The lead singers of your favorite local band may have great voices, but chances are they can't afford even a checkup of their vocal cords. Going without health insurance is a gritty gamble many musicians take, and their losses can be huge.
The latest victim: Portland's post-punk band the Prids. After a freak tire blowout while the band was driving June 20 between shows near Fresno, Calif., the Prids and two of their significant others now face $109,000 in mounting medical bills.
Only two of the six band members have health insurance. And even with $10,000-plus in donations raised so far by an online account and fundraising concerts, lead singer David Frederickson tells WW he's probably going bankrupt.
Frederickson, 34, had to be airlifted from the crash with injuries including a broken collarbone and ribs. The helicopter ride alone cost $12,000.
"I don't even know how any of this could cost so much—$40 for every pill, $100 for every dose of morphine," Frederickson says. "I just don't know how they can possibly charge this kind of money."
Unfortunately, the painful lesson isn't a new one for local musicians. As just one example, when Curtis Salgado was diagnosed with cancer, hehad to turn in 2006 to fundraisers to cover expenses because he was among the 47 million Americans—or one in six under the age of 65—who lack health insurance. Likewise, there will be another fundraiser Saturday, Aug. 23, at Someday Lounge for the Prids.
Frederickson doesn't know a single musician—or even a friend working at music stores around town—who has insurance.
John Vecchiarelli, 47, a Portland-based songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, was initially uninsured two years ago when he learned he needed major surgery.
"I was out of commission for six months and the down time was hard on my career," he says. "I could still sell records, but I couldn't tour, which was my bread and butter."
The president of the 675-member American Federation of Musicians union in Portland, Bruce Fife, says full-time musicians can't get insurance because they have a different employer every night of the week. The only musicians Fife knows who have health care built into their jobs are the 77 members of the Oregon Symphony.
As for musicians who work other jobs but lack insurance through that employment, Fife says their only option is an expensive individual plan that is usually unaffordable.
Last week, AFM Local 47 in Los Angeles got a group health insurance opportunity through Kaiser by piggybacking on a giant union group, the United Industrial Service Workers.Fife says that's not going to happen here because Local 99 in Portland hasn't found a union willing to participate. Fife says he'd prefer to work with other unions to pass a universal health plan for all Americans.
Lack of access to health insurance for musicians is particularly risky because they travel a lot, exposing them to long, late-night drives after a performance to the next gig in another town.
Fife points out that musicians often top the American Federation of Labor's list of most dangerous occupations. Yet many forgo health insurance.
"It's too expensive," Frederickson says. "If you focus a lot on money being a full-time musician, you're just going to end up depressed."
In a study of 212 local musicians completed this month, the musicians union found the average annual income for Portland musicians is $8,721, about 16 percent short of what's considered the federal poverty level of $10,400 for a single person.
Even though there doesn't seem to be an end to the bills from the accident, Frederickson says at least it feels good to know people are giving.
When the Prids' Mistina Keith (bass/vocals) first saw Frederickson after the accident, she said to him, "This is the only way our band's going to be popular." See for yourself when the Prids return to the stage Sept. 27 at Doug Fir.
The Aug. 23 benefit for the Prids will feature the Mint Chicks, Soft Tags and the Oblik at Someday Lounge at 9 pm with a $6-$20 sliding scale. Visit myspace.com/theprids to view the full schedule of benefit shows or to donate.