area band named Devil Doll, has raised more than $14,000 on GiveForward as she battles multiple health ­problems, including a rare connective-tissue ­disorder. “Thank God for ­crowdfunding,” she says. “Thank God I got talked into it.”

The decision to crowdfund often isn’t an easy one. “There can still be a negative connotation around it,” says Daly. Musicians ­especially, she adds, might “think it’s begging for money, like a starving artist.” Duffy admits that at first, “I actually thought that people wouldn’t even give. I was so embarrassed to ask for help.” Julian was ­similarly shy. “Ivan’s very ­discreet and reticent about anything that he feels might make people pity him,” says Hell. “Musicians aren’t ­supposed to talk about it,” adds Tremulis, “because they’ll lose work.” Even after a campaign finds ­success, some misgivings may remain. “The ­crowdfunding industry as a whole has struggled with the fact that, after ­making a ­donation, folks often don’t come back to a page,” says GiveForward’s Chapman. Reiff was astounded by his ­campaign’s success, but fears that kind of fundraising fatigue. “This initial ­outpouring from GoFundMe was so effective,” he says. “But I don’t know that you can get two, three rounds of that.”

After his GoFundMe page was set up, Julian made a crucial step toward keeping his fan base engaged: He suddenly felt moved to talk to everyone about what was happening with him. “I was getting all these notes from people saying, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, how are you?,’ and I couldn’t email anyone back.” He decided to give something very personal back to his fans. “I had my son, who’s a video artist, prop me up against the wall,” says Julian. “I said, ‘I’m going to start talking, and we’ll send it out.’ ”

They posted the resulting video on YouTube and linked to it on his GoFundMe page. Against a plain white wall, Julian sits, barechested and pale, speaking quietly yet deliberately. “This is what cancer can look like,” he says. “I had to somehow struggle through the ­bureaucracy and everything and find the right ­insurance company and the right people that would guide me toward proper treatment, so that maybe ... I could live. I’m trying.”

His friends, likewise, made an effort on his behalf. This past May, a host of ’70s luminaries including Kaye, Debbie Harry, The Dictators and members of Living Colour came out to play a show benefiting Julian at New York’s City Winery. “It takes an East Village, I guess, is the cute way to put it,” says Kaye. For the first time in 20 years, Hell played live. “What happened to Ivan is so nightmarish and unjust,” says Hell. “Ivan is very well-loved. It was really fulfilling to take part in this thing for something we all believed in.” Two successive shows raised $6,000.

Bobby Bank/WireImage
Debbie Harry hosts the Heart On Fire: Concert For Ivan Julian at City Winery on May 4, 2016 in New York City. 

Today, the good news continues. “I’m officially in remission,” says Julian. “They have nuked the cancer out of me.” But for the foreseeable future, as Julian’s doctors monitor his health, his expenses continue. His GoFundMe page remains active, and his team recently launched an online auction of items donated ­during the City Winery benefit shows: Bob Gruen ­photographs, signed ­guitars, lyric sheets and tour itineraries from Julian’s archives.

There are also T-shirts declaring “I Am Ivan” -- a ­message ­resonant for any fan who donated a few bucks to Julian’s ­campaign, and for any musician who sees a bit of themselves in Julian’s ­situation. “Ivan is going to get great again and be able to make his records again, but he’s also going to be a piece of the puzzle for a lot of musicians out there,” says Tremulis. “He’s like a sponsor for other musicians at this point. Now Ivan can help a lot of other people, and I know he wants to.”  

To contribute to Julian’s continued recovery, go to gofundme.com.