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As Austin Musicians Struggle to Make Ends Meet, Many Forego Health Insurance

Veronica Zaragovia/KUT News
Kalu James, left, plays with his band member JT Holt, on Thursday nights at the Continental Club in Austin.

In Austin, the music industry generates almost $2 billion a year for the local economy, but some musicians say they’re lucky if they leave a gig with $5 in their pocket.

Fewer people are willing to pay cover charges to watch live music, but rent keeps rising in Austin.

As a result, a lot of musicians forego health insurance, and now some are worrying about how Austin will keep musicians here if they can’t afford basic expenses.

On Thursday evenings at the Continental Club, as Kalu James tunes his guitar and starts his mic check, it looks like he’s living the life as a musician. The Continental Club’s neon sign glows above him and the signatures of hundreds of music fans are scribbled on the walls of this historic Austin venue.

When he’s not at the club, he’s hustling to pay his bills, though.

“Being a full time musician means you have three other side jobs,” James says. 

Off stage, musicians like James are moving couches for people on the weekends.

“Myself, I do a bunch of other menial jobs just to be able to continue to practice what I love to do,” James says.

James grew up in Nigeria. He says he moved to Austin as fast as he could —about eight years ago. Last year he didn’t have health insurance. This year, he got health insurance. His premium is $22 a month, after the $200 tax subsidy he got through the Affordable Care Act. While $22 might not seem like a lot, when you earn roughly $15,000 dollars a year, it can be a challenge. He got help paying his premium through a local non profit.

Credit Veronica Zaragovia/KUT News
Kalu James and band mate J.T. Holt play a Thursday night residency at the Continental Club in Austin. James was uninsured until this year, when he got health insurance with help from the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.

“We still have to worry about counting the quarters and the pennies when we leave these venues and yeah, health insurance and all these things to take care of yourself is certainly something that doesn’t come by quite easily for us,” James says.

But the “live music capital of the world” is making far more than quarters and pennies from music.

In 2012, the city estimated commercial music industry pumped $1.6 billion into the local economy every year. The city suspects that number is higher now, but Austin, the 11th largest city in the U.S., has a creative class that is struggling to afford life here.

“A lot of people didn’t understand just how dire that situation is, so we have hard data that shows it,” Rowling says.

Nikki Rowling is the founder and CEO of the Titan Music Group. Her company did the research behind the Austin Music Census, which came out in early June. The survey showed, among other things, that 20 percent of Austin musicians live below the federal poverty level, and more than 50 percent qualify for Section 8 housing subsidies.

“Most of them are living piled a number of people to a house or an apartment in order to afford to be able to pay rent, and they’re also looking for a specific type of job that allows flexibility for touring,” Rowling says.

According to the Austin Music Census, almost 19 percent of all respondents have no health insurance. Earlier this month, Rowling presented the findings at an event at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

Organizers took questions from the public.

“I’ve had a cavity in my mouth that I just deal with when it comes and when it goes,” said musician Joshua Logan, one of the people in the crowd. “What would you recommend to someone who makes more than $30,000 — who wants to work in everything that they can to do what they love?

Reenie Collins, the executive director of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, or HAAM, answered his question.

Credit Veronica Zaragovia/KUT News
Tiffani Theiss and Justin Marks of the band Justif have a residency at House Wine in South Austin. While they're both HAAM members, they don't have commercial health insurance.

To qualify for help through HAAM, uninsured musicians who are single must earn $29,000 a year or less, they have to live in Travis County or the surrounding areas within a 50-mile radius, among other qualifications. Those who do qualify get low cost care that includes primary care, dental, vision, hearing and mental health. Since it was founded 10 years ago, the health alliance has helped 3,500 musicians.

“More than 88 percent of our membership earns less than $15,000 a year,” Collins says. “We would say that probably close to 60 percent of our membership doesn’t even qualify for the subsidies that are given through the Affordable Health Care Act.”

HAAM's uninsured members include Tiffani Theiss and Justin Marks, who together are in the band Justif. 

"We decided to move to Austin because we heard it was a music mecca," says Theiss, who moved with Marks to Austin from New York. They've chosen to solely make their income from playing music. They say they can't afford commercial health insurance.

"You can't worry about things that aren't here yet, or you'll die an early death," Theiss says. "What's gonna happen is gonna happen, and thankfully for right now HAAM has our backs."

Marks says they're both in their 30s and feel pretty healthy. 

"In the back of our minds there's always worry, but in the forefront, like Tiffani says, you can't worry about it," he says. 

That means HAAM has to raise a lot of money to ensure its members have access to low-cost care. 

In May, Tom Caven shared a unique perspective on the problem, while backstage at the Moody Theater.

“Some people feel like you just aughta work hard enough to have health insurance, but working in a safety net hospital like I do, you see people that come in, they’re working really hard,” Caven says. “Working sometimes two and three jobs to support their family.”

Credit Veronica Zaragovia/KUT News
The Stray Bullets competed at the Corporate Battle of the Bands on May 8, 2015 at the Moody Theater of ACL Live to raise money for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.

Caven is an executive at the Seton network of hospitals. He spent almost 20 years treating patients. Caven is in a band himself — the Stray Bullets. He spoke as his band prepared to compete on stage at a Battle of the Bands to raise money for HAAM.

“Travel anywhere in the United States, you tell them you’re from Austin they almost always say, ‘Austin City Limits,’ you know? So this is very much the identity and if we lost that we’d just be another up and coming city — with no personality,” he says.

But the music census out this month shows that personality might be at risk. Nikki Rowling of the Titan Music Group points to HAAM as one lifeboat for musicians. HAAM partnered with Central Health, the local hospital district and health insurance provider Sendero this year to pay the health insurance premiums of 300 musicians who qualified for tax subsidies. That’s the same program musician Kalu James qualified for.

“Once again that’s HAAM realizing that although Affordable Care Act is something that is the law now, most musicians probably still can’t afford that,” he says.

HAAM hopes to expand that program next year, but a case before the U.S. Supreme Court could put an end to those tax subsidies for health insurance. The court’s expected to rule in the next couple of days. If it strikes down the subsidies, HAAM may have to find other ways to keep these musicians insured. 

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