A New Cause for Funders: Helping Bands Fix the Tour Van

Pabst Blue Ribbon making grants to indie bands has to be peak hipster, certainly in the context of philanthropy. But then again, given how tough it is for musicians to make ends meet, it’s not a bad idea for a cheap beer company to help out. 

Lead singer smashed his teeth during a show and needs dental work. Drum kit’s busted. The van won’t start. Studio time is too expensive. If you’ve ever been in a band, or just read that Henry Rollins book, this type of financial struggle will sound familiar. 

It is not the typical kind of thing that a foundation will cover. Music philanthropy is more often aimed at restoring education, or supporting performance halls, or funding symphonies. But musicians are a varied bunch, from session player to anarchist punk, and making the finances work is tough for most of the lot. 

Enter PBR, with the somewhat eyeroll-inducing PBR Music Foundation. The brewer recently launched the company sponsored philanthropy, and is inviting bands and solo artists to apply for grants to be awarded monthly. The examples they give of potential causes include treatment for music related injury (such as a guy who got hit in the face with a beer bottle), new equipment, tour expenses, filming a music video to promote an album, etc. Applicants can apply with a short, low-tech video, after which the good folks at PBR will research the legitimacy of the bands and make their decisions. 

The launch is further explained in a video featuring a genie emerging from a PBR can, and one guy wearing glasses, a cardigan, a V-neck T-shirt, AND a mustache, which is a little on the nose. The whole thing is admittedly, and intentionally, a little silly. But it’s also serious. 

It’s tough to make a living from artistic pursuits, and music is no exception. The nonprofit Future of Music Coalition conducted a study that found the vast majority of musicians are working or middle-class earners, and more than half of musicians surveyed make less than $25,000 a year from their music, and about a quarter make less than $5,000. Another FMC survey found that in 2013 (pre-Obamacare), 43 percent didn’t have health insurance.

It’s an unsettled debate whether technology is resulting in musicians making more or less money as a whole, but making a living remains a complicated affair. Revenue streams are constantly changing, and most artists rely on a cobbled-together hybrid of several income sources. That means instability, and yes, a lot of that should be remedied by a stronger social safety net. But even if it were, some of the expenses would fall through the cracks of income sources.

So even though PBR is taking a self-parodying tone, there’s a legitimate need there for more financial security among people who play in bands. 

Why Pabst? The company has been walking a fascinating tightrope ever since the early 2000s, when it transformed from struggling blue collar domestic to the cool kids’ beer of choice. They’ve had to get creative to maintain their hip market presence, while staying far away from the advertising stink of mass market domestics like Bud. 

In that light, the rock scene has been very good to Pabst. Beer and music have a long and passionate relationship, and many bar shows happen in front of a sea of PBR tallboys. 

By giving back to some of the bands playing those shows, they increase goodwill and gain credibility by putting their stamp on real, struggling musicians. And maybe they’ll even land some more killer product placement.