SXSW AU interview: Carolyn Schwarz – Executive Director of HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians)

The Heath Care system in the US a bit of a mess to say the least. Over 8,000 working musicians live in Austin, Texas, most of whom don’t earn nearly enough to support themselves with private health insurance. But with Austin’s music scene generating nearly $2 billion in economic activity each year, they are without doubt a group that need to be looked after. Thankfully, an organisation has been set up to assist.

HAAM – the Health Alliance For Austin Musicians – is a local non-profit that provides access to affordable health care for the city’s uninsured musicians with a focus on prevention and wellness. Since HAAM’s 2005 start, over 2,000 of the Austin’s battalion of musicians including have been served with access to regular, cost-effective healthcare services.

Larry took some time out while at SXSW to with down with Carolyn Schwatz, the Executive Director of HAAM to discuss the work the organization is doing to keep Austin’s live music scene vibrant.


CAROLYN: So you probably don’t have to worry about this in Australia, do you guys have universal coverage?

LARRY: Yeah we do, but musicians here in the USA… not so much.

So with Austin being the live music capital of the world, and the music industry generating 1.7 billion dollars to our economy, eight years ago, a really forward thinking woman named Robyn Shivers, who is a manager for musicians, she knew how hard they worked and how little they made and how they didn’t have access to health care. So she brought our two hospital systems together to create a program where now we help musicians get medical, dental, mental health, hearing health, vision health and nutrition services. We’ve helped 3000 musicians in eight years.

All Austin based?

They have to live here in the central Texas region to access the care. We’ve helped them get over 52 000 appointments during this time, and it’s pretty incredible. As you have a chance to reflect on this when you’re back at home, you can see all the statistics about people we’ve helped. Most of them are on less than $16 thousand a year, American dollars, so really that’s rent and food right there, and if you’re a musician are you gonna spend your money to your teeth cleaned, or on guitar strings cause you got a gig that night? And you know when you are a musician there is no such thing as a ‘sick day’, so we give them access to a 24-hour nurse call centre, they’re getting their issues taken care of quickly, efficiently and affordably to our community because they’re not going to the emergency centre.

And I understand there’s a day for it, a fundraising day for it in September?

It’s an awesome day and it’s better than SXSW! It’s called HAAM benefit day, it’s gonna be on Tuesday September 24th. More than 250 local businesses support and then we have more than 250 live performances. We start at 6am at Wholefoods market and we continue throughout the day, so there’s music in banks and in sandwich shops, and all over town, unusual, traditional and non-traditional locations there is music that happens and this is the one day a year that our clients give back to us, so they give us a performance for that day. It’s a city-wide celebration and people come to love it and expect it and take days off work to attend.

Obviously starting it would have been incredibly complicated, but now that it’s up and running, what’s the hardest part about keeping it going and keeping the money coming in every year?

That’s a big thing right, sustaining our supporters and sponsors, we’ve been really lucky, we don’t have government funds, so we rely on the community, and the community has stuck for it in huge ways so that’s been good. We did have one point in our history where we had to stop enrolling new musicians so that we could make sure we could raise the money, cause once they’re on our rolls, we don’t want to kick them off ever. With it being health care, it’s not as if they’re gradually, they’ll need health care as long as they’re living in Austin and as long as they’re still doing music. They need to be living below 250% of the federal poverty level which is $27 000 a year, but like I said most of them are on $16 000. We have the Affordable Care Act moving forward here in America, and we’re monitoring that so that if there’s an option for musicians to move on to once Texas makes up its mind about what it’s doing, we’ll be helping our clients navigate into those systems and covering the gaps, cause hearing health that’s still not going to be part of it, and dental won’t be either.

And in Australia it’s the same, it’s very base level, doctor’s appointments, which is amazing but if I want to go get my teeth cleaned I have to pay out $250 to go do that, and anyone working in the music industry doesn’t really have that laying around. It’s a fantastic initiative, have you had any artists who have become successful, who started out under your umbrellas and have become more successful and have come back and supported you?

So I can’t speak about my clients unless they’re public because it’s related to their health care and we have laws about that, but you’ll see tonnes of testimonials, something something are a fantastic, Grammy nominated group, Mark Gonzales, Will Sexton – you might know his brother Charlie Sexton – he’s playing with Bob Dylan right now and had a pretty big solo career in the 80’s. But anyway, Will Sexton, he’s spoken about it I think in the annual report previous to this where he had a stroke in his 30’s and luckily he had HAM there for him. In the process of getting help for his stroke they realised he had a heart condition, a congenital heart condition that he had never known about and now he has to be on medicine for the rest of his life, it’s really been this peace of mind for him. He’s a musician, he’s a dad, he has his own children and now to know he can his medical needs taken care of because this will be for life.

We have a lot of people who are public for their support for us, last summer, Patti Griffin and Robert Plant did a benefit show for us at the Continental Club, which was pretty special, I mean you talked about seeing a band last time in a really small club, can you imagine seeing Robert Plant in a 300 person club? It was pretty special and so the music community whether they utilised their services or have had band mates that have utilised our services. You ask any Austin musician about HAAM and they’re gonna talk about how it’s been just this blessing to the music community and how times before when they just have to walk it off but then it might have to turn into something serious, they never have to think about that anymore.

It’s a fantastic initiative and it’s frustrating in this country that it’s not something that’s not part of day to day life of people that are living at such a level of poverty which is the life of most musicians unless they’ve got other jobs.

Exactly and our community recognises that, and not only is there that huge economic impact I said before but a lot of people move to Austin because they love the live music scene and it’s just integral to the fabric of who we are. We’re used to going to the grocery store on Saturday and seeing music, that just happens here. So imagine a day where that silence, where there were no musicians and to us in Austin I think it’s unfathomable. So this is a small part in a way that our local health care providers can give back and our community by their donations and support can give back to the musicians.

Has this been a model that any other organisations have adopted around the country, because obviously you’ve got big music scenes in places like Athens, Georgia and Portland and Seattle.

I get calls all the time and consult with communities across the country about what we’ve done. The very first one I’ve heard about is has finally filed their 501 superdy? paperwork so the non profit paperwork, and they’re in central Virginia of all places. Charlottesville, Virginia is trying to get this started, I can’t say ‘this’ cause every community will do it differently I think but they’re going to see what they can try to do over there and so far they’re the only ones I know about and New Orleans has a musician’s clinic for the medical side. One differential that I’ll say about us is we focus on prevention and wellness, so we make the musicians go to the doctor once a year even if they’re well, cause the docs want to see them when they’re well and be there for them when they’re well so when they get sick they know what their history is.

We just had a funeral unfortunately, for one of our clients, but we told him when we enrolled him, you have to go to the doctor, and he’s like ‘Oh my god, I’ve been wanting to, I haven’t had a check up in so long.’ He didn’t think anything was wrong with him. Well they spotted cancer on his very first visit, he didn’t even feel bad, so they caught it so early and his life was extended by 5 years through treatments. He just talked about throughout the end about how he got so much more out of life, we helped extend the time that he was here. I’m heartbroken that he’s gone but it makes me feel good to know that he wouldn’t have been able to have care if we hadn’t been there for him.

Learn more about HAAM:

Transcript by Rachel Silbey.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.