Lack Of Social Safety Net Tying Many Musicians To Day Jobs

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"I fantasize sometimes that my musical career would hit gold and help us escape these grim realities, but it's not something I really expect to happen."

There are few issues in the current political climate more fraught with contention than whether or not the U.S. government will take a more active role in securing health insurance for the population. President Obama's signature legislation is currently 2-2 in the legal system, and a Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the law will almost certainly be the final say on the matter.

Many Republicans in the House of Representatives have vowed to gut funding from the law's initiatives, and thus the debate and effect of government health-care reform will be going on for the foreseeable future.   Rocks Off has a theory, namely that fear of being without health insurance may be crippling the career of the next generation of rock stars. Even with health insurance, the price of care can be astronomical. $500 for an MRI, even on a good plan, is not something the average punk rocker can afford, not to mention the long-term care required by cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV or other chronic conditions.

Consider the career of Shudder to Think, a band that might well have been as one of the most iconic acts of the '90s had not Hodgkin's Lymphoma struck singer Craig Wedren. Wedren conquered the disease after several years and remains in remission to this day, but Shudder's label, Epic, offered little to no help and the career of a band that Jeff Buckley and Pearl Jam cited as a major influence stalled.

Would access to better care through good insurance have allowed the band to continue its momentum? It's impossible to know.   It's undeniable that Houston is poised to begin launching some musicians into serious contention for stardom, but how many of them are being held back by an inability to leave day jobs providing health benefits?  

"I can tell you for a fact that it keeps musicians locked in a day job," says Lee Alexander. "After college, when I moved back to Houston I worked with a guitarist from Scotland. He actually worked as a full-time musician for 6-8 years prior to getting a regular job here in the States.

"He talked about how easy it was to make a healthy living solely as a musician in Aberdeen, but that socialized health care is what gave him the freedom to do that. Musicianship is after all, temporary verbal contract labor - no health benefits offered there no matter where you live. I listened with a great deal of envy back then and kept my day job because precisely because I was worried about the 'what if' when it came to health. 

"There are chances I never took, opportunities I missed out on as a musician back then because of that dilemma."   To support his family, Alexander works for the Katy school district during the day, and pursues his music at night and on the weekends. He sees the lack of aid available to musicians and other artists as a sign of the nation's chronic underappreciation of the arts, something he's almost certainly going to see firsthand as the Texas school system braces for massive spending cuts in the wake of a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall.   "We give our prisoners free healthcare, but our artists are left to rot," says Alexander. "What kind of sense does that make?"  

Other local musicians are also hoping for a move towards the more socialized system of Europe and Canada. Christian Arnheiter of The Hates remains one of the most recognizable and legendary figures of the Houston punk scene. Now retired from working for the City of Houston, he receives a small health plan as part of his retirement package.

However, Arnheiter and his fiancée, Alexis, continue to live hand to mouth, and also in fear of a return of Alexis' cancer.   "My fiancée is a sweet, loving, caring woman but her situation is even direr, as she has fought cancer and will likely have to again," he says. "Because of this, we watched the health-care debates with great interest. To say that we were disappointed with the death of the Public Option was an understatement. 

"And even though there is some good that came of Obamacare, insurance companies will be able to penalize for preexisting conditions for another three years. As it is, we are waiting for the prerequisite six months to go by before she can apply for Federal Preexisting Condition coverage because adding her to my insurance is more expensive. 

"I fantasize sometimes that my musical career would hit gold and help us escape these grim realities, but it is not something I really expect to happen. I don't mind being a starving artist, as it were, because I love the music that I play. But I wish that it was easier for people to pursue their dreams without worrying about what happens if they break their leg along the way."   Music, like most artistic careers, is by nature a leap of faith, the painful transition from dedicated hobby to budding venture is the most dangerous should something terrible happen. Bipartisan praise has been given to at least one aspect of Obama's health-care plan, that of allowing children to remain on their parents' insurance plans until age 26.

Considering how young most musicians are when they begin their careers, this could be an invaluable safety net that could possibly be the difference between success and failure. The coverage could allow musicians to remain with low-paying but flexible jobs that don't offer benefits, but that allow them freedom to tour and gig, rather than taking on more demanding jobs that offer full health insurance.  

"One great thing about the law is that I can stay on my parents plan for another year, so if I were out on tour or doing music full time, I could still have health care under my parents plan," says James Caronna.

"I've never heard of anyone saying they had hesitations about doing music because of health care, it's usually a wife and kids that ruin a good musician," he adds. "The bad thing about the law is I believe it requires you to have health care, in the same way that you are required to have car insurance, which on a struggling musician's salary is bullshit!"   Other musicians such as Michael Lee agree that the fear of being without coverage is not likely to affect aspiring rock stars to risk it all. However, he does acknowledge the fact that tragedy can still strike without warning and utterly derail an artist and destroy families who have gambled on a music career.   "That's why you always hear of so many benefit concerts to help fellow musicians who have been injured or suffer from some serious illness," said Lee. "There are some great associations that help musicians in particular when these events occur, but that doesn't always save the family or heal the pain.

"Unfortunately, I think it's something that comes with the territory for musicians and other artists alike. And it will likely continue with or without Obamacare. Until you reach a true star status, health care just isn't on the nightly set list!"   The price of individual plans, especially the low coverage cheap plans that many musicians without benefits from a good day job use, are projected to go up. Partly because of the law's aim to phase out bare-bones plans that rarely provide little protection in case of a serious illness or injury.

Regardless of your plan, however, the cost of healthcare continues to rise to astronomical heights, and fear of being without protection is keeping pace. It's possible that between the two you will find many young, brilliant musicians unable or unwilling to make that final leap into full-time rock and roll needed to secure their careers.

Like the rest of the country, musicians wait to see how government health-care reform will affect them.

Come back tomorrow to discover local musicians' reactions to one rap legend's idea for funding his health care.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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