The deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Natalie Cole may have caught music fans by surprise, but they can be assured their heroes died receiving the best medical treatment possible.
Most musicians, however, struggle to pay the bills, and those who may have enjoyed the spoils of fame in their heyday are finding that often doesn’t translate to covering the mounting medical costs they face in their twilight years. Accelerating the problem are changes in the music business itself. Artists who enjoyed hit records in the pre-digital era once were assured they could rely on continuing royalties that would allow them to enjoy retirement in comfort.
Not anymore. Digital streaming is emerging as the dominant way people listen to music, and the royalty rates involved with services such as Spotify are far lower than those connected to CDs and vinyl. Suddenly, the nest egg has shrunk. Organizations that help musicians deal with skyrocketing medical costs are discovering that the population of aging musicians needing medical care they can afford is accelerating in greater numbers than ever.
“This is a huge problem,” says Rob Max, executive director of Sweet Relief Musicians Fund in Fullerton, Calif. “Most artists haven’t sold an album since the ’70s, and with catalogue sales disappearing 10 years ago, they’re just now feeling the pain. All these artists who once thought they could live off royalties are in a lot of trouble.”
The most reliable option for musicians to earn money outside their recordings is touring, which usually allows them to get paid a guarantee and has the added value of merchandise sales, which often can be more lucrative than ticket sales. However, the instability associated with a life on the road, induced by traveling hundreds of miles a day between cities, can trigger long-lasting health ailments. When the Washington blues-rock band the Nighthawks was at its peak, between 1976 and 1986, it played 300 shows a year across 49 states, most of them in smoke-filled rooms and with little exposure to nutritious food. Nighthawks singer Mark Wenner, 67, underwent an emergency quintuple bypass surgery four years ago. He attributes his blocked arteries to years of fast food and secondhand smoke.
“Now you can eat decently on the road, but 30 years ago, you were condemned to eating whatever you can get,” says Wenner, of Kensington, Md. (His wife, Kathryn Wenner, is a copy editor at The Washington Post.)
It doesn’t help that such an itinerant life often forces musicians to stick with a short-term vision rather than take action to plan for retirement, says Janice Johnston, medical director of Arrowhead Health Centers in Arizona and a board director for the Blues Foundation in Memphis, where she oversees efforts to help with musicians’ medical and funeral expenses.
“They work these crazy, crazy hours, not eating well and not getting exercise, because it’s hard to get into a routine when you’re traveling,” Johnston says. She says diabetes, heart issues, hepatitis C, and liver and kidney failure are the most common maladies for musicians when they get older.
“Musicians tend to live gig to gig, which is more the mentality when you’re in your prime. But when you’re doing well, there’s not a lot of foresight to plan for the future,” she says.
Take Dick Dale. The guitar legend is revered for inventing surf music in the early 1960s, thereby creating an entirely new vocabulary for his instrument and influencing generations of musicians, from Jimi Hendrix to Eddie Van Halen. At 79, Dale should be retired. He would agree: For years, he has suffered from a long list of problems, including diabetes, kidney failure and an upper gastrointestinal tract infection.
Yet Dale continues to climb into his car a few times a year and drive cross-country to perform. Lower hip pain has made climbing stairs difficult, so he usually needs assistance to the stage. Onstage, he plays guitar while planted on a stool, a colostomy bag tucked under his clothes. His doctors tell him he can no longer play his saxophone because the strain will cause bleeding, which could be fatal.
“If I had perfect health and didn’t have to worry, I would sit home and watch the Discovery Channel,” he says.
The herculean effort to keep going despite his problems is because of cost: Dale needs $3,000 each month to pay for attachments for his colostomy, plus the cost of daily insulin shots. He says that he has Medicaid but that it pays only a quarter of what he needs. “It’s unbelievable what we have to come up with,” he says.
His situation is common among musicians, Johnston says. Many are forced to shoulder the responsibility of health care as independent contractors, and often they don’t earn enough to afford medical treatment that fully covers their ailments.
“We see it every single day. These guys basically need a gig to put gas in the car and food on the table. The last thing they think about is their health or paying for health care because they’ve been trying to keep it all going,” she says. From her work with MusiCares, a nonprofit organization that helps defray medical costs for musicians, she says it is common for musicians to be either uninsured or underinsured with plans carrying high deductibles. “They have health insurance, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to use it,” she says.
Medical costs for musicians are often insurmountable because many have not earned very much from their recordings. Lester Chambers, a member of the California psychedelic soul group the Chambers Brothers, enjoyed multiple hit singles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but despite the group’s success, he did not receive royalty payments for decades. He blames inexperience, family squabbles and Columbia Records, the band’s record label, for why he receives only from $4,000 to $12,000 a year in royalties, despite the group’s biggest hit, “Time Has Come Today,” being used for TV commercials and movie soundtracks.
“We’ve never been paid for our recordings. That was a total rip-off. Basically because we never had lawyers,” he says.
Now 76, Chambers lives with his son outside San Francisco and, among other maladies, suffers from a fall onstage years ago that broke ribs and dislocated his shoulder and left hip. The injuries left him weakened and ended his performing career — and therefore his income. Medicare pays for only a portion of the nearly $70,000 in medical costs per year, he says. “We’re the people who entertained the world. And now everything in my life is a struggle because I haven’t earned any money. I’ve never had it so hard.”
Groups such as Sweet Relief and MusiCares, among others, often step in and help defray medical expenses, but too often it’s the musicians themselves who are forced to organize benefits to help. When Bernie Worrell, keyboardist for pioneering funk group Parliament-Funkadelic, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in January, singer Nona Hendryx organized a benefit in April at Webster Hall in New York City to pay for his expenses. Hendryx, once a member of the R&B trio Labelle, says sidemen such as Worrell, 72, are most vulnerable because the music industry is structured to protect the stars, not the thousands of other musicians who appear on the recordings or perform on tours.
She describes her industry as “a business with no rules” that offers no job protection for musicians, even when they appear on recordings that become hits. “Record labels never set up any kind of health insurance or pension funds for the musicians,” she says. “But it’s there for the people who work at the music companies. I’ve never seen a head of a label who lost his house or is on the street.”
For a long time, musicians have had to rely on unorthodox means to get health care, such as finding a pipeline of doctors and specialists willing to reduce their rates because they happen to be music fans.
“You can’t run to a doctor for every kind of cough. You’ve got to take care of a lot of the problems yourself,” says Lennie Cuje, 84, an Arlington-based jazz vibraphonist who was part of the New York jazz scene during the 1960s. “What I tell younger jazz musicians is you have to find the right guy who likes the music and sort of feels sorry for jazz musicians.”
That might not provide much solace to performers such as Dale, who doesn’t relish getting behind the wheel every few months to drive to his next gig. Despite his pain, he says, being onstage remains for him the ultimate healer.
“You have to give back what life gives to you. The payback is I’m still here,” he says. “Music soothes the beast.”