Playing through the pandemic

There is support available to musicians facing financial adversity.

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Although the majority of musicians on Martha’s Vineyard make their money from a variety of means, some rely heavily on supplemental income from doing live performances at bars, clubs, and restaurants.

During the winter months, being a performing artist can be especially challenging in seasonal communities like Martha’s Vineyard. Couple the snail’s-pace economic activity level of the Island in the off-season with the widespread effects of COVID on businesses, and it’s clearly visible why getting by can be tough for some musicians.

Gabriel Langfur Rice is a trombonist and president of the New England Musicians Relief Fund (NEMRF). He told The Times during a phone interview that although most musicians make a living from a patchwork of performing, writing, teaching, and working day jobs, some gigging musicians need to find venues in order to put food on the table.

“If people aren’t going out to restaurants, they aren’t going out to clubs and bars, so some popular music venues have simply closed, and many of them have closed for good,” Langfur Rice said. “That’s heartbreaking for people who have been in the circuit playing in a lot of those places.”

According to Langfur Rice, venues that haven’t closed permanently or canceled live music have been booking shows and being forced to cancel at the last minute, because either ticket sales haven’t been high enough, or local health regulations change due to COVID. 

Apart from health laws and each individual business’ prerogative, some just don’t feel safe going out to enjoy a drink or a meal and listening to some live tunes in a shared public space, Langfur Rice said, and with good reason.

“People are justifiably really concerned about going out right now, and although things are starting to look up now, we don’t know which direction this is going to go,” Langfur Rice said.

For about 15 months, the NEMRF has been raising money and giving grants, and the nonprofit organization is now in a position to start providing large-scale support to struggling musicians. 

Even with the apparent downslope of the omicron infection rate, Langfur Rice said, the music-loving public is hesitant, and artists that were doing well this past summer have had shows canceled, with no new bookings on the horizon.

When the music lovers learned about NEMRF’s goal to support musicians, people immediately began contributing to the coffer. People Langfur Rice spoke with told him they can’t wait to get back to the routine of going to a bar and listening to their favorite local band, or going to see a big national or international touring group perform. “People really do miss it, and the immense outpouring of support has made me hopeful. But at the same time, this period is just stretching on so much longer than anyone imagined it would,” Langfur Rice said. 

The NEMRF was primarily established in response to COVID, but grants are also provided to musicians who are experiencing nonpandemic-related financial angst, such as certain medical expenses, or costs related to being out of work while caring for a newborn. 

The organization has left the application process open for folks to plead their case as to why they need assistance. “Basically just, ‘I am having a hard time earning money as a musician right now for this reason. Can you help?’” Langfur Rice said. “We are looking at all those cases, and we plan on doing that for generations to come.”

Right now, the group is responding as fast as possible, with $1,000 grants given to applicants who are accepted. If there is an extraordinary case that warrants more support, NEMRF will work to determine the appropriate process.

Although the initiative started from the Boston local union chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, the fund is not limited to union musicians, and Langfur Rice said he hopes to expand access to as many musicians as possible during this time. “Hopefully we can keep this momentum going, and keep helping these artists all over New England. We have certainly had at least a couple musicians from Martha’s Vineyard take advantage of the opportunity,” Langfur Rice said.

Adam Petkus, frontman for the Dock Dance Band, said he hasn’t been doing much live playing, although he does know of artists who have managed to find small gigs or outdoor shows.

The band is in the studio right now working on cutting an album. Petkus said it’s a productive way to use some of the downtime and focus on the band’s identity and path forward.

“For us, it’s been a really introspective time where we figure out what our next move is,” Petkus said. “I think it’s really great that the venues that are still open are providing that service, and it’s not only for the musicians, but I think it means a lot to the rest of the community to have a space where there is music — it’s part of the fabric of what makes this place so special.”

For Petkus and the rest of the band, they have other jobs, and are able to support themselves. But they’re still passionate advocates for live performance, especially in outdoor community spaces that can be safe and fun. Petkus explained that the Edgartown Memorial Wharf will be finished with construction this summer, and town officials will be considering whether to allow the band to play there. “That’s something I encourage every Edgartown or Vineyard resident to express their support for. How can we take some of these really great open-air spaces and turn them into community centers? It’s about making the most out of what you have available,” Petkus said. 

Sterling Bishop, a.k.a. DJ Smooth B, said he is laying low until the summertime, when he hopes to get some good gigs and perform at some events and weddings. With so many performers looking for alternative means of making money, Bishop said, he is prepared to do a remote program if the need arises. The Wharf restaurant in Edgartown was first to pitch the idea to Bishop.

“They said, ‘Would you do something where you are doing a remote DJ set? You can do it from home and stay safe, and the people in attendance can enjoy the music,’” Bishop said. 

Part-time Island musician David Wolff recently moved from the Vineyard to New York in September, but he comes back to the Island at least once a week, and hopes to start performing at Bad Martha Farmer’s Brewery once the warmer weather rolls around. 

When COVID hit, Wolff had to rearrange his priorities and move away from live shows, and more toward teaching and doing virtual programming. Wolff runs a music camp in Ohio alongside Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna legend Jorma Kaukonen called the Fur Peace Ranch. He also teaches online with Kaukonen via a platform the two created, called Break Down Way. 

For about 65 weeks straight, Wolff hosted Wednesday-night lessons, which he said created a strong community of musicians from all over the country. 

“I also did some workshops on the Vineyard, but the teaching gig is really what kept us going. The virtual lessons and online workshops have been a godsend,” Wolff said. “As far as gigs go, it’s just like everyone else — they’re pretty much shut down.”

Despite not being able to perform in front of a live audience as much as he’d like, Wolff said, the time he has spent practicing and focusing inwardly on his personal artistic goals has helped him during such a difficult time. “I have become a better musician over the pandemic. I know there are people who are really struggling out there, and I wouldn’t want to downplay that,” Wolff said, “but performing is not the same thing as practicing, so that’s one of the pluses of this whole mess.”

Folks can apply by downloading an application from the NEMRF website at NEMRF.org/apply.