Rock the Cause at 10: Minnesota label celebrates a decade of making change through music

Zach Sobiech performing at The Current’s Birthday Party at First Avenue in January 2013. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

Many Minnesotans are familiar with Zach Sobiech’s story. Although the 18-year-old tragically died of cancer in 2013, his legacy still lives on through his song “Clouds.” Sobiech never expected the song to go viral, but thanks to the help of Rock the Cause Records, the Stillwater singer-songwriter’s name is now known all around the world.

Rock the Cause is a nonprofit organization that works with musicians to advocate and raise money for other charities through music. Now celebrating its ten-year anniversary, Rock the Cause has sold more than 500,000 singles and 62,000 albums; and its 26 releases have been streamed more than 30 million times around the world. The Minnesota-based label also does a lot of work in the Twin Cities, getting people involved in their communities and helping them make difference.

A dad who rocks

Scott Herold is the founder and CEO of Rock the Cause, but before he started the label, he was just a dad. In 2006 his daughter, then a senior at Watershed High School, was concerned her school would be shut down due to a lack of funding. She had seen her father organize a charity concert before, and asked him to help her and her classmates put on a show to raise money.

Herold worked with the students and let them take charge of their show. Although they only raised $5,000 of the $100,000 needed, their hard work caught the attention of the head of Minnesota’s Department of Education, who stepped in to help the school, and Herold was inspired by the passion the students had for the project.

While things worked out for his daughter and her classmates, Herold wasn’t doing so well himself. In the midst of working with the students, he lost his job and things weren’t easy.

“I had just been laid off from a $100,000-a-year job,” he remembered. “I was 39 years old, had just bought a house and a brand new car, and I was facing down unemployment. I’d never been unemployed before. I spent the past, from the time I was 27 to the time I was 39, working up the corporate ladder to finally get to that place where I felt like, ‘Wow, I’ve arrived. I have success,’ and it was gone.”

Herold found another job, but meanwhile, he had started working with a lawyer on the concept of Rock the Cause and decided to focus on it full time.

“Clouds” break hearts

When Herold first heard about Sobiech, the label founder was struggling financially after devoting himself to Rock the Cause full time, and was beginning to think he had made the wrong choice. That same day he logged into Facebook and saw a news article about Sobiech and his song “Clouds.”

Moved by his song, Herold reached out to Children’s Cancer Research Fund to get more information. They wanted to release the song, but weren’t sure what to do. Rock the Cause was able to monetize the song and help Sobiech protect his rights. The label also helped facilitate a few concerts for Sobiech, including a sold-out show at the Varsity Theater — where Herold said he saw Zach go from a scared Stillwater teen to a “rock ‘n’ roll god.”

“We were backstage and Zach was about ready to go on. There was some commotion going on and one of the Varsity techs got anxious, went and got Zach, and all of a sudden Zach’s on stage,” remembered Herold. “He’s not supposed to be on stage yet, and we’re supposed to debut his new video ‘Fix Me Up.’ So I went up to Zach and was like, ‘Zach, do you just want to go ahead and start your show, or should we make them wait?’ Zach said, ‘We’re going to make them wait.’ He sat down on the stage with his back turned to the audience and watched his video for the first time. When the video was done, the audience cheered.”

From downloads and streaming alone, Herold said “Clouds” raised about $265,000 for the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund, which helps fund research to find treatments to prevent and cure the disease.

Since working with Sobiech, Rock the Cause has continued to help many other artists on charitable projects — including Minnesota singer-songwriters Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski. Last year, they came up with their own rendition of the classic Christmas song “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” with alternate lyrics that emphasized the importance of sexual consent.

Shortly after they first released the song on SoundCloud, it went viral. Herold saw the amount of activity the song was getting and he knew the streaming platform would pull the track if proper rights weren’t secured, so he contacted Liza and offered to help her get the rights she needed, as well as get the song on sale worldwide.

“[Herold] was just like, ‘You guys have lightning in a bottle and I really want to get this on Rock the Cause,’” said Liza. “That’s what Josiah and I were thinking of doing in the first place when we realized it was blowing up.” Liza and Lemanski hoped, she said, to raise funds for organizations working to end sexual violence and support victims. “Scott was super on board, so I thought their label would be the best avenue for that.”

In the first three weeks the song reached number one on Spotify’s U.S. Viral 50 chart and raised about $3,500 for the Sexual Violence Center and the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence. Both Herold and Liza are hoping the song will continue to raise money this coming holiday season. “It’s hard to tell this early on,” said Liza, “but hopefully people will put it on their Christmas playlists and play it a little more just so we can keep raising money.”

For the kids

It’s success stories like these that inspire Herold to keep working through the struggles he may face while running a nonprofit. Although Rock the Cause does a lot of work to raise money for charitable organizations, its focus is primarily on supporting the next generation.

“We’ve worked with a lot of different charities and a lot of different organizations, but the thing that I like the most is working with the young people,” said Herold. “When we can work with teenagers and young people, it’s an absolute joy and a thrill.”

One of the ways Herold gets them involved in Rock the Cause is through presenting workshops at different schools. In fact, he said most of the work done at Rock the Cause is by young people, and the label’s biggest impact has been at the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA).

At HSRA, about 85 percent of the students have dropped out of other schools after being previously labeled as “unteachable and unreachable.” Many of them became interested in the school after hearing about it from other HSRA students, but the school also has people who go out to find the kids who have dropped out, who are hanging out on the streets, and get them them enrolled in the HSRA, where they have access to recording studios and production rooms.

Herold says these young people are fighting some very challenging things in their lives. Many of them come from tough neighborhoods, work multiple jobs, and have to grow faster than many of their peers. Despite that, these students are motivated to come to school everyday and are growing as musicians while they’re there.

Lewiee Blaze was one of those students. Before he came to HSRA, Blaze said, he struggled to stay motivated in the traditional public school he attended and was never able to connect with any of his teachers. Things changed when a friend of his transferred from their school to HSRA and inspired Blaze to learn more about it.

“He told me, ‘Man, if you have a passion for music and this is what you want to do with your life, then you have to go to this school,’” remembers Blaze. “So he took me on a little tour and when I got there it felt like home. All the teachers greeted me, all the students were very friendly, and it was just very lovely.”

At HSRA, many of the students aspire to become managers, publicists, and record label owners once they graduate. That’s where Rock the Cause comes in. Herold teaches a music business class where he says the skills his students are learning will transfer into real-life jobs.

“I will spend an entire semester showing them how to set up a business, how to do digital music distribution, how to do music publishing, how to do promotion for radio, how to social media. Everything you need to know from the ground up to run a record label as an independent label or as an independent artist and a business person,” said Herold.

“I’ll have kids who will sit right in my class and they’ll come up to me with their cell phones and say, ‘Will you check my work and see if I did this right?’ I’ll look at it, and they sat in my class and they registered their own business with the State of Minnesota — and now they are in business as a record label and a manager. It’s powerful stuff.”

Although Blaze was not able to take Herold’s class, he had heard from his other teachers that Herold was a good resource for students looking to get into the music business. “Scotty has been coming to the school for over ten years helping students out, and a lot of teachers were telling me he’s the plug to get you radio connection[s] or just teach you how to distribute your music to multiple digital websites and things like that.”

Herold and Blaze connected on Facebook. At the time Blaze had just released a music video for his song, “Hard Work and Dedication,” and Herold wanted to help Blaze get to the next level with his song. Herold said he could tell Blaze was skeptical of him, but he went ahead and sent his video to City Pages, where it featured in a weekly post about Minnesota’s top music videos.

“That was really cool because, on my Facebook page, I had always seen City Pages feature some of the top artists in Minnesota,” Blaze said. “When I dropped my ‘Hard Work and Dedication’ song, that was my first original song that I released to the world […] and I’m not the only one he did it for. He did it for other students as well.”

Herold does everything he can to help his students and has even taken some of them on as interns for Rock the Cause, where he lets them take charge of different projects the organization works on. Many of them go on to do great work in their adult lives, some even returning to teach at the school that gave them their start, something Blaze has done himself.

Since this past summer, he has collaborated with Herold on many of  the label’s projects, including the release of 20 years’ worth of recordings made at HSRA. Blaze is working with Herold’s class as they work to promote the story of the school and their music—posting to social media, developing playlists, and reaching out to radio stations. Now he also works at HSRA, where he gets to help develop projects of his own and travel to prestigious universities, like Harvard, as a keynote speaker.

“I never thought that I would be in the position to work at a school at all,” said Blaze. “I never thought about that, but it has helped me grow as an individual and give back to the kids, which is really important. But the main thing is that I have grown as an individual. I’m more mature and I understand more things about life.”

For Herold, it’s students like Blaze who make his work worthwhile.

“When a young person comes to me and says, ‘My life has been changed. My life is different. I have hope, I have future and I see a pathway.’ That’s what is most rewarding to me,” said Herold. “It’s not always writing a check to a charity, it’s not always getting your name in the paper, for me it’s when I look at a young person and that young person has seen a world of potential that they’ve never seen before […] that’s what makes it worthwhile.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the April edition of The Growler.