“When you’re a teenager, music can feel like your only outlet,” says Hollywood executive Donick Cary, speaking while he prepares for his MUSACK organization’s seventh annual Rock n’ Roll Carnival on Oct. 7. And that’s a reality that is close to Cary’s heart. In 2008, the writer/producer, who has worked on television shows such as The Simpsons, Parks & Recreation and Silicon Valley throughout his career, launched MUSACK as a charity focused on providing musical instruments, scholarships and support to underprivileged students. This week, MUSACK’s annual event — a “mini-Coachella benefit concert,” as Cary calls it, that takes place in his “sprawling” Hancock Park, Los Angeles back yard — will feature rock legends, comedians and a curated display of art and memorabilia that will be up for auction. Each year, the proceeds from the benefit concert cover the costs of instruments for financially struggling schools.
MUSACK’s inception came as a response to a teen suicide epidemic that had swept Cary’s hometown of Nantucket, Mass., 10 years ago. News of the small island’s local tragedies deeply affected the producer, who recalls his own experiences on Nantucket which never left him; after reflecting on his teenage years, an idea was born.
“Being a teenager is like being on an island anywhere,” Cary explains, “Though for us, it was in the literal sense, too. The world is scary and isolating in high school and that gets magnified when you’re on an island so detached from everyone else. The thing that got me through those long winters was music.”
At the time of the epidemic, Cary flew back home to talk to the principal of Nantucket High School, his alma mater, offering to help however possible. “I asked the school what they needed and the principal said, ‘I have 10 kids that want to play guitar, but I don’t have any guitars.'”
Today, MUSACK serves 990 students through 13 individualized programs in the U.S., Cuba and Haiti, while the 501(c)(3) has grown into a nimble and effective organization that can tailor its efforts to each school’s specific needs. This translates not only to the 100 guitars and other instruments that have been donated, but also to three college scholarships, rap studios, podcast labs, music teacher salaries and school musicals.
Billy Bragg, The English Beat, Rancid‘s Tim Armstrong, Soul Coughing‘s Mike Doughty and The Slants are all set to perform on Oct. 7 at the Carnival, and comedian Patton Oswalt will also be part of the full day’s lineup of art and music. Tickets start at $175 for general admission and $375 for VIP, which includes dinner, gifts and a VIP bar. Tickets for kids are $25 each and also come with special activities. Art Grist will be leading crafts and teaching art techniques throughout the day, which includes everything from Star Wars face paint to kids learning how to make their own gifs.
The mission deeply resonates with the Carnival’s roster, many of whom join the team each year. Tim Armstrong, who is performing at the Rock & Roll Carnival for the fourth time, is now being billed as Tim In A Tree, since his set is usually performed from the neighbor’s tree. “He’s a soldier for this,” Cary explains. “So many musicians credit their first guitar with saving their lives. We have a chance to provide that first guitar.”
Billboard: How did music influence your life as a student?
Donick Cary: When I first heard about the rapid succession of teen suicides in Nantucket, I began reflecting on my time growing up on the island. It was so isolating, but for me, music is what got me through those long winters. I would listen to this punk compilation This Is Boston, Not L.A., and so many of those lyrics just said what I was feeling, which made me feel like I had a voice. It’s hard to feel understood at that age, but I found music that got it. The Clash, The Kinks, The English Beat — all these bands resonated and gave me something to relate to. I needed that outlet.
What’s different about the way that MUSACK provides that outlet to students?
We take our cues from the kids. We don’t create a formalized program and apply it to every school like some blanket solution. We ask the kids what they want to learn, what they want to do and solve for the school’s individual needs. Sometimes that’s in the form of sheet music and supplies, or teacher salaries, or facilities to practice. The most impact we can have is to support something someone else wants to do. We’re a small charity, which means we can be flexible and listen to what students are asking for.
How do you assess their individual needs? Do you travel to the school?
We’ve been everywhere from Alaska, to Native American reservations in the Midwest, to Haiti and Cuba, meeting with students and talking to teachers, understanding their specific needs. It’s wonderful to speak to the kids directly. Part of why this work is so rewarding is that each program is different.
Were there challenges in working with schools in Cuba?
We ran into several challenges at first. You can’t just bring anything you want into Cuba. Whether it’s the blockade, or just a government official that wants a piece, there are so many administrative hurdles. When The Rolling Stones donated instruments, it took about eight months for the shipment to actually reach the school, due to processing. That’s almost a full school year that had passed.
How did you manage to build a relationship with a Cuban school where you could work with them more easily?
We met the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba to ask how we can bring 20 guitars to Cuba every year. Eventually, MUSACK visited this beautiful music school, Conservatorio Amadeo el Roldan in Old Havana. We talked to the kids there and heard their stories. Because of the blockade, it’s hard to get supplies there. One of the major pain points that stuck out was how hard it was just to replace guitar strings.
But still, we would have to physically carry guitars on multiple flights as personal checked baggage if we wanted to get these instruments to the kids. So we created a program called MUSACK Missionaries, which has created a way for people to get directly involved in our music program in Cuba. If someone is going to Cuba and donates to MUSACK, we’ll supply them with one or two guitars (two being the maximum) and help you personally deliver them to the Conservatorio Amadeo el Roldan. You’ll be able to tour the school, meet their young musicians, maybe even get a performance in. We’ll also provide you with our own guide to Havana’s art scene, galleries and insider info on underground music venues and other spots.
How do you find schools to work with? Are music departments reaching out to you as well?
We take suggestions from communities we work with, and sometimes schools now reach out to us. The school we work with in Haiti was introduced to use through other educational programs we had already worked with. In 2016, we were able to hire a music teacher for a school through Haitian American Caucus.
How do you curate the music and art for the Rock n’ Roll Carnival?
I’ve always loved concerts and live music, so when we decided to host these charity concerts, I just started bugging all the musicians I love in the world. Because, why not? We bug Ringo Starr. We ask everyone. And we get at least 100 people involved every year.
Why do you think artists are drawn to MUSACK specifically?
Musicians know the impact of that first instrument. I remember the first time I told Tim Armstrong about it, it resonated in a deeply personal way. It was the same for Billy Bragg, who wants to share music with people because it’s such an important outlet for these kids.
When a school faces budget cuts, the music department often suffers first. What can we do to prevent that?
We haven’t had a conversation about how serious it is. There needs to be more discussion on music’s importance, because the research is there: it helps kids improve at test-taking, math, languages. Music is a benefit to students in so many ways. Each kid learns differently and needs access to different things to achieve success. If music can play a part, we want to make sure it’s there for them.