What do late Twin Cities YouTube star Zach Sobiech, ’60s rock pioneer Donovan of “Mellow Yellow” fame and indie-rockers the Flaming Lips and Sharon Van Etten all have in common? A Minneapolis-based label that’s become one of the most prominent nonprofits in the record industry.
Rock the Cause Records puts out albums to raise money for charities. Started in 2007 by a music fanatic who wanted to help his daughter’s Richfield charter school, the organization jumps to hip international status with Friday’s release of the album “Gazing With Tranquility: A Tribute to Donovan.”
Positive buzz so far includes a sizable Rolling Stone write-up and a premier streaming slot on NPR’s website.
Plus, there was an unexpected 3:30 a.m. phone call from Spain by Donovan Leitch himself to Scott Herold, the man behind Rock the Cause.
“He said he was very excited and flattered,” said Herold, who was jolted awake by the call — and was just as surprised later when the Scottish singer helped select songs for the record.
The tribute to one of rock’s psychedelic pioneers follows Rock the Cause’s success with one of pop music’s most bittersweet stories.
Herold credits Sobiech for much of Rock the Cause’s growing clout. The Stillwater High student’s hit song “Clouds” topped the iTunes singles chart the week he died from a rare form of cancer just after turning 18 in May 2013.
The song helped raise $1 million for Sobiech's cancer research via many private donations as well as downloads and album sales, with Rock the Cause acting as Sobiech’s record label (its nonprofit status guaranteeing better royalty payouts). "Clouds" also earned RTC some new attention in the music industry.
“There’s no question, ‘Clouds’ gave us a foot in the door with a lot of different people,” Herold said.
The Donovan album — benefiting the Huntington’s disease assistance program Huntington’s Hope — features national indie stars the Lips, Van Etten, Lissie and Hamilton Leithauser alongside such Twin Cities acts as Astronautalis, Savannah Smith and Chris Mars.
Zach’s mother Laura Sobiech, who helps oversee the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund, believes the new record is a continuation of her son’s story.
“Perhaps others will be inspired by this form of giving,” said Sobiech, praising Herold as “a man whose mission is to make the world a better place, and not just to line his own pockets.”
Minneapolis entertainment lawyer Ken Abdo — who has represented the likes of Jonny Lang and Michelle Branch — also credited Herold for Rock the Cause’s growing do-gooder reputation.
“Scott is very fair in his deals and makes good on what he says he is going to do,” said Abdo, whose firm handled some of the behind-the-scenes deals for the Donovan project.
“Gazing With Tranquility” follows two other Rock the Cause-issued tributes, to deceased songwriting heroes Vic Chesnutt and Jason Molina. The latter is how veteran Philadelphia music critic Tom Moon — who wrote up the Donovan record for NPR’s website — and many other musicheads outside Minnesota first heard of RTC.
“The best tribute records have multiple built-in audiences: those who revere the artist being honored, and those who revere the artists doing the honoring,” Moon said. The Donovan record fits that mold, he said — “a product that can reach a diverse array of potential audiences.”
Noting the long-rumored friction between Donovan, 69, and Minnesota’s most famous musician son, Herold added, “This can be a more positive Minnesota connection for him than the [Bob] Dylan rivalry.”
Behind the music
Musicians involved were intrigued by the idea of paying tribute to one of rock’s lesser-sung idols. Van Etten’s manager Zeke Hutchins said she’s “a big fan” and was “excited about creating music outside of her own material.” The acclaimed New York rocker sang the rarity “Teen Angel.”
Minneapolis rapper and sometimes rocker Astronautalis said, “There’s a certain unacknowledged ubiquity about Donovan that made this a cool project.” He nabbed the bigger hit “Season of the Witch.”
Other standout tracks include “Mellow Yellow” by local electro-pop wiz Verskotzi and two wildly different versions of “Atlantis” that bookend the album by the Flaming Lips and Mixd Up Kidz, featuring Replacements alum Mars and Minneapolis rapper Carnage.
Astronautalis said working for Rock the Cause was also enticing: “Not only can you trust their good intentions, you can trust that they will get attention and work hard for these projects.”
RTC is run out of Herold’s house near Cedar Lake in Minneapolis with help from interns and volunteers. He takes a monthly stipend and rounds out his income by doing public relations and event promotions for other companies.
A 48-year-old Nebraska native who played in a hair-metal band called Rox in high school, Herold has also organized the annual Glitter Ball charity bash and numerous other events. He filed for Rock the Cause’s 501(c) nonprofit status as part of a 2007 concert fundraiser that raised $5,000 for Watershed High School, then attended by his daughter Jade.
While it’s easy to hold up Rock the Cause as the antithesis of music industry greed, Herold thinks his organization shines a light on the good side of the business.
“A lot of the people in the music industry are burnt out at this point, and they want to do something more meaningful,” he said. “I think it’s one of the reasons more and more people are happy to work with us and answering our calls.”