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Getting To Know MusiCares' Harold Owens: "My Job Is To Inspire Artists To Get The Help They Need"
For many, the work MusiCares does to support music people with health and human services is not only the heart of the Recording Academy, it’s live-saving. And while the four-star rated charity organization boasts more than 10,000 clients served every year, the difference is truly made on an individual level, by individuals. For many years now, one of those difference-makers behind MusiCares' magic has been senior director Harold Owens.
As a musician and recovering addict, Owens knows firsthand the challenges and struggles that can come hand-in-hand with a life in music. Over the years and every single day, he’s quietly helped countless of music people fight back against addiction. Whether backstage at a music festival running one of MusiCares' Safe Harbor rooms, or on the phone during the small hours of the night with someone in need, Owens has become one of the most trusted and respected people in the music community. We sat down with Owens to talk about his personal path to recovery, the role he plays with MusiCares and the poignant advice he has for musicians concerned about "the creativity myth."
This year marks 30 years of recovery for you, which is remarkable! At what point in your personal journey did you decide you wanted to help others?
My sobriety date is October 1, 1988. One week before, I had just lost a job as a non-fiction book buyer at UCLA. I was living in my car and I felt like a complete failure. I was at that place of despair and hopelessness all addicts face at one time or another. Feeling like I had run out of options, I tried to commit suicide that night but even failed at that. Fortunately, the next day I got into a treatment program and decided I would do whatever it took to stay sober. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I just knew that I couldn’t go on living the hell that I was living. I ended up hanging around that treatment center so long that they finally gave me a job as a chemical dependency technician. It was then that I began to understand that I really cared for and enjoyed working with people struggling with addiction. After completing a program at UCLA for alcohol and drug abuse counseling, I began working my way up in the field eventually becoming the Program Director at the Exodus Treatment Center in Marina Del Rey, C.A.
You have a long and storied history with MusiCares. Can you tell us how you initially got involved?
During the time I was at Exodus we were nationally recognized and respected as one of the few treatment centers that had strong ties with entertainment community. From time to time Irving Azoff would send us a few of his clients that needed treatment. In 1999 there was an opening at Musicares for an addiction recovery specialist. I met with Mike Greene, past NARAS CEO, and with the recommendation of Irving I got the job.
You're a well-known—and much-loved—presence in the music community, a "go-to" for support for a lot of music people. How would you describe your role with MusiCares today?
For about a year I was the only person in the L.A. office and Debbie Carroll, our VP of Musicares, was in Nashville. Since that time she has endeavored to dramatically increased outreach and education initiatives that we provide to the music community. Today we serve approximately 10,000 clients every year. In addition to addiction recovery services we grant short-term funding for a variety of unforeseen circumstances such as medical, dental, rent, therapy and utilities, among others. We also provide custom hearing protection to thousands of musicians every year at large music festivals around the country. The one area that has not changed is when people call for help either on their own or they are prompted by bandmates, family or the legal system, my job is still to intervene, encourage and inspire artists to take that first step and get the help they need.
I’m sure each case is unique, but when it comes to addiction recovery, what are the most common challenges musicians face? And what are some positive similarities in the people you consider major success stories?
Certainly the "creativity myth" is a factor that many artists voice when I talk to them. Some artists have never composed or played music without the use of drugs or alcohol in their entire life. The fear they will "lose their creativity if they get sober" is one that I typically respond with is, "You are creative in spite of your addiction." The truth is that some artists have compromised their creativity long ago.
Another challenge is that for musicians addiction is an occupational related hazard by virtue of their working environment. Another challenge that I always get is, "I want to get help, but I have a tour coming up and can’t go right now"… "I have a lot of mouths to feed…I just can’t go in right now"… "My band and everyone else depends on me."
The fear they will "lose their creativity if they get sober" is one that I typically respond with is, "You are creative in spite of your addiction."
You've spoken before on stigmas surrounding artists and rehab in certain communities, for instance, in the hip-hop or rock worlds. Do you think there's been progress in recent years in breaking these stigmas? What work is still left to be done?
The only two foundations to address addiction for the music industry are MusiCares and the Musicians Assistance Program (MAP). I remember attending a gathering of music industry professionals held the Academy in 1995 assembled by Mike Greene following the death of Shannon Hoon from Blind Melon. At that meeting were some of the most prominent names in the music industry who finally came together to discuss the stigma of addiction and the losses we suffer every year. As more and more industry professionals come out about their own struggles with addiction and/or mental health issues the better inroads we can make in that particular genre. While we need to continue outreach in all music genres, we have increased our outreach to the classical, hip-hop and touring communities.
What are some positive similarities in the people you consider major success stories?
The people I see who make it are those that take an active part in their recovery. They take time out of their career to focus on their recovery by attending 12-step meetings or other support groups. Many take advantage of our weekly musician support groups held in seven key music cities in the US. Some may choose to take someone on the road with them for added support.
MusiCares provides assistance grants for a variety of medical, dental, psychiatric and low-income grants to the music community. You don't need to be a musician to take advantage of our services. We also help engineers, managers, touring personnel, promoters and producers, to name a few.
Lastly, what do you enjoy doing outside of your work to relax, unwind and recharge?
Three years ago I was approached by a woman named Mary Fanaro who had no music experience but wanted to open a music school in Rwanda, a country ravaged by genocide 20 years earlier. It is a project I am very involved with and since that time we have opened two schools in Rwanda. The first year we opened our first in an orphanage in Kigali the capital, and the following year we opened the first music school in a UN Refugee Camp located in Rwanda on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The kids are amazing and I go back and forth two or three times a year. It is one of the highlights of my life.