Outdoor music uplifts Island community

Musicians get to perform, audience members get to hear live music again.

Island musicians and music lovers alike have been starved for live performances since the start of the pandemic.

The many talented artists on the Vineyard have been financially affected after many of the gig locations that would normally serve as their central sources of income closed down. But a number of Island institutions are working together to provide live performance venues for Island musicians. 

The Supporting Local Music Project is a collaboration between MVY Radio, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum (MVM), Featherstone Center for the Arts, the YMCA of M.V. and the M.V. Film Festival, which seeks to provide local artists an income by offering live gig opportunities. 

Laurel Redington, community outreach director, producer, and radio host at MVY, wrote in an email to The Times that the project is a way to organize where and when local musicians will be playing on the Island.

If there are venues that have safely adapted their space to be able to house live music, MVY will include it on the station’s master calendar on their events page.

“Getting the word out about where folks can see live music is square one. Next is to provide ways beyond the limited number of tickets that can be sold (50 people is the limit, including staff and band members, so that doesn’t allow for tons of money to be made through ticket sales) so that artists can make some money,” Redington said.

According to Redington, MVY will sign onto Facebook Live as often as possible during concerts to post a virtual tip jar, where folks can provide some money to the musicians through Venmo.

“They can also send much-needed messages of appreciation with their tip, which also feeds their morale,” Redington said.

The live music venues currently include the Featherstone Art Barn, the parking lot near the YMCA as part of the summer drive-In held by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, and various stages at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

“Live music is so much a part of life on the Island, and there are so many incredible musicians and so few performance opportunities that it creates a frustrating and heart-wrenching dilemma when it comes to booking them. There will inevitably be worries with that task,” Redington said.

According to Redington, not only have performers been starving for income from gigs, but they are missing that connection with the audience and members of their band that makes playing live music unique. 

She has heard from many audience members that the lack of live music recently has been difficult for them, and they greatly appreciate being able to go and enjoy a performance again.

“Each word carries a deeper intensity and meaning. It’s the body language that tells a story of what a relief it has been to have the wheels greased again. Both the audiences and the musicians who joke about, ‘Well, this is our third gig in the last six months’ (this from a band that could have three gigs in a day at times) have been loving the reconnection and interactions,” Redington said. “We need to take care of our artists and everyone … but our artists are unique in that they help us deal with the stress and anxiety of life … we need them.

Redington said that, especially in a time of great stress and anxiety, music is healing on its own. But experiencing music with others “turns the healing up to 11,” Redington said. “The joy that spills out of a person flows into another and another, and it creates this tremendously unifying moment. Once again it is an intangible, indescribable magic that happens. We need community, we need to feel connected.”

Redington called the Island artists “our soul’s healthcare front line,” and said the artists’ contribution to our health and well-being is as important as any other medicine. 

Ann Smith, executive director of Featherstone, said the outdoor music program includes many familiar faces onstage, but will look a little different than in years past.

Instead of using the outdoor stage, Featherstone will be utilizing the Art Barn deck, with a 25-foot box to contain the musicians. Orange circles are painted in the grass where patrons can sit, bring their own food, and unmask once they are in their circle, according to Smith.

“Once they are in their own space, they can unmask, dance, laugh, and sing,” Smith said.

Based on Gov. Charlie Baker’s safety protocols, only 50 people are allowed at the venue. “I think it’s a really nice way to re-enter the outdoor music world. Overall, we are looking to support local musicians, because Featherstone isn’t just about the visual artists — it’s focused on the musicians, the writers, the poets, the culinary artists. We are interested in the largest definition of supporting Island artists, and helping them survive and thrive,” Smith said.

According to Smith, the arts help heal, bring great joy, and get through the emotional tribulations of being so sequestered from interactive, collaborative experiences. 

“You can drive up, put down your blanket, have a pizza, and enjoy a fun night in a beautiful environment. Once you drive up that hill, all your cares drift away,” Smith said.

And there are lovely venues all across the Island, with Martha’s Vineyard Museum providing a few of them. Anna Barber, manager of exhibitions and programming for MVM, said this project is a strong example of a community coming together in times of hardship.

She said the museum offers a number of different outdoor performance spaces, such as the Lou French garden, and the barn at the rear of the campus.

And the initiative relates directly to the mission of the museum, which Barber said is to help people connect with the Island, whether it’s the rich history of music on Martha’s Vineyard, or the diverse talent that exists here today. “Looking out and seeing the faces in the audience, it is a time where we can forget about the world we are living in and just exist in the moment,” Barber said. 

Pianist Jeremy Berlin described how listeners and players have been hungry for the close connection that comes with live music. “It’s like the classic picture of the man dying of thirst, crawling through the desert, and he finally reaches an oasis,” Berlin said. “It’s just amazing to play for people again.”

For folks like Berlin, it’s about a love for performing, and a desire to give audience members a special experience. “It’s incredibly gratifying to hear all the wonderful feedback. I don’t think any of us go into this thinking about the money, but people have been incredibly generous,” Berlin said. 

Even though Berlin and other music professionals love to jam with each other in front of live audiences, he stressed that live gigs make up a large part of a musician’s livelihood, and artists who usually rely on money from live sessions have been struggling during the pandemic.

Berlin said artists have had to be flexible with their expectations about what they get paid for performances, because the institutions that are supporting them and providing venues have been struggling as well.

Even though live performances look different this year, Berlin said he is happy to connect with an audience again, and give them an enjoyable experience. “People need this, they have needed it for a long time, and we are going to try and keep going for as long as we can with it,” Berlin said.