Trading Music for Meds

An upstate New York festival rewards artists and musicians with health care.

Photo of Jason Russo by Samantha Levin; Photo of Gaia by Andy Milford

Last spring, Jason Sebastian Russo (pictured above), of the bands Common Prayer and Hopewell, was stricken by a stabbing pain on the left side of his mouth every time he tried to eat.

It was a cavity. But the 40-year-old musician—who hadn't been to a dentist since he was a kid, and last saw a regular doctor when he was in his early 20s—couldn't afford proper healthcare. Free clinics in Brooklyn could help with urgent medical needs, but not a bad tooth.

"I could've paid my rent money, or gotten my tooth filled, but not both," Russo says. "The new healthcare system is a lot cheaper than paying out of pocket for healthcare, but it's still out of reach for me. So I said, 'I'll just chew on the right side of my mouth till October.'"

Why October? Because he knew he was going to perform at the O+ Festival in Kingston, N.Y., where artists and musicians get free health care in return for performing and presenting their work to the community. He waited nearly a half a year, but in return for a set on stage with his band, Russo had his cavity filled, and now the pain is gone.

"This way I can have a home and get my tooth filled," he adds.

Russo is not alone: According to an April 2014 Gallup poll, there are still over 36 million people who don't have health insurance and easy access to health care (though the percentage of uninsured American adults has dropped to its lowest level in six years: 13.4 percent). O+ (pronounced "oh-positive" and named after the blood type) helps, but it didn't stem initially from an altruistic place. Initially it was about the music.

"The music definitely came first," says Dr. Tom Cingel, festival co-founder and a Kingston dentist. "There was this band called The Oxes that my roommate and I loved in dental school. I wondered if they'd ever come to upstate New York to play one day."

In spring 2010, Cingel had just returned from the Truck America music festival in the Catskills, bemoaning the lack of a similar event in Kingston —maybe even one the Oxes would play one day. Mutual friends soon put him in touch with local artist Joe Concra.

"I said, 'Let's implement this. Let's give the musicians free dental care—it'll basically leverage the festival,'" Cingel says. "They not only get a service, but, from my end dental-wise, they get prevention."

Russo remembers it slightly differently.

"I was in Joe's kitchen as the idea was unfolding. My band had just played the Truck Festival, and I said I wished I could play in Kingston," Russo says. To his surprise, Cingel took him up on the offer. "He even said, 'I'll clean your teeth for free!' And from that, all the bands came after that.'"

Regardless of how it started, Cingel reached out to the medical community in the region, and Concra reached out to the artists and musicians. When they put on the first O+ Festival on Columbus Day weekend in 2010, the event had drawn over 100 artists and musicians who received tens of thousands of dollars in healthcare. Last year, the event—now a three-day celebration—drew thousands of people and provided artists with some $100,000 in care.

Artists, who have to be approved by the organizers, have come from every corner of the country. The healthcare providers—including general practitioners, ophthalmologists, physical therapists, orthopedists, nurses, and, of course, dentists, are mostly from the region.

In return for dermatological appointment and a general check-up and dental work that was "far overdue," noted Baltimore-based street artist Gaia (pictured below, who doesn't reveal his real name because some of his work involves graffiti) created a massive mural of the goddess Artemis ascending from a stone quarry, the unmistakable New York City skyline looming above.

"I was attracted by the opportunity to catch up on some health concerns—and of course they provided me a remarkable six story [space] that I could not refuse," he says in an e-mail.


Photo of Jason Russo by Samantha Levin; Photo of Gaia by Andy Milford

Gaia's "Artemis Emerging from the Quarry," made during the 2013 O+ Festival in Kingston, N.Y.

Now a volunteer-run nonprofit, O+ has expanded across the country, putting on a similar event in San Francisco last year. And there's no reason O+ Festivals can't come to arts-minded towns and cities elsewhere, Cingel says.

"If you wanted to put on a bluegrass festival in Indiana, and you're a healthcare provider, you can put on your own festival," he says. "As long as there are healthcare professionals willing to donate their time and watch a wonderful festival, this will happen. Think about it this way: You can purchase art to benefit an artist directly, or you can put on a festival to benefit the whole community."

"It's like doctors are the rock stars," Russo says. "They walk around and get cheered and dragged up onstage. I'll play my set, and then afterward I'll see that doctor rocking out, indistinguishable from the other hippies and musicians all about me, which is cool. In Kingston, doctors are pretty cool.

"And I get to actually set down with an actual doctor and talk about whatever's troubling me," he adds.

Cingel says he's pretty happy with the way things turned out for an idea partly hatched by a dentist still feeling the rush of post-concert euphoria—mostly.

"The community wants to see these artists perform, and these artists are getting healthcare—that's pretty successful right there. I'm really satisfied," he says.

But he never did manage to bring his favorite band The Oxes up to Kingston.

"One day I reached out to them, and they entertained the thought then said, 'We don't need the healthcare,'" he says.

"And also," he adds, "they've broken up."

The Kingston O+ Festival takes place Oct. 10-12 this year.

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