How three star-studded benefit concerts came together in Chicago, NYC, & LA to support abortion rights
Last year when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, stating that the right to abortion in the U.S. was no longer guaranteed, a lot of people had a similar reaction. At first, many experienced a well of emotions ranging from anger to devastation, and shortly after, they asked themselves, "What can we do?"
From activists to citizens on the ground, many have since gotten involved to ensure those in need of an abortion can afford and get the health care they need safely — including people in the music industry. That drive to do something is exactly what led to booking agency Ground Control Touring and the nonprofit NOISE FOR NOW to team up for a benefit show, which was held and sold out in three separate cities on Jan. 28, seeing all proceeds donated to local abortion organizations in each location. In LA, acts like Dummy, Riki, Current Joys, and more performed, while Barry Johnson from Joyce Manor DJ-ed; New York City saw Downtown Boys, Horsegirl, Ian Sweet, Wet, and others take the stage; and Chicago featured a lineup including Akenya, Bnny, and more, with Post Animal DJ-ing.
Read more: How Cavetown is helping the LGBTQ+ community in their journeys with This Is Home Project
The events were a success, and there was a palpable rebellious energy at the NYC show held at Bowery Ballroom. Every artist expressed excitement in playing the event — and it felt invigorating to hear them declare, "Abortion is health care," followed by cheers in the crowd. It was a true feat of what organizing can look like, with QR codes posted about the space with links to donate and find resources and free morning-after pills scattered around the bar and every tabletop.
[Downtown Boys / Photo by Emilio Herce]
Alisa Preisler, an NYC-based agent at Ground Control Touring, explains that the idea for the benefit came together because, after feeling initially depressed by the ruling, she thought her company could take action. At the same time, agency associate Haley Scofield from the LA office had a similar idea. Because one of their co-workers had a friend who worked for NOISE FOR NOW, a nonprofit that helps connect talent with grassroots organizations and campaigns supporting reproductive justice, they reached out to them in mid-July. The organization was "excited and wanted to be involved as soon as [Ground Control] hit them up."
It was a serendipitous connection, given NOISE FOR NOW's history. Amelia Bauer, the nonprofit's co-founder and executive director, says she felt a lot of anxiety after the 2016 election and wanted to get involved, eventually deciding to focus on reproductive justice. After relocating to Santa Fe, New Mexico from NYC where she lived as an artist for decades, she connected with a local abortion rights group and had the idea to turn their upcoming gala into a benefit show. "I suggested that we try to do a concert because I went to a lot of benefit concerts in New York, and I knew it could be a successful model," she says. It was: The event featured a lineup of acts like Bon Iver and TV on the Radio at the Santa Fe Opera, where it raised over $75,000.
At the encouragement of the booking agent she worked with on the event, Bauer continued hosting benefit concerts, and eventually launched NOISE FOR NOW to keep collaborating with talent on similar events, merch, and other campaigns. "The reason I started with benefit concerts, and it's still [my and NOISE FOR NOW's] main focus, is that I think that there was something so powerful about having [an artist] stand up onstage and say, 'Abortion is health care,' or, 'This is a human right,' and have 2000 people screaming and cheering,” Bauer says. “It's a celebratory act of — well, now defiance — but also defense of human rights."
[Frankie Cosmos with Ian Sweet / Photo by Emilio Herce]
As for the recent benefit, Preisler says the team settled on a January date since the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade's ruling fell on the 22nd of the month. In many ways, it ended up working in their favor. "The news cycle is so crazy, and people lose focus on things. I feel [like] just doing anything to remind people, 'Hey, this is still how shit is. We're still angry, and we still have to help how we can,'" Preisler says.
Holding the event in three different cities on the same night also made it feel all the more powerful. Bauer had always wanted to do something of the sort because of how much it "heightens the message." Beyond that, though, it was critical that attention was brought to reproductive rights organizations and clinics specific to each city. "Independent clinics provide three out of five abortions in the U.S., but because they don't have brand recognition or are working with a very small staff, they don't have the capacity to reach larger audiences," Bauer says. "I love [that with this benefit], we're able to be that bridge."
When it came to curating the lineups, Preisler says Ground Control aimed to make it as "diverse as possible," both in terms of the kind of music and artists' backgrounds, and they considered booking both bigger names and giving up-and-comers a platform. She says they wanted to amplify "women, women of color, nonbinary artists, and people who have been very outspoken or have made a platform of social issues." While they didn't want to focus too heavily on adding cisgender men to the bill, she says it was important to book some because "everyone needs to be in this conversation, and everyone's affected by this."
There was one roadblock in booking the benefit, though. Preisler explains that it was hard to find sponsors for the event to potentially offer the artists a stipend since all proceeds were to be donated. "We would talk to certain companies, and they were really interested, and then it boiled down to them talking to their legal departments, and the legal departments are just like, 'No, we can't touch this issue.'"
[Downtown Boys / Photo by Emilio Herce]
Ultimately, it was still a successful night, and Preisler says the event was "invigorating" for her and the Ground Control team to work. In fact, they hope to continue hosting similar events. For her, though, it was especially thrilling to get Providence, Rhode Island-based punks Downtown Boys on the lineup because of how much social justice means to them — and because she still remembers signing them years ago. “I love how political they are. This is why I want to work in music. This is the type of music I want to be working with, the type of musicians I want to be working with," she says.
Wearing a bomber jacket with "Choose life: Have an abortion" printed on the back, Downtown Boys singer and lead lyricist Victoria Ruiz shared with the crowd her own abortion story when the band took the stage. As she spoke, the band played a defiant set that ended with her saying, "When you liberate yourself from respectability politics, you kill the monster," and the crowd erupted in cheers, feeling as if everybody in the room was rallying behind her and so many others.