As health-care costs skyrocket, artists and musicians increasingly turn to crowdfunding for aid
According to Beau McNaboe, a fondness for the nightlife left him uniquely equipped to deal with the side effects of chemotherapy.
“I made a funny Facebook status about how I'd been training for this my whole life, just being hungover all the time,” said a laughing McNaboe, best known to some as rapper the Catalyst. “That's what [undergoing chemo] feels like: the worst hangover ever. You don't want to do anything; you're rundown; and you're nauseous with a headache. And I was prepared. I'm used to feeling bad.”
In late January, doctors diagnosed McNaboe with stage II testicular cancer. Within a week, he had surgery to remove his left testicle, followed by three cycles of chemotherapy, each lasting 21 days (the final 21-day cycle was set to begin in late April). The process hasn't sapped the rapper of his humor; rattling off his chemo drugs, he noted that one, Cisplatin, is a platinum-based medication, “so technically I'm ballin' out in my veins.” But it has had a pronounced effect on everything from his ability to record — Cisplatin can diminish high-end frequencies in the ear, which McNaboe equated to feeling like you're living underwater — to his finances.
Following his diagnosis, McNaboe took a leave of absence from his job at a call center, where he's worked for nearly three years. Though he had insurance through his employer, and even qualified for short-term disability, the mounting medical bills and reduced income threatened his economic stability.
“My surgery, for instance, the out-of-pocket I had to pay was $4,000,” he said. “I wish that was shocking, but here in America we've come to accept that anything medical — unless you have the best possible insurance — is going to be a pain in the ass.”
Like many Americans, McNaboe exists somewhere in the middle ground between having insurance and being able to afford the rising cost of health care. So faced with mounting bills, the musician, like an increasing number of people, started a crowdfunding campaign to cover his out-of-pocket medical expenses, as well as to subsidize basic living costs (rent, groceries, transportation) during the months he was scheduled to be out of work. Or, to be more precise, McNaboe's girlfriend, Kristin Decker, launched the GoFundMe campaign after receiving his blessing to do so.
“Beau was kind of apprehensive. Maybe he felt a little weird asking for donations,” said Decker, who started the campaign in late February with an initial goal of $4,000 (the GoFundMe has since raised more than $9,000). “Within an hour [of posting the campaign], we'd made almost $1,000. I was floored. I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad he could see that people really are in his corner cheering for him and supporting him.”
With Republicans currently weighing the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — in late March, the House declined to hold a vote on the American Health Care Act, though an amended version of the bill began circulating in recent weeks — it's worth considering crowdfunding's increased importance in the social safety net, particularly among artists and musicians.
“Being sick is very, very expensive, and a lot of the tangential costs are not covered by insurers,” said Jesse Boland, director of online marketing for San Francisco-based crowdfunding site YouCaring, which generates somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million in donations annually, 40 percent of which fall in the medical category. “Even if you have decent health insurance, it's still a terrifying and financially difficult experience.”
In the last year, public crowdfunding campaigns have been initiated to help finance medical coverage for the likes of visual artist Pheoris West, singer/songwriter Megan Palmer, singer/guitarist Christopher Economos (formerly of funk band Osage) and Laura Chichester, wife of musician Happy Chichester.
This increase can largely be ascribed to economics. The Federal Reserve, in survey results published in May 2016, estimated that 46 percent of American households did not have enough in savings to cover a $400 emergency expense.
“The $4,000 for the initial surgery didn't even include all these [chemotherapy] treatments,” McNaboe said, adding that he didn't know what percentage of the total cost would be picked up by insurance. “Fridays, when they give me that fourth chemo drug, it's this drug called Neulasta that builds up your white blood cell count. It's this little patch that goes on the back of your arm, and each one is $5,000. And I have to do three.
“It's one of those things you don't even want to look at. You know when you're broke and you're too scared to even look at your bank account so you just keep trying your debit card hoping it goes through? It's one of those. Right now I have enough on my mind.”
Crowdfunding sites generally fall into two camps. The first are more entertainment-based — think of a band asking its fans to help finance a new album (Indiegogo, Kickstarter) — while the second trades in more dire personal circumstances, like medical emergencies (YouCaring, GoFundMe).
Megan Palmer, who called Columbus home for nearly 14 years before moving to New York City in 2008, has experienced each type of campaign, embracing crowdfunding as a means to pay for the recording of her 2016 album What She's Got to Give, which surfaced right around the same time she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I did a record release show in Columbus the week of ComFest last year, and the week after that I had one in Nashville, and I was really careful about not letting anyone know I had cancer until those shows were over,” said the now Nashville-based Palmer, who underwent a mastectomy of her right breast, three months of chemotherapy and finally reconstructive surgery, with the last procedure taking place in December. “I felt guilty because I had just asked all these people for money for my record, not knowing I was going to get diagnosed with cancer two weeks after it came out.”
Palmer, who has insurance through the ACA, estimated her out-of-pocket medical expenses at around $25,000 of the $180,000 total, with insurance making up the difference. The GoFundMe, initiated at the urging of a friend, raised more than $35,000, allowing the musician to focus on her health rather than her finances during the months-long recovery. “It's been amazingly helpful, or else I wouldn't have been able to get through this,” she said.
Though different in aim, each type of campaign, be it entertainment- or health-based, is built on a similar approach: Present a compelling narrative that can catch the public's attention and, hopefully, its wallet.
“It's almost like you're trying to sell your misery. That's kind of what it feels like,” said Jahlani West, who started a GoFundMe for his dad, Pheoris West, in the weeks after the artist and teacher suffered a stroke in March 2016. (The campaign has raised nearly $12,000 of its $20,000 goal.)
Setting up the donation page, West followed the step-by-step instructions GoFundMe provided for what it termed a “successful campaign,” including advice to post a photo or video of the individual. “This is your shot at a first impression and it should create a strong reaction, like ‘Wow!' or ‘Awe!' or ‘I need to know more about this,'” the site instructs.
“I think it's the second or third step when they ask you, if you really want to break it down, why should people give you money?” West said. “And you have to try and make a compelling story for people, which can be odd, in most cases.”
Christopher Economos understands this as well as anyone. The musician married on October 15, 2016, and was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma a month later.
“Three days before we got married, I found a lump on my neck,” said Economos, who relocated from Columbus to Cincinnati in July after his wife, Alexa, landed a job at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. “I had been having some symptoms, like I couldn't keep food down, but we waited until after the wedding to get checked out.”
Following the diagnosis, at the urging of his wife's colleague, the couple started a YouCaring page, quickly reaching a posted goal of $17,500.
“I think the narrative probably helped,” said Economos, who currently has insurance through his wife's employer and estimates the couple's out-of-pocket medical expenses at around $10,000 (the remainder of the funds have helped with rent, groceries and utilities during the time he has been unable to work). “The way events unfolded, it was crazy. We'd just seen everyone we loved all in one place … and then a month in [to the marriage] that's the first update they see.”
Prior to the existence of crowdfunding sites, musicians and artists often relied on things like benefit shows, email chains and/or posters hung in record shops such as Used Kids to raise funds for medical emergencies, according to Jessie Schmidt, who, alongside Erin Moore, cofounded the Columbus Music Co-Op in 2005. The group, which also hosted educational workshops on topics like building healthy working relationships with music venues and selecting the right music studio, embraced musician health care as a central tenet of its mission.
“We thought we could hold benefit shows and put together a pool of money to be able to give out mini-grants for anything health-related: a visit to the dentist, a new pair of glasses and all the way up to something more significant, like cancer treatments,” said Schmidt, who has been performing in local bands going on 20 years. “That's part of why I stay involved in the music community, because there is this inclusiveness where we take care of our own.”
This built-in community can give artists and musicians a leg up on the general public when it comes to successfully reaching a crowdsourcing goal.
“I think the narrower you can close the delta between yourself and your network [the more likely a campaign is to succeed],” said Jesse Boland of YouCaring. “If you're an artist who is well-known in a specific geo-location, say, Columbus, Ohio, you would have a much greater chance at compelling people to donate because they know you and feel close to you and your music.”
“I feel like if you're outside [the arts community], you need to have some kind of story — either a loss of some kind or you're a vet or a cancer survivor and something came back,” Schmidt said. “But there's already a story built in when you're a musician, and you don't have to sell anything because the community is all-in automatically.”
Prior to being the beneficiary of a crowdfunding campaign, Nicholas Nocera of Alison Rose screen printing said he might have disagreed with this assessment.
In November 2013, Nicholas and wife Alison Rose Nocera were traveling on I-71 outside of Grove City when their truck hit a patch of black ice, which caused the vehicle to swerve into the median before flipping over multiple times. While Alison escaped with only minor cuts and bruises, Nicholas shattered his knee, leading to a multi-year ordeal that included eight surgeries and nearly cost him his leg. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, while the couple was still in the hospital, friend Megan Green started a GoFundMe to assist with medical bills, since the Noceras were uninsured at the time, Nicholas having left a teaching position to pursue a career in screen printing. The campaign raised nearly $7,500.
“I remember being in the hospital, going in and out of consciousness and just reading those messages [of support on the GoFundMe] and being overwhelmed at the way the community stepped up,” said Nicholas, noting he and his wife likely would not have started a crowdfunding campaign on their own, owing to their quieter, more private nature. “I was in the hospital for months and wasn't able to get on my feet for a long time, so it gave me peace of mind: ‘OK, we have our mortgage paid for these two months.'
“It was really shocking to see someone who had never met us, or someone who maybe bought a shirt from us six years earlier at ComFest, donate $10 or even $50 out of their pocket. That was overwhelming to me. With musicians or artists, maybe it strikes a nerve and they feel like giving back because they feel like they got something from their music or from their art.”
While medical crowdfunding campaigns are undoubtedly essential to the individual, there is a danger in their increasingly common presence, according to a November 2016 Hastings Center report by Jeremy Snyder. “Although these fundraising campaigns can provide crucial aid to some of those persons disadvantaged by systemic failures … the campaigns reduce pressure for systemic reforms,” he writes.
In other words, crowdfunding serves as a temporary patch, masking the wide, growing cracks within the American health-care system and, perhaps, slowing more widespread efforts to address deeper underlying problems.
“When I hear about someone who's sick or dealing with something unexpected, my first question is usually, ‘Do you have a GoFundMe set up so I can contribute?'” said Schmidt. “But people need to be reminded this is not normal … and that it should only be a stop-gap until something is done.
“There is a risk of people saying, ‘We'll just cover the difference [between insurance and medical costs] with GoFundMes,' but I don't think that's the way it should work. Real reform should come at the hand of the government or the insurance companies.”