Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why musicians should be playing close attention to politics right now...

It's the morning after the so-called Republican drubbing last night and political pundits are clamoring about how voters are sending a message to President Obama. Well I don't buy it, at least here in New Jersey; the Democrats suffered from a weak and uninspiring incumbent that I barely had the heart to vote for. The real story is most likely that in an off-year election like this one, it is the bases that come out. The conservative had a lot more reason to vote than the liberal one based on all the town hall shenanigans and what not, which makes Democrat Bill Owens's win in the upstate NY congressional special election more surprising.

So what does any of this have to do with music anyway? Well it should get musicians thinking about how government policy can have a real effect on their lives. For example, now Governor-elect Christie promised to cut "wasteful spending" in the NJ budget instead of raising taxes, but in order to close NJ's massive budget gap, he's going to have to cut a lot of non-wasteful spending too if he is to keep his promise. In NJ under governor Jim McGreevy, the arts was a plump target for the chopping block and probably will be again. Grants that have powered many local arts initiatives, including the Princeton Laptop Orchestra I'm a part of, have gotten grants from the Jersey Council on the Arts. If funding is cut substantially, like under McGreevy, Jersey-based musicians will have to look elsewhere for financial support and will probably gravitate toward New York and Philadelphia. So much for Christie's promise to keep jobs from leaving New Jersey.

But more importantly than this local issue, the potential for national health care reform has very large implications for musicians and artists everywhere. In February 2008, Nate Chinen wrote a great article in the New York Times about the health issues of bassist Dennis Irwin and saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo. Both had tumors, Irwin's spinal and D'Angelo's in the brain, and both were without health insurance. As the article reported the many fund-raising concerts to help pay for D'Angelo's and Irwin's medical bills, some of their musical compatriots, like saxophonist Michael Blake and multi-reedist Chris Speed, reported they had no health insurance either. Speed says his lack of coverage is "idiotic" but is too expensive, as is the case for many of Speed's musician friends. Now, D'Angelo is healthy and playing a lot (I caught him this summer at the Cornelia Street Cafe) but Irwin sadly has been gone for over a year now.

One argument for health reform and a public option in particular that has gone under-utilized is the effect it would have on musicians and artists. With public health insurance, musicians would be able to better pursue whatever musical avenues they found most stimulating. They would not have to make the choice of taking a potentially non-music related job (like Charles Ives the insurance salesman) or going without insurance. An argument like this could help reframe the health reform debate in terms of the duty to provide it for all. This argument puts a face on the uninsured better than the sob stories because almost all Americans let musicians into their homes via the stereo and iPod. Even for popular music, a politician could say that Miley Cyrus certainly can afford health insurance, but what about the drummer or the guitarist on your favorite track of hers?

At this point in the game it seems highly unlikely any Democratic leader would break out this argument for health reform. But who says we musicians can't start stumping for health insurance ourselves?

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