What happens a musician when shoulder, elbow or hand pain prevents them from working?

New non-profit organisation which aims to provide free care for underinsured professional musicians is launching in Ireland


In what is undoubtedly good news for Ireland’s music community, the US-based Musicians Treatment Foundation (MTF), the non-profit organisation dedicated to providing free surgical and related care for uninsured and underinsured professional musicians, is launching in Ireland this week. The gala launch concert (at Dublin’s National Concert Hall (NCH) on Thursday, June 13th) is headlined by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal, with special guests Aoife O’Donovan, Café Orchestra, and Paul Brady.

From his office in New York City, orthopaedic surgeon Alton Barron, who established MTF in 2017, says he sees the launch in Ireland as a springboard for other countries. “Ireland is a fun and familiar place, and Dublin is a very big music town. It seemed to be a perfect solution to launch in your country because we have a supporter who’s already there, who lives there and wants to help and make this happen.” Barron is referring to the launch concert’s proclaimed “treasured special guest”, Paul Brady. “And then recently enough, I was with my friends Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal. I mentioned I was trying to put something together in Ireland, to expand the reach of the foundation, so they have done multiple events for us. They jumped at the chance of being involved with the Irish launch.”

The idea of MTF, says Barron, initially came via a cry for help from a cousin, an Austin, Texas-based musician who had lacerated a tendon in his hand. Treating him at his New York clinic “pro bono”, Barron realised that while his relative had a good reputation within his music community, he wasn’t necessarily reaping any significant financial rewards. Having treated many other professional musicians across many genres (“the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, jazz, roots, rock’n’roll musicians”), he says he has noticed that musicians aren’t supported very well financially “at least in our country”.

Barron divides his time between Austin and New York City, working in the latter city, and spending time indulging his love of music in the former.

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“Historically, New York City has had many more support systems for the arts and music, but Austin, despite being a significant music hub, is populated by musicians that make maybe $200 (€186) for a typical gig. That was pre-Covid. Post-Covid is even worse, but I know the average annual income pre-Covid for a professional musician in Austin was only about $16,000. That’s well below the poverty line and well within the range where you can’t have good healthcare coverage. Also, some musicians just fall through the cracks. They’re unable to play, which can be devastating for them.”

Issues with shoulder, elbow, and hand prevent musicians from performing and recording, says Barron. “They can’t afford the insurance for the help they need with something like a rotator cuff tear or a carpal tunnel syndrome. Even if the surgeon is providing the service for free, there are still many other costs involved, including the hospital, the surgery centre, and anaesthesia for the operation.”

With news of MTF launching in Ireland having filtered out, Barron says several Dublin-based professional musicians have already been in touch via the foundation’s website (www.mtfusa.org). As yet, there isn’t an official Irish section on the website, but that will follow soon. For now, “they can apply for and ask for assistance, and then we screen them”. Screening is based on annual earnings, which are assessed via official Revenue channels. “They have to derive the majority of their income from making music professionally, but it’s important to emphasise they have to make a lot of money to not qualify.”

Barron will be in Dublin for some days before and after the launch concert and will be using the time to meet fellow Ireland-based orthopaedic surgeons to discuss the best ways to initiate proceedings. “We’re happy to help people now, but at the same time, we’ll want to have an official Irish section on our website that will provide easier access for Irish musicians.”

He won’t specifically say who he has treated, but he contends that “every professional musician, no matter who they are, whether they’re Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones or Paul Brady, has struggled at the beginning, has played gigs at virtually empty venues. They’ve struggled to know if they were going to be the ones that might make it, so they’re always appreciative of what we’re trying to do. Whether they’re at the highest level of commercial success or commercially unsuccessful, they all say, to a person, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ They all want to give back. It’s remarkable how generous and wonderful professional musicians are and how they give back to the world.”

Three of those musicians are Cash, Leventhal, and Brady, but Barron also mentions Elvis Costello and his wife Diana Krall, both of whom are founding members of the MTF board of directors.

“In 2017, I was lucky enough to know Elvis and Diana through my practice. I said to them I wanted to formalise the help that I and other surgeons could give to musicians. Could they assist? They were very gracious, and Elvis said he would do our first fundraising concert, which got us off the ground.

“Since then, we’ve provided almost $2 million (€1.8 million) in free care. After that, there was no going back for us. There is no other non-profit like MTF – at least that we know of – that provides free care and makes it possible for musicians to keep going. Many other supportive non-profits do other things that are related to the arts and music, but they don’t specifically provide free care. We’re delighted to be in Ireland to do just that.”

Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal play Dublin’s NCH on Thursday, June 13th. Special guests are Aoife O’Donovan, Café Orchestra, and Paul Brady. nch.ie For further details on Musicians Treatment Foundation, visit mtfusa.org