Sick Sounds: Musicians and Healthcare

Sick Sounds: Musicians and Healthcare

By now the debate around healthcare reform in this country has reached a cacophony.  There are the usual suspects: the wheeling and dealing on Capitol Hill, the polished spin of the pundits, but with the added fun of the Palin-clones invading town hall meetings (how much is big pharma really paying these people?), there seems to be one segment of people whose critical voice has been totally lost.

That, quite bluntly, is the voice of the uninsured.  Those 45 million Americans who have no platform for the same reason that they don't have insurance--they're broke.  But past all the white noise being created in the media, you actually don't have to go too far to hear the voice of an uninsured citizen.  As a matter of fact, it might be as easy as turning on your stereo.

That's because, despite the image of musicians living a charmed and carefree life filled with parties and endless gratification, most have had a hard time getting health care.  The number of uninsured or underinsured among the ranks of artists is staggeringly high.  According to LA-based Rock A Mole Productions, who conducted a year-long research poll into musicians and healthcare, that number is somewhere around 96%.

Let me say that again.  Ninety-six percent of musicians are uninsured or underinsured.  Can you imagine that statistic applied to any other profession?  Try to picture 96% of teachers being uninsured.  Or 96% of construction workers.  It wouldn't fly with them and it shouldn't fly for artists.

If one thinks about it, that number actually makes sense--at least in the twisted logic of this system.  Art is valued only insofar as it can sell in our society.  As such, only those select few artists who manage to rake in the dough for the biz are the ones taken care of.  Madonna and Bono don't have to worry about health insurance.

But if you're like most artists--in debt to your label, receiving crap royalties and playing gig after gig just to pay the rent--then it's no exaggeration to say that you're working your ass off to keep your head above water.  Some might counter that at least you're passionate about what you do, and they'd be right.  But passion doesn't put food on the table, and it sure as hell won't pay for your chemo.

Years ago, I remember watching footage and interviews from a show in Los Angeles--assembled by the inimitable Patti Smith.  It was a benefit to bring attention to the cause of musicians' healthcare.  In particular, I recall an interview held with Dave Lowery of the band Cracker (if you're a child of the '90s like me, then you'll remember that Cracker were part of the surge of alternative in the early part of the decade, and hit it big with their single "Low").  Lowery recounted that a few years prior, Cracker's bass player had lost his pinky finger in an accident.  Because he had no insurance, he had to pay out of pocket to have it reattached--an expensive procedure for sure, but failing to shell out the bucks would have essentially meant that he had no way of playing music or making a living.

Benefits like this are no rarity.  According to Rock A Mole, 87% of musicians have played a show such as this to raise money for a fellow musician without health insurance.  As a music journalist, I receive at least a few emails a week notifying me of yet another show of this nature.  A punk drummer who has cancer.  An emcee recently diagnosed with MS.  A jazz-guitarist who needs help paying for his AZT.  The list goes on.

There is, of course, an alternative to these benefits.  Musicians in Sweden, France, Canada, Germany and other countries don't have to worry about what might happen to them if they fall ill.  These countries have universal healthcare.  No worrying about how to pay the medical bills--because nobody is allowed to profit off of human sickness.

It's a system that goes far beyond President Obama's increasingly watered-down "public option."  The massive bailouts to Wall Street could have easily paid for the first steps toward a universal, single-payer system.  

Predictably, this is the one option not being discussed in the mainstream debate.  Obama, once a vocal supporter of single-payer, backtracked on it before he even hit the campaign trail.  And though congress seem to have their ears and wallets wide open for the big insurance companies, they seem reluctant to listen to the vast majority of Americans who support a universal healthcare plan.

Which is why it's time for our side to turn up the volume on this demand.  To make our voices the loudest and unavoidable out there.  And when the healthcare CEO's scream at us to turn down that racket, we'll respond by appropriating the old adage: "if it's too loud, you're too rich."

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (  He is a regular columnist for The Society of Cinema and Arts and  He has also appeared at Socialist Worker, ZNet, MR Zine and several other sites and publications.

He can be reached at