Every year for one evening, Donick Cary opens his backyard to bands like Yo La Tengo, She & Him, The Polyphonic Spree and Childish Gambino.
Cary, co-executive producer on NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, has used his Los Angeles home as the site of a charity event dubbed the Rock and Roll Carnival for the past four years, hosting dozens of musical acts and stand-up comedians to raise money for his own organization Musack. The charity’s mission is simple: To generate funds to allow at-risk and underserved kids access to musical instruments and lessons.
As Cary was spending time in his hometown of Nantucket a few years back, he realized there was a problem of teen suicide on the island. Although it’s known for its multimillion dollar homes, Nantucket also houses a vast population of service industry workers, whose children were struggling and isolated.
“It seemed to be consistent that people were thinking that suicide was a way out of the claustrophobia and teenage years,” Cary says. “As I was getting my friends from high school together I was thinking, ‘How did we get through that?'” The answer was music.
After speaking with the music teacher at the local high school, Cary realized that it might be helpful to give the teenagers access to guitars and places to learn to play those guitars. He used his birthday party as a fundraiser, eventually purchasing five guitars, Garageband software for the school’s computer and lesson time with the school’s music teacher.
He threw another party the following year, and soon there were over 40 kids on Nantucket invested in after school guitar lessons, a few of them heading to college to study music as a direct result of the program. In 2010, Cary and New Girl executive producer David Finkel, whom he met 14 years ago while working on Just Shoot Me, partnered to throw their first Rock and Roll Carnival in Cary’s L.A. home. It was headlined by Yo La Tengo, who the pair cite as one of their biggest supporters to date, and it’s grown ever since.
Last Saturday, the Rock and Roll Carnival reached its fourth incarnation with a lineup that featured Superchunk, Tim Armstrong‘s ska supergroup Tim Timebomb, Mike Watt and The Secondmen, and comedians John Hodgman and Tig Notaro.
The crowd, which included Parks and Rec castmembers Adam Scott and Jim O’Hare as well as writers and producers from The Simpsons, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Family Guy, reached an estimated 450 people, 100 of which were children.
Musack is still tallying its proceeds from the event, which also included a silent auction with signed items from Arcade Fire and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes; however, Finkel approximates that they raised $35,000 this year.
“When you’re in this business you have a very short window of time when you have a bully pulpit and you can choose to do things one of two ways,” Finkel says. “You can either sit on your laurels and make a lot of cash and that’s great. Or you can use the people in your life and the things in your life to do something better. I’m very proud of my career, but I want to have something a little more lasting and a little more full. Donick and I can change the dialogue in a community with a simple idea and teach people that there are options other than suicide. I just feel like it’s the biggest opportunity we have at this moment to do something big.”
“It’s so rare when you do fundraising that the thing you’re actually a part of is something you can take control of and actually do something with hands-on, dollar-for-dollar, minute-by-minute results,” Cary adds.
Musack now funds programs in Nantucket and Los Angeles, and has directly purchased over 100 guitars for kids. It currently runs programs at Nantucket Public High School, The Nantucket Boys and Girls Club and The Nantucket Music Center, and is instituting programs at Whaley Middle School and Dominguez High in Compton. Musack is also presently working on building a community program with the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles on 8th Street and Cary, and Finkel wants to foster similar community spaces around the city in the near future.
Fender recently donated several guitars, and Musack is hoping to build relationships with more brands that can help support their cause. Rock and Roll Carnival has no corporate sponsors at present, but in past years they’ve received donations from Golden Road Brewery, Nike, Girl Skateboards and Box Water. All the artists and comedians also perform for free.
“It’s become a central point of the summer, and people get very excited about it,” says Finkel. “It’s like a mini-Coachella. That base is so important to us because our fans know what we’re trying to do and it’s not just about seeing a band. They get what we’re after and that’s important.”
Adds Cary: “We can get these bands together to perform for our friends and we know what we’re doing is a means to an end,” Cary says. “It’s a perfect storm of all the things we believe in. For me and Dave, music fills so many roles.”
Musack’s next event will take place on September 14 at Los Angeles’s Echoplex and feature Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. Tickets run $40-$100. Musack also accepts donations year-round on their website from those who are unable to attend their events.