by Tabassum Siddiqui
Amanda Power’s path to becoming a leader in the music industry started with wanting to follow her heart. Now the Executive Director at The Unison Fund, a non-profit charity that provides counselling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community, Power landed her first job in 2003 as Awards & Event Logistics Manager with the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) after studying marketing at Niagara College.
“I thought, ‘What do I love? What do I want to do with my life when I get up every day? I liked marketing and country music and thought maybe I could combine the two,” Power recalls. “I was naïve enough to think it would be that simple!” 20 years later, she’s still as passionate about music – which she credits to her East Coast upbringing and being raised in a family that appreciated great songwriting.
“My family’s originally from Newfoundland, so I grew up listening to a lot of music. You know, Great Big Sea even before they got signed to a major label, a lot of East Coast music. And my parents listened to Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, John Denver, Dolly and Kenny – all of that was in my house all the time while growing up,” Power says. That appreciation for music and the people who make it (or make it happen) continues to bolster Power’s current role in ensuring those in Canada’s music industry have access to the resources they need to thrive. After years of working in the industry at organizations such as the JUNO Awards, Canadian Music Week and others, Power first joined Unison in 2015 when former Executive Director Sheila Hamilton asked her to come on board to take over the role upon Hamilton’s retirement. “I didn’t even have to hesitate because I knew what Unison was all about. I knew the value the organization had to the industry,” Power says. “Unison combined everything that I wanted – it was music; it was giving back; it was something bigger than myself, it was doing something for my community.”
Power, who had also worked for the charity World Vision Canada and often gave back by sitting on committees and taking on speaking engagements in the industry, was particularly drawn to Unison’s mandate to be there for anyone in the music sector who needed help. “We’re the heartbeat of the industry – we are there to provide support services to so many in our community that have no safety net. So whether it’s financial assistance when you’re in a crisis and about to be evicted, you can’t put food on the table to feed your kids, or if you’re in a medical crisis and you need dental work or health care, Unison is there,” Power explains. “We’re not genre-specific, we’re not front of stage or backstage – we are the entire industry coast-to-coast.”
In 2018 Power became Executive Director of Unison and says during the first few years on the job she “did a little bit of everything,” with few additional staff at the time. Then COVID-19 changed everything – Unison has always been a critical part of the Canadian music ecosystem but became more crucial than ever during the pandemic. “The industry all but shut down – but where most charities saw a drastic decline in donations, we had the complete opposite. Our industry recognized right from the get-go that if they were going to support the music community, they had to support Unison, and we saw massive donations like we had never seen before” Power notes, adding that donations from the music industry, including CMRRA and funding from the Ontario and federal governments was key to ensuring Unison could help music workers whose income had disappeared overnight. Unison had to expand to manage the growing need. Having a larger team in place has allowed Power to focus on “a bigger-picture sustainable plan” for the organization as it continues to find new ways to support musicians, songwriters and music workers through financial and health crises.
Among its usual programs, this year Unison has been administering the Live Music Workers Fund via funding from the federal Department of Heritage, and the Slaight Family Foundation stepped up to support a fund specifically for retired individuals in the music community. “Everybody who we support has come back and said, ‘This is life-changing’ – there’s just so much gratitude that this money has been there for them,” Power explains. “It breaks my heart that so many people are struggling with basic living experiences. I’m a Type 1 diabetic myself; I’m a cancer survivor – I know all the medical challenges you can have and how expensive those can be. So for those individuals who don’t have the safety net or the support to deal with these costs, it can be devastating,” she adds.
Power says she constantly has ideas for new programs to meet the needs of those in the music industry, including medical and dental services, a hearing-health clinic, and a safe-spaces initiative for substance-use challenges when musicians and crew are out on the road. “There are so many different things Unison could be involved with and taking a leadership role in developing across the country. It’s just a matter of finding the financial partners to have the same vision,” she says. In leading Unison’s work, Power works closely with partners across the entire industry, including CMRRA and other music publishing focused organizations such as Music Publishers Canada. “CMRRA has been a partner of ours for a very long time. They’re fantastic at supporting Unison through fundraisers and donations, always bringing out their staff to Unison events and ensuring their team understands what we’re all about so that they can talk about Unison in a meaningful, impactful way to educate others in the industry,” Power says. “They’re always working with us to get the word out there to support us – so we can support them.”
While songwriters are back in the studio and bands out on the road again, the future of the music sector remains uncertain, Power notes, pointing out the reality that many music workers had to find other employment during the pandemic and have decided not to return. Then there’s three years’ worth of backed-up tours coming at us at once, with big-name acts getting booked first – making it much harder for smaller and emerging acts to tour. Despite those challenges, Power remains optimistic about Canada’s music industry – in large part because she knows, just like her, those who work in the sector truly believe in what music is all about: the artists, the songs, the shows, and the creativity that underscores it all. “People do want to get back out there, and they want to thrive in the industry as best they can. I think we will see a lot of growth in the sector, but it will be very challenging to get there,” she says. “Look at the JUNOS and all the first-time nominees they had last year – I think we’re going to see that type of trend continue because people will always want to create. The pandemic was of course such a tough time, but I hope the comeback continues and we emerge from it even stronger.”
That outlook extends to Power’s approach to her own work – two decades after first starting in the music sector, she’s as dedicated as ever to making sure people can do what they love. “When people now say they consider me a leader in the industry, that’s still weird for me. I don’t really feel that way, exactly – I just do my job,” she says with a laugh. “I think what I want for the young people I work with, and others coming up in the industry, is for them to follow their passions – whatever it is that you love, hone in on it and see what you can do to develop that part of your passion into your career.”
To learn more about The Unison Fund’s work or to make a donation, visit UnisonFund.ca.
Unison will be hosting their annual “Holiday Schmoozefest” on Monday, December 12th. Tickets can be purchased here.