In 2007, The Great Band Swap was a one-night, one-time benefit for Bull City Headquarters, a Durham community and performance space run by a half-dozen friends, activists and musicians. The six acts that gathered then traded songs, so that one band would perform one tune written by every other act. It forced bands out of their comfort zones, leading Midtown Dickens to augment their simple folk with rich, sprawling textures.
"Covering all of these different genres really taught us, through close listening of these friends' records, a lot of new musical techniques and a lot about the amazing music that was being created right next door," remembers Kym Register of Midtown Dickens.
Those bands were all heavily involved in Durham's tightly knit anti-folk scene, which revolved around the nonprofit, do-it-yourself arts center.
"It was a blast," remembers Future Kings of Nowhere frontman Shayne Miel, then both a BCHQ organizer and participant in the original Swap. "All the bands were pretty close friends, so we got together and did something fun with each other's music." Besides building that community, participation was a way of giving back to—and, for a while, keeping alive—the space and its scene.
Fast-forward to 2010: BCHQ is done, and Miel and his wife, Rebekah, are back in Durham after a brief stint in Brooklyn, during which Shayne was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Despite aggressive treatments after the cancer spread to his brain, Shayne and Rebekah, a fellow BCHQ organizer and 2007 Great Band Swap participant as Eberhardt, began developing a way to help those in similar situations.
"Reese McHenry from Dirty Little Heaters, Chris Pope from Blood Red River and I all got sick within a couple months of each other," Shayne remembers. "There was benefit after benefit being thrown, and I saw a real pressing need for some kind of extra coverage for musicians in this community, because most of us don't have health care—or if we do, have kind of crappy health care." The result was Friends With Benefits, a nonprofit with a punny title and a serious mission: to assist local musicians in obtaining supplemental health insurance.
"Our goal is to [support] between 10 and 30 musicians in the first couple years, then expand from there," Shayne says. He hopes that the organization will have applications available by summer 2011. "All along the way, we'll keep trying to throw small benefits, because it's going to take a lot of money to try to do this."
Not surprisingly, local bands quickly pitched in for the cause. Nearly 20 locals played the all-day Friends With Benefits kickoff benefit in June; organizers of the Troika Music Festival gave attendees the option to donate funds to Friends when purchasing passes to last month's festival. "The emotional burden of dealing with serious illness or injury is enough without having to worry about how or if to pay for the care you receive," says Pneurotics bassist Mimi McLaughlin, who helped organize both fundraisers. "It's a very generous thing that Rebekah and Shayne have done—putting together something like this while dealing with the enormity of Shayne's own situation."
Midtown Dickens' Register planned the return of the Great Band Swap, which expands to 12 bands over a three-night run at The Pinhook, the downtown Durham venue she helped open after being involved in BCHQ. This year's incarnation features a much broader array of styles than the original, both a testament to the widespread support for Friends With Benefits and the variety of the Durham music scene.
"There's this kind of rare aspect of the music scene in the Triangle—and particularly Durham—where it's big enough to have great bands across a spectrum of genres, but not so big that everything is separated into cliques," notes Hog frontman Rich James. "The band swap is kind of the ultimate celebration of that quality."
Indeed, this year's lineup finds Hog's brutal sludge metal slotted alongside chirpy synth-pop (Cassis Orange), commanding hip-hop (Mosadi Music) and classic indie rock (Embarrassing Fruits)—and that's just one night. While part of the appeal came from the concept itself, the participants were in unanimous support of Friends With Benefits when taking on the challenge.
"We wish there wasn't a need for something like Friends With Benefits," says Pink Flag guitarist Betsy Shane, "but even with the moves toward public health insurance, it just seems like being sick is impossible to weather without a nest egg or a network of friends willing to help out."
Friends With Benefits has seen that network rally to its aid, while hailing Shayne and Rebekah's resolve. "Any time a hardship of a magnitude like this befalls anyone, it's a mark of bravery to be vigilant," James enthuses. "To be not only vigilant but productive and proactive is so rare and impressive it's astounding."
It should be no surprise. As they did three years before, the Miels are just continuing to give back to the Durham music scene—and this time, trying to help, literally, keep it alive.