For a Song: Bartering Music for Healthcare

The O+ Festival is a gathering of artists, musicians, and healthcare providers in which art and medicine are bartered – mainly as a way for those on the art/music side to obtain medical care that they otherwise cannot afford, but also as a way for healthcare providers to gain exposure to visual art and music that might otherwise not come to their community.

The annual festival, which takes place in Kingston, a town of about 20,000 people in upstate New York, started three years ago, and runs this weekend from October 5 through October 7. All participants – performers and volunteers – are given free access to all of the services available at the clinic set up for the festival. Those services include a general physical; dental exams; blood pressure, vision and hearing tests; vouchers for eye exams; psychology screening; and numerous other types of health-related care provided by primary care physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists, and other providers. About forty bands will perform over the three days, and work will be exhibited by dozens of artists.

I spoke with Joe Concra, 47, an artist from Kingston who helped start the festival and continues to be one of the core organizers, about the motives behind the festival and how it has grown over these past three years.

Jessica Wapner: How did the festival originate?

Joe Concra: It started with a dentist. He and I had been at the same festival, in a small town up in the Catskills, called Truck America. He saw me at a party and thought I was one of the organizers of that festival, and he started telling me all these things that he thought could be done differently. And I said, I was just there for the band, I had nothing to do with it.

He told me that there was a band he really liked, Monogold, and said, “I would clean their teeth and fill their cavities if they came and played.”

I went home and spoke to my wife and our friend, Alex. We called Dr. Art Chandler, he runs the emergency room at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, NY. I called him and said, “There’s this crazy dentist. What do you think of this? And he said yes, and that he keow some doctors who love music who he thought would be interested in the idea, too. And then we altogether said, this is crazy but maybe we can pull it off. The way we got it going was with a few phone calls to different musicians, different artists, and different doctors. We had a meeting, then another meeting, and four months later we had the first festival.

Monogold played at the first festival. He (the dentist) just wanted to bring music to the town he lived in. This will be our third year.

JW: So it wasn’t, at first, an idea sprouted by starving artists with no health insurance?

JC: [The dentist’s] idea was sort of the spark. Then we sat around saying, “That’s amazing. I wonder if anyone else would do that.” Because none of us had any healthcare at all, we didn’t have any access.

Definitely the “we” is a big part of it. That initial idea formation took about 10 to 20 of us, to figure out: What is value? It’s culture that is valued, it’s our culture, our community that we value, as artists, musicians, and doctors. That’s where it sprung from. [The dentist’s] idea was the a-ha! moment. The structure was put together by people hammering out the details, figuring out how this could work. Will doctors respond to this idea that they are treating people for a weekend to give them access, but they get to see music in their town and art up on the wall? To everyone’s surprise, it worked out, to the point where it’s really growing.

JW: How has the healthcare aspect grown? How many providers will be there this year?

JC: This year we have four dentists and about 60 healthcare providers. Dental is such a sought after thing and nobody has dental insurance, so we count them differently. The healthcare providers are everything from infectious disease specialists to massage therapists.

This year we are going beyond access at the clinic. We have ongoing care this year so people can see doctors after the festival and pay on a sliding scale.

(Outside the clinic set up for the festival)

JW: Is Kingston an area where artists have gravitated for its affordability?

JC: Yes, artists and musicians have come to Kingston for all the usual reasons, and more so since the festival has started (though not because of the festival). People congregate in places for strange reasons. Artists live here for all the usual reasons that you hear for the Hudson Valley: because it’s affordable, close to New York, beautiful — and there are all these amazing doctors who live here.

JW: Has raising awareness about the inability of so many people to afford healthcare been part of the festival’s motives?

JC: I think that’s one of the by-products. We are this Western country and one of two Western civilizations that does not provide healthcare for the population. So there’s that side of it. That’s the cause of why we have to have this festival: because it’s not there. Our solution is gaining access to doctors and healthcare providers in the Hudson Valley that we wouldn’t normally have access to, breaking down this barrier. Healthcare isn’t this monumental, scary thing to deal with. You can meet doctors in your area who will treat you post-festival on a sliding scale.

We are trying to take care of each other in a very, very, very small way. To point out that your care is in your hands. We aren’t political. It’s such a political issue, no matter how we all feel about it. If you were to privately ask everyone, probably everyone involved with the festival would say we should have universal healthcare, but we don’t. But isntead of bemoaning it, this is our way of saying, well, let’s do somethign about it, that we can do because we can’t afford it.

So many artists and musicians quit being artists and musicians because healthcare is so expensive. At some point you have to make a decision. Everybody sacrifies all these things to make their music and art, and one of the things you sacrifice is buying healthcare coverage because it’s so expensive. If it’s running you $1,000 per month, that’s $12,000 per year, and that’s the difference between recording a record or staying in the street. O-Positive is not providing that coverage for anyone. We’re just providing them access on a weekend, they get to meet all these people, get treated, see a doctor for the first time in five or ten years, realize everything is okay, and then go on.

JW: Is the festival expanding to other areas of the country?

JC: We are talkign wiht people in other towns about O+ Nashville and O+ Minneapolis. We gave a talk at the Society for the Arts in Healthcare conference in Detroit back in the spring, and after our talk a bunch of people came up to us and said, I have this arts organization or I have this or that, and would love to bring it to your town. So now we’re sort of putting together this playbook.

JW: Has this become a bigger and bigger part of your life these past few years?

JC: I would love for it to grow and be everything that it needs to me, and I would lvoe to be able to get back to my regular life. It’s overwhelming, but I think anything you start, at this point is like this. Anyone who starts projects that are this big says the first five years are all –consuming. We are attracting really great professionals now to help us run it. For the first time this year, we have a fundraiser. She was able to get us sponsorship, which was fantastic, because barter can be rather expensive. We pay for some of the dental costs, the clinic. It take s money to run the festival itself.

We are now a nonprofit organization, we will have our status in January. We are laying the foundation underneath the festival. The festival is an amazing idea, and now for it to sustain itself we need the foundation underneath it. It will always be open to all comers and all ideas so it can go whatever way it wants to, to grow.

JW: How do the logistics work for the artists? Also, do audience members seek healthcare, or is that only for people with something to barter?

JC: The clinic is in the ballroom of an old hotel. For me, that’s where everything happens. We fill it with all the doctors, staff, nurses. That’s where all the musicians who’ve been accepted – they fill out a medical questionnaire online – and go to the ballroom to see the doctors.

Everybody sees a doctor. Then, if they have dental, we take them to their dental appointment. We have vouchers for optometry for artists so they can get their eyes checked. We have slips for blood work, for x-rays, colonoscopies. We have all these things to give to people so they can get care post-festival.

For the general public, they give a donation for a wristband that gets them into all the events. This is our most stunning year in terms of scheduling. Also this year we have a public health expo on Saturday from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM, everuthing from blood donations to onsite HIV testing and counseling, Planned Parenthood—everythign you can think of comign to be there for a public health expo. So if you come to the festival and you have a wristband on, and you’re walkign through the farmer’s market, you can just walk into the expo and talk to people.

JW: It sounds like the people who come are genuinely getting help, that this isn’t just a demonstration of the need for healthcare coverage.

JC: Yes. It’s for real. That’s why we always say we don’t provide health insurance, we provide community reassurance.

Doctors, artists, and musicians get to co-mingle at appointments. They get to know each other during the day. This Friday, a bunch of musicians will meet a bunch of doctors, and then those musicians will be playing on Friday or Saturday and the doctors will be in the audience.

JW: As the festival has become more popular, are there sponsorship offers or other ideas that you need to say no to?

JC: We are nonpolitical. We put art on the sides of buildings, and it could offend somebody or someone could write a ticket, and that has happened. When a new mayor was elected, people said “you gotta go meet with him.” So I met with him and told him about the festival, and he asked what did we want from him, and I said “We want nothing, we just want you to know that we’re doign this in your town.” He asked if we wanted the old parking garage wall as a spot for a permanent mural. It was an amazing offer, but I was [concerned] because what if people don’t like it? What kind of push back will there be? But it looks incredible. The whole neighborhood loves it. It was a jail-like wall that now looks beautiful. So that was a lesson for me: Don’t be afraid of what people offer, just embrace it. As I’m talking to you, I’m looking down on a 250-foot mural that was finished last night.

That said, what do you do if the company that makes Viagra comes and says, we want to help you out. That’s an internal debate that we have. One of our big sponsors is HealthQuest, and my immediate question was, what do they want? How many banners and where do they go? We are a DIY festival. We make all these things ourselves. Let’s not go the traditional route of a big, vinyl banner behind the stage. We will give them credit, but make sure it’s credit because they are donating doctors services to us. It’s an interesting predicament.

JW: Yes. You have to be cautious about ulterior motives.

JC: Right. All we want is for people to have access to care. That’s what we want. We don’t provide health insurance. We provide community reassurance. We are reassuring you that your community is here for you.

JW: Do you have a vision that you’d love to see become a reality out from this festival?

JC: I would love it if we had a clinic or a database of health services available for artists and musicians, where we of someone wrote to us asking if there any dental trades available for March, I could say, “It just so happens that this dentist is giving one visit per month and no one has spoken up for March, so here you go.” That would be amazing. It’s not a solution to the healthcare problem, but it’s something.

JW: Any memorable moments you can recall?

JC: There was a musician who played the first year, Nina Violet. Her teeth were all cracked in the front when she got here. She got up for her performance, the room was packed. The first thing she said was, “I just want you all to see my new smile.” The dentist had capped all her teeth that morning.

The first person we saw, year one, was a volunteer (volunteers get access to care). The first person Art Chandler saw was a 71-year-old volunteer who had high blood pressure, who was basically about to have a heart attack. Art got her to a hospital and she lived. The first person we saw had to go to a hospital, and he wouldn’t have seen her if we hadn’t been doing the festival.

One of my favorite things the first year was that the bands Phosphorescent and Amazing Baby had a kind of bet about who would get more fillings. Phosphorescent won with, I think, thirteen fillings done among the members. The other band had nine, I think.

JW: Does the donated healthcare follow the usual HIPAA confidentiality rules?

Yes, we have layers of confidentiality.

JW: What do the participating doctors say about having this outlet for their practice?

JC: They love it. The doctors get so much out of it. We have people coming from all over the place to help, and everybody walks away feeling amazing. On Sunday night, when we shut it down, there are tears of joy. A lot of musicians I run into tell me that they now have these doctors as their regular doctors.

[When I saw my family physician, Jack Weeks, for a physical, he asked me what’s going on with my life, and I told him about the festival. He wanted to be involved but he was busy that weekend. So he offered that post-festival, he would see any artists or musicians from the festival for fifty dollars. So now we have this doctor who has opened up his office year-round for $50 per appointment. That amount might still be a stretch but you can get there.

JW: Is supporting local businesses part of the festival’s motive?

JC: This neighborhood needs a kick in the pants. It needs people to rent storefronts. So from the beginning we talked about using existing venues, so for the weekend we can guarantee that those bars and restaurants will be full. That’s a big part of it, too, because it’s a neighborhood event. Everyone donates time and money to make it happen.

JW: Has media attention been growing?

Yes, a lot. But I think that the story is economics. We get plenty of music press, art press, local coverage. But the real gist of this is that it’s a community taking care of itself through bartering. You don’t know where that’s going to go. That’s what I like about it.

It’s exposure, too — exposure to a problem, and to a solution. It’s a Band-aid solution, but it’s a solution. And it’s growing.

All photos courtesy of the O+ Festival.
Musicians pictured in the two photos above are
Nicole Atkins (top) and Spirit Family Reunion

This interview was edited for clarity.

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