You may have heard that Big Star leader Alex Chilton passed away on March 17 — a few days before a scheduled appearance at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
Chilton was the premier architect of a musical style that came to be known as "power-pop," and his work with Big Star influenced tons of acts, from Cheap Trick to R.E.M. to the Replacements to Wilco. Though the band didn't sell a ton of records when they were originally together, they left an indelible mark on rock 'n' roll, and their legacy looms large over pretty much anyone with a guitar and half a sense of melody. (Chilton had a whole sense. And then some.)
When news broke that Chilton had died of a heart attack, musicians and fans everywhere expressed sadness coupled with gratitude for his musical gifts. A true talent had left us, which is always tough. Sadder still, is the news that his death may have been preventable.
Like so many other musicians, Chilton did not have health insurance. This article in the New Orleans Times Picayune pays worthy tribute to an artist who, for nearly three decades, made his home in the Big Easy. It also contains the following heartbreaking info:
At least twice in the week before his fatal heart attack, Chilton experienced shortness of breath and chills while cutting grass. But he did not seek medical attention, Kersting said, in part because he had no health insurance.
On the morning of March 17, she went to work. Chilton called her after suffering another episode; she arrived home before the ambulance, and drove him to the hospital. He lost consciousness a block from the emergency room, after urging Kersting to run the red light.
That week, the health care debate dominated Washington D.C. But Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) took time to memorialize Chilton from the floor of Congress. Chilton, an avid C-SPAN viewer, likely would have appreciated the moment.
FMC has been paying close attention to the issue of musicians and health insurance for the better part of the decade. Along the way, we've conducted surveys and issued reports showing that musicians are among the most underinsured members of the American public. We've advocated for reform that would improve access for working artists. And, perhaps most significantly, we've worked to educate artists via our Health Insurance Navigation Tool (HINT). If you're a musician, we urge you to check out the service, which provides FREE one-on-one phone consultations about your health insurance options.
A couple of weeks ago, we published an Op-Ed in Billboard that examined what recently-passed health reform legislation might mean for musicians. We identified provisions that are considerable improvements over what we had before. But we also made the call for vigilance: the problems facing musicians aren't magically fixed just because this bill passed. In fact, it's even more important to understand where we're at right now, so we can measure the outcomes on the music community.
This week, we wrapped up a survey to determine how many artists currently have health coverage and how they're covered. We're still crunching the numbers, but here's a sobering early stat: around 33 percent of working musicians do not have health insurance. That's double the national average for other folks. So clearly, there's still work to be done. Stay tuned for more interesting figures from the "Taking the Pulse" survey as we get 'em. And if you're one of the musicians who took the time to answer these questions, we thank you tremendously. You're helping us do a better job of advocating for artists.
We still miss Alex Chilton. But we are hopeful that more musicians will have health insurance so we can keep these amazing talents around a lot longer. Now, if you'll excuse us, we're gonna go listen to #1 Record.