Hand-to-Mouthville

Health and Legal Services for Musicians



photograph by Jason Stout



On the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend Mandy Mercier collapsed. "I was on my way to Kerrville to play with Ray Wylie Hubbard and suddenly found myself unable to move," recalls the local keyboardist/singer-songwriter. Rushed to Brackenridge Hospital, Mercier was found to have a blood count that was half that of a healthy person. She was given two transfusions and told to stay overnight. The next day, after doing a scan, doctors found Mercier to have a massive abdominal tumor. She later had surgery at the Renaissance Women's Center and the tumor, fortunately benign, was removed. In the process, however, the insurance-less Mercier racked up medical bills totaling approximately $14,000.

To help defray her enormous expenses, the local music community rallied. Tina Rose and Gary Primich organized a benefit for Mercier with participants like Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Marcia Ball, and more. To promote the event, organizers got KGSR and the Chronicle to donate free advertising time and space. The benefit show at the Broken Spoke earlier this month, which by benefit standards was a tremendous success, raised $4,000 for Mercier.

Unfortunately, the help that Mercier describes as "overwhelming" wasn't nearly enough to cover her medical bills; in fact, the $4,000 raised was just enough to cover her living expenses while she was at home recuperating. Obviously, even very successful benefits are often not enough to solve the beneficiary's problems, financial or otherwise. And while "benefiting" is a fairly popular local pastime, it still can't take the place of a music business infrastructure built specifically to deal with such problems.

Yet, as Austin and a good portion of the globe is plunged into the dreaded El Niño winter, the plight of the "less fortunate" -- as they're charitably referred to during the holidays -- is magnified. Traditionally a time of year when being indigent actually strikes a sympathetic chord with the more fortunate, winter finds many social services and nonprofit foundations trying to keep the homeless and poor from freezing and/or starving. Seeing as how many local musicians consider the $50 they're pulling down a week for live gigs as their main source of income, both "indigent" and "less fortunate" are apt phrases in our music community.

Surprise, surprise, there actually exists a skeletal infrastructure of organizations both big and small -- both local and national -- designed to help out musicians when they find themselves in dire situations.

One of the larger national organizations, and one to whom Mercier turned in her hour of need, is MusiCares, a national program that serves health and human service needs of people in the recording industry. Operated through the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) -- the folks that give out Grammy Awards --MusiCares offers a financial assistance grant program, providing dollars to cover costs for everything from medical treatment (including emergency care, or even, say, HIV-related services) to more mundane but no less essential expenses like rent and utilities.

Not exactly a local counterpart, but still an organization that helped Mercier out of her crisis, is the Hearts for the Arts blood fund here in town. The fund, set up through local radio station KGSR, provides blood to artists of all types in need. Mercier was given three units of blood at Brackenridge, after which the Central Texas Regional Blood Center, which administers the fund, was able to credit the hospital back the blood they had used, saving Mercier from having to pay for it. With a unit of blood (by the Blood Center's estimate) running around $200, it was a savings of around $600. That may not seem like much compared to $14,000, but it is blood and you do need it to survive.

A dire situation, however, may not necessarily be one of life and death -- it can simply mean the possibility of getting screwed, and not in a way you are likely to enjoy. Long before entering the garden of major label delights, local songstress Kacy Crowley was trying to get a licensing deal for the use of one of her songs in an independent film. Dirt poor and inexperienced with legal contracts, Crowley was admittedly in need.

"As an artist who was totally broke, a lot of times you just want to get things over with and sign things," says Crowley, who luckily possessed a little foresight. "I made a conscious decision before I signed anything that I would really investigate it and understand it. I couldn't do that without a lawyer, but lawyers are ridiculously expensive."

Yes, they are.

Fortunately for Crowley, she managed to get hooked up with one of the Austin's least well-known, but perhaps most helpful organizations, Artists' Legal & Accounting Assistance (ALAA). In conjunction with this program, the singer not only got her deal done, it ended up costing her nothing. Well, almost nothing -- she had to pay a $25 processing fee.

Since its incorporation in 1979, ALAA has been matching low-income artists with lawyers and accountants to help them on arts-related business matters. Musicians can receive up to 10 hours of free work from an attorney or an accountant, provided they qualify. And qualifying really means just being poor, or more specifically, having a gross income of under $20,000 for single income households and under $33,000 for married couples. And they are flexible. If you made $20,001 last year, but you've been out of work for the last six months, ALAA isn't going to turn you down.

As an organization, ALAA can provide a wide range of services in either hemisphere of its domain. For instance, have you ever seen a record contract? It's 50-plus pages of legalese that people fluent in the language have a hard time deciphering.

"People see these record contracts and they go, `Ugh,'" says Cindi Lazzari, ALAA attorney who worked with Crowley on her licensing deal and later negotiated her deal with Carpe Diem Records, "So you tell them how horrible they are and how they are getting screwed."

And you, who had a hard time mastering the
1-4-5 chord progression, stand to get completely fleeced if you're not careful. These people are there to help get you the most favorable deal possible and they can tell you things that you aren't going to glean by watching reruns of L.A. Law.

"It was so beneficial," says Crowley. "I needed somebody so bad that it really helped me out of a situation that otherwise I probably would have had to sign something without really understanding it and possibly be taken advantage of. And it was easy too. I filled out a little bit of paperwork and sent in my tax forms just to prove my salary was below a certain mark. I was like, `Oh, no problem. I'll pass this test with flying colors.' It was really simple."

On the accounting side of the operation, ALAA can provide everything from simple bookkeeping to advice in the preparation of your taxes and IRS filings for nonprofits. In addition, ALAA runs up to seven free seminars a year. They're going to try putting on a Music Business 101-type seminar in January, then, as they do every year in February, hold a tax clinic. ALAA is also aiming to do a film-related seminar and another for nonprofit organizations.

There are a couple of other bonuses to ALAA, too. The 10-hour rule is just per case. If you have more than one matter on which you need help, you can apply to have each done separately and each case will have its own 10 hours of "credit." Moreover, as the more clever of you have probably already inferred from the use of the term "Artists" in "Artists' Legal & Accounting Assistance," the service is not limited to musicians. Film director Richard Linklater, for instance, used ALAA six times!

Probably the most visible local organization of late -- and one profiled in these pages last week ("Visions of This Town") -- has been the SIMS Foundation. Named for Sims Ellison, a local bass player (Pariah), who committed suicide two years ago last June, the "Services Invested in Musicians Support" foundation focuses on mental health. With its pool of 50 licensed professional counselors, SIMS has been able to provide over 100 local musicians with everything from talk therapy and parenting classes to drug and alcohol abuse in-patient and aftercare programs. (And considering INXS singer Michael Hutchence's well-publicized suicide late last week, the problem isn't going away on its own.)

"It's kind of a big umbrella," claims Peyton Wimmer, the foundation's executive director. "We take requests. If there's something somebody is looking for in the mental health field or close to it, then we'll go that route. I'll find somebody.... We haven't done all we do yet."

And SIMS doesn't limit its services to musicians. Anybody in the production end of the biz -- including roadies, managers, engineers, etc. -- can take advantage of the care. And because Austin is still a relatively tight community, qualifying and registering is not too much of a pain. Wimmer explains the screening process. "They can call up and say this is who I am and what I'm doing." Pretty rigorous, huh? You get placed with a professional targeted to your needs, then, under the current pricing structure, you pay $10 for your counseling session and SIMS picks up the rest.

Unfortunately, SIMS didn't exist in time for the man whose name it now carries; the stop sign didn't go up until after the accident. Fortunately, though, SIMS and these other organizations are there now to help people in need. Still, there are other services around that can also provide you with ways of avoiding most large headaches (or worse) prior to their actually happening. Example: MusiCares not only provides emergency money for medical (and other) expenses, it also offers a comprehensive self-paid health insurance program.

Similarly, the Austin Federation of Musicians also offers a variety of healthcare programs for its members. In fact, the AFM -- that's a union to you and me -- has one of the biggest menu of services available to musicians. In addition to offering health insurance plans for quarterly fees of only $42.50 (plus a one-time initiation fee of $80), the union offers loan programs, booking referrals, special mortgage programs, and discounts on all kinds of things -- from moving vans and rental cars to motel chains for you relentless tourers.

Moreover, through the union you can get equipment insurance at a cost of $2.20 per $100 value up to $1500. In other words, you can get all-risk insurance (which covers everything except losses due to "war, atomic or nuclear explosion, insects, vermin, inherent vice, or mysterious disappearance") with only a $100 deductible for each loss. Not bad. Well, not bad as long as your equipment doesn't get destroyed in one of those terrorist bombings in Stockholm (seeing how all of you Austin bands claim to be "huge" in Scandinavia).

As someone pulling down maybe $50 a week, that yearly cost of $170 for some discounts and the chance to pay for some additional services may look a little steep relative to the potential gains you think you might receive in return, but consider the following story from former Faces keyboardist and current Austinite Ian MacLagan.

"I was watching TV one night, late night," recounts MacLagan, "and they showed a repeat of a Saturday Night Live that I did with the Stones in '78. And I suddenly thought, `Well, I never got paid for that.' I called the union and, boom! Well, it took a couple of months, but I got a check. And now every time it's played, I get a little check."

The point is twofold: First, in some instances, the dues might pay for themselves by recouping money you might never have seen otherwise; and second, more generally, even if you're staunchly pro-business and your politics are slightly to the right of Dick Armey's, as a musician, the union can help you and work to protect your interests. Even MacLagan changed his tune, so to speak.

"I've always been totally against unions," he says. "I figure if you're a musician you're supposed to be a free thinker, but I had to join in Los Angeles and found out they were useful."

Moreover, if you apply for money from some of these national organizations, like MusiCares, you're going to have to document your career as a musician in order to be eligible for the funds you seek. Being a union member is one of the best ways of doing that. It provides the proof that you are indeed an employable musician.

Hell, considering the local union's membership includes local music luminaries such as Ian Moore, Junior Brown, Don Walser, Jimmie Vaughan, and Willie Nelson, if nothing else, you can join up so that you claim you belong to the same organization as Willie. Either way, that's worth about $40 itself.

The reality is that musicians have a reputation for taking precautions in case of mishap about as regularly as Steve Earle goes jogging. And it's somewhat understandable. Even though the union provides health care plans, many musicians in this town aren't signed up. Why not? A lot of folks in the performing arts "industry" make enough money to cover food, shelter, and beer, but when you're living in hand-to-mouthville, the only affordable health insurance option consists of praying that nothing bad happens.

Even if your prayers are occasionally ignored, there are places to go -- SIMS, ALAA, MusiCares, etc. If you're a musician, any musician, and have a problem, any problem, there's probably someone out there with the solution, or even better, maybe some money. It's just a question of finding it. The city's Music Liaison Office is a good place to start. It can provide contacts to get you pointed where you need to go.

On the next public level up, the Office of the Governor maintains the Texas Music Office. That office publishes a ridiculously comprehensive annual directory that lists all of the above folks and scads of other organizations. In fact, if it's in Texas and it involves music in any way, shape, or form -- studios, manufacturers, clubs, merchandisers, record labels, publicists, video producers, booking agents, retailers, photographers, film scorers, you name it -- it's in the directory, which is available through the music office to anybody for a mere $20. What a bargain.

Of course, there is always that "Hey, I'll get all my friends' bands to play a benefit. Lots of people will show up and we'll use the door to pay our medical bills." It sounds fine in theory, until the night of the show, which is a bad time to find out that people never really liked you that much anyway. And even if you're the most popular musician in town, you're probably not going to get by with a little help from your friends alone.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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