By Mark Guarino
Before Gary Schepers left for work on Dec. 10, he took a hard look his left foot. That afternoon it grew to double its size and was shaded purplish red. “That’s not right,” he thought. “I should have that looked at.”
But duty called. After 23 years as Chicago’s most trusted live sound engineer, Schepers was hardwired to never leave a band mute. So instead of the emergency room, he drove to the Abbey, the Northwest Side rock club where he was scheduled to work. He stood behind the soundboard until the show was finished, put the equipment away, helped close the club and at 4 a.m., he turned to the bartender and asked where was the closest hospital.
It was his last day as a free man. Schepers is in his sixth week in a hospital bed, where he is diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and has a foot infested with what doctors described as “flesh eating bacteria.” The wound has not yet fully healed and he is stuck in “a waiting game,” not sure when he can go home.
The clock is ticking. Each minute tolls money. Schepers, who makes a modest living working gig to gig, has no health insurance. He is taking the grim truth in stride. “Sad thing is, there are so many people in the same boat like I am,” he said. “I’m not the freakish aberration that I should be.”
Indeed, he’s not. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 45.8 million American were uninsured in 2004, up from 45 million in 2003. The worst off are part-time, temporary and — in the case of Schepers and the majority of working musicians — contract workers. Only 21 percent of the 34 million people in this category have health insurance, according to a 2005 report by the Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan healthcare research foundation.
For musicians, that means that unless you can get insurance through your spouse or another family member or you are Sting, affording quality health insurance is a major struggle. While there are options, oftentimes the high expenses, general complexities and ever shifting state laws shut musicians out of the system, leaving many to fall between the cracks.
In a way, musicians do have their own healthcare system. It is called the benefit. According to Rock A Mole, a Los Angeles-based activist group for musician’s rights, over a thousand benefit concerts are held for uninsured musicians every week in the U.S.
Starting Friday at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, a stream of eight benefit concerts held in Schepers’ name will take place at almost every Chicago club (see sidebar), with many more promised for the future. Musicians from across the country have volunteered to help out, including Robbie Fulks, Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, Jay Farrar of Son Volt, Corky Siegel, the Bottle Rockets and others. (“I knew people loved him but I had no idea how many people,” said Nan Warshaw, co-founder of Bloodshot Records and benefit organizer.) Even the Land of Nod, the children’s branch of Crate and Barrel, stepped up, donating items to be raffled off at the shows with plans to host several children’s concerts in their city and suburban stores, all proceeds going to Schepers’ aid.
Musicians are so used to playing benefit shows that Schepers himself was not shocked by the reaction of his peers. “I’m in this business because there’s such good people. I don’t know how many benefit shows I’ve worked where a lot of the same people have played. It doesn’t make it any less of an amazing thing,” he said.
Despite its altruistic motives, the benefit cycle is not necessarily a healthy solution to what is a long-term problem. “Musicians are the first people to do a benefit for a friend, but one of the last people to pay attention to why we need national health care. That’s the real change that needs to happen,” said Jenny Toomey, executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, a Wash. D.C. think tank.
In 2002, a coalition study found that of the 2,400 musicians surveyed, 44 percent lacked coverage. “It’s an epidemic in our community,” Toomey said.
Musicians fall out step with the health care system the moment they learn their instrument. It’s the nature of their profession. Starting at a very young age, most musicians need to regularly tour in order to cultivate fans, grow artistically and perhaps most importantly, earn a living through merchandise and ticket sales. This makes holding down a full-time job either difficult or impossible.
The types of musicians who typically do get insured are classical musicians connected to a large orchestra or university, amateurs who work full-time and play music on a part-time basis, or older musicians who have since limited their touring to settle down in one place and take a job for family security.
But even musicians with long and impressive careers can struggle to afford insurance on their own or, if they are insured, find themselves unable to pay for long-term care that may require prescriptions, high deductibles, expensive treatments and assisted living expenses.
In 1992, many people were shocked to learn that respected singer-songwriter Victoria Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had no health insurance. The same was true in 2003 when veteran songwriter Alejandro Escovedo abruptly retired due to a diagnosis of Hepatitis C, a condition he faced uninsured. In both cases, funds were raised through familiar means: endless benefit concerts and two start-studded CD tributes by artists ranging from Pearl Jam and Madonna to Son Volt and Lucinda Williams.
But not most musicians can command such star power. When a health crisis strikes, from a car crash to a long-term illness, it can overwhelm. Not many are prepared to pay out of pocket, no less research their options.
Toomey said education is crucial.
“If you only live in an arts culture among other musicians, if there is no pressure in that community to talk about or think about health insurance, it may just never come up,” she said. “I totally understand why musicians think the best way for them to survive in an alienating culture is to turn away from things that are foreign to them. But by doing that, by turning away from the mainstream culture, you ensure you will be exploited by it the few times you deal with it.”
Standing almost seven feet with long unwieldy hair, Schepers is a fixture on Chicago’s music scene in every way.
“Most people certainly would recognize Gary from across the room. He’s a giant,” said independent concert promoter Heather Whinna.
Schepers grew up in Iowa and then Sycamore, Ill. before heading to St. Louis where he played bass in the band the Service and toured all through the U.S. and Canada. In 1982, he moved to Chicago where he played music but slowly earned a reputation as one of the city’s most adept sound engineers. He and high school friend Stan Doty redesigned and installed sound systems, first at the Cubby Bear and later at Lounge Ax, Empty Bottle and the Abbey. His model was the legendary New York City club CBGB’s, a tiny dank room that happened to feature a hair-raising sound system, specially suited to the early wave of punk.
“We raised the bar quite a bit (in Chicago). If it’s a bad thing that these clubs have giant PA’s, it may be our fault,” he said, chuckling.
Over time, Schepers was sought after by bands to both tour manage and work their sound on the road. Through the years Schepers became the primary road crew manager for the Midwest’s best-loved bands including Uncle Tupelo, Eleventh Dream Day, Son Volt, Material Issue and most recently, OK Go.
When he returned home, he found ample work waiting. Clubs started hiring him to mix sound at live shows. In the early days, he worked seven nights a week, enduring a blur of bands. Schepers said he learned to not let his own personal tastes dictate what came out of the speakers. “No one can see 30 or 35 bands and like them all. The trick is they can never tell. You have to decide what they do is up to them. Your job is to make it sound right,” he said.
“He’s worked at almost all the cutting edge music venues in town and he’s been doing it a long time and he’s great at his job. It’s that combination of longevity and quality that makes him stand out,” said Warshaw.
Bill FitzGerald, owner of FitzGerald’s where Schepers regularly works, said sound engineers who appreciate dynamics make a show work. “They’re conduits,” he said. “They’re the guy who’s in-between the band and the PA system and the audience. And it’s not a perfect world. You put a lot of trust in these guys.”
FitzGerald said that musicians arrive in town requesting Schepers based on his past work. Before moving to Chicago from Atlanta, Kelly Hogan, the R&B and jazz singer, reported that she looked forward to playing here because she knew Schepers would be working her show which meant she wouldn’t have another “sound man horror story.” “As a vocalist, you really depend on a sympathetic, technically proficient soundman,” she said. “Some soundmen will talk down to you but he never did that.”
There is also the tuba. Schepers holds the distinction of being the most high profile tuba player in town, sitting in with Devil in a Woodpile, the popular old-time folk blues group. Schepers first eyed the hulking instrument in the band room while in the sixth grade and asked if he could try it out. “That was the kiss of death. Band directors are always looking for kids to get interested in those types of instruments,” he said.
In the rehabilitation facility where he lives now, the only music he hears is what gets piped through the radio. Friends bring him their Netflix movies to watch on a DVD player, another present. The future is hazy. Naturally he is worried about the hospital bill, expected to be in the six-figure range. But of first order is not forgetting what day it is.
“I’m trying really hard to be the same guy I always was, especially if this many people like me,” he said. One day he’ll be home and that’s when the music will once again rise up in his life, just like from a knob on a mixing board. Already, he sketched out this plan: “The first night when I’m home and can drive my car and do what I want, my first question will probably be, ‘who’s playing tonight?’”