Local Current Blog

With musicians facing health care uncertainty, benefit concerts are on the rise

Erik Hess (Photo by Kendra Sundvall)


Scan the listings of the Twin Cities concert calendar each week, and chances are you’ll notice a pair of familiar words popping up time and time again: “Benefit concert.” The age-old practice of offering up a few sets of live music in exchange for donations from attendees has become something of a tradition in the music community, dating back much further than Kickstarter and offering music-loving philanthropists a method for raising awareness, supporting causes, and funneling money toward specific people or organizations, one crumpled up wad of cover charge cash at a time.

But in recent years the concept of the benefit concert has taken on a new weight. As prominent artists in the community grapple with life-threatening and catastrophic medical problems, the benefit concert has spread into online forums and gotten increasingly creative. Though relief may come soon for freelance artists and self-employed musicians courtesy of the Affordable Care Act, even insured patients can find themselves buried under a mountain of debt and battling not only their medical problems but an endless amount of paperwork and red tape.

So when yet another medically fueled benefit concert was announced—”Antibody Want to Dance,” a benefit to help pay down the medical debt of prolific local photographer Erik Hess—I called up a few of the people behind the event to figure out just what it takes to put one of these events together.

Behold: The anatomy of a health-related benefit concert, unpacked one step at a time.

Step One: Admit there is a problem

Tomorrow’s “Antibody Want to Dance” concert is the fourth major benefit that musician and booker Christy Hunt has assembled at the Turf Club, and she says that the shows often have to come together quickly because the person in need of aid is too shy, embarrassed, or proud to ask for help—until it’s too late.

“Sometimes they come together in just a month,” she says. “And it’s usually a desperate cry. So it’s usually a bunch of us getting together that are their friends in the community making it happen. It’s modesty—and I guess I understand, because I’ve never had an event done for me. But if I were in the same place I probably wouldn’t be able to ask everyone to do it for me, either.”

For Hess, who photographs live music for City Pages and their Gimme Noise blog (and with whom I used to work), his medical problems have been ongoing, and his illness requires regular treatments. Hess was diagnosed with common variable immunodeficiency when he was 17, and ideally should be receiving monthly antibody treatments to fend off infection and illness. After years of wondering why he was constantly coming down with sinus infections and landing in the emergency room with high fevers, he started receiving regular treatments again at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

What he didn’t initially comprehend, however, was the even though he has pre-existing condition insurance, he was racking up sky-high medical bills with each and every treatment.

“It’s just hard to face. Suddenly, I’m racking up $1,000 a week in medical bills. I figured, well, they can’t repo my blood,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t know, I kind of put my head in the sand. I was just like, I can’t even think about this right now. I’m just going to think about getting healthy and feeling better and busting my ass and working as much as I can. Which unfortunately just delayed the inevitable, and put me in a situation where I became a year past due and became delinquent with the people who were prolonging my life. They stopped letting me schedule appointments, so I called them and asked, ‘What do we do from here?’ And their only answer is ‘Pay us everything you owe us.’”

Now Hess is in a difficult position: He has to pay his clinic thousands of dollars before he can receive any more treatments, and foregoing the treatments could cause his condition to worsen significantly. Add in the fact that Hess recently had to have emergency gall bladder surgery, and he had reached his breaking point.

“My illness, for the rest of my life, requires these treatments. And without these treatments, my life is potentially a lot shorter. Like, a lot, a lot shorter. And going without it for years and years, like I did before, my doctors in no uncertain terms told me that that was very suicidal of me. And they lose a lot of their patients that way.”

Step Two: Abandon all the rules

Once Hess admitted that he needed help, he called on a circle of friends in the music industry to help him figure out the next steps. One of those friends, Kate O’Reilly, has planned her share of benefits over the years—including the annual bike-themed poster show ARTCRANK, which raises money for local charities—and she says that one of the biggest things she’s learned about putting together a benefit show is that it doesn’t conform to the traditional rules of a high-buck fundraiser.

“It’s sort of this rogue idea,” O’Reilly says. “It’s not the gala, and it’s not the $10,000 plate function. We can do it $5 at a time, and we can do it if we’re baristas, and if we’re restaurant workers-slash-artists-slash house cleaners. Anybody can make that sort of change, not necessarily just the people with tons of money. And I think that’s a driving factor.”

It’s this boots-on-the-ground mentality that has helped O’Reilly pull off successful events over the past few years, and she says that a successful event relies more on the passion of its participants than any big corporate or financial backer.

“You really can’t devote time unless you’re either energized by their work or inspired by their friendship,” she says, noting that each band on the “Antibody Want to Dance” bill has a personal relationship with Hess, or has been photographed extensively by him in the past. “I think that there is something really special about the music community here. It is a lot of people that never felt part of anything until they gained these friendships and became part of this music and photography community. So it motivates people to want to help out and be a part of it and keep it together, because they realize how special it is. It really has become a family.”

Step Three: Set a goal, and realize it may not be purely financial

Once the musicians agree to perform pro bono and a venue offers up use of its space, the next step in planning a benefit is determining what kind of goals the event needs to meet—and as both O’Reilly and Christy Hunt have learned, those goals are not always purely financial.

“I mean I obviously think the main focus is to get [Erik] out of debt and get him to a place where he has this nest built around him, so he doesn’t constantly have to fight that fight or make health choices, or life and death choices based on money,” says O’Reilly. “But I think that a lot of times when you’re in financial duress, you also feel a lot of hopelessness. So I feel like even if we don’t reach the proposed goal necessarily, it will help him be able to see the community that surrounds him, and not feel so lost in the fact that he has this disease. I’m not sure there’s things I can think of readily that can be a whole lot harder than those two things.”

In addition to helping to set up the benefit, a handful of people have also come together behind the scenes to help Hess navigate the paperwork, set up accounts to accept donations, and offer him emotional support as he gets back on his feet.

“It’s a lot of red tape, and a lot of script that normal people don’t understand,” says Hunt. “It makes it challenging, and a lot of people just don’t even want to deal with it, so they don’t even try. But I think our system fails a little bit, because not everybody is educated in that way to understand it. And I’m really hoping we can make at least $6,000 for Erik. I know his hospital bills are more. But I think he’s got a $6,000 range we want to reach so he can go back and see the doctors that were treating him. He’s just got such a knack for what he’s doing and he’s so good at it. He’s a natural. So we’d like to see him keep doing what he’s doing and what he loves to do.”

“As I started getting sick more and more, it really dragged me into a scary place,” says Hess. “And every time a friend was like, here’s $10 for your YouCaring page, or here’s a hug—it would take me out of this loop of thoughts and make me think, ok, maybe I can do this. Maybe I’m not going to make the $8,000 I owe Mayo now, and the $6,000 I owe Fairview, I’m not going to make all that from this benefit. But the money is really not what it’s about. It’s about the love of friends. Christy and Kate told me, ‘Erik, just let people help you.’”

Step Four: Party

Antibody Want to Dance takes place at the Turf Club tomorrow night, Saturday, May 25. All proceeds go toward paying down Erik Hess’s medical expenses.

Main stage set times:

1a Mark Mallman


11p The Goondas

10p Street Hassle

Clown Lounge set times:

12:30a Aby Wolf

11:30p Wizards are Real

10:30p Bomba De Luz

9:30p Sevateem