Over the next few weeks, we're producing stories about the business of putting on free concerts, how they work and what they bring to their communities. Last week's Weekend Edition Saturday story covered non-profit concert presenters in New York City.
Perth Amboy, N.J., is a working-class community that sits on an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean just across from Staten Island. It's a town proud of its history: It boasts the oldest working city hall in the country and a ballot box that caught the first African American vote following the passage of the 15th amendment.
The town's Bayview Park is the site of one of the longest-running concert series in the country, and it's sponsored by the Music Performance Trust Fund.
Chris Pederson has played in or conducted Perth Amboy's Garden State Symphonic Band for 56 years. Before that, his father played in the band. "I cut my honeymoon short to rehearse for a concert," Pederson says. But the concerts he's played this summer may be among his last, because the Performance Trust Fund is running dry.
In the 1940s, when recording technology was relatively young, the Musicians' Union worried that consumer preferences for recorded music would put live concerts out of business. They hashed out a deal with record companies to support a series of free concerts across the country, establishing the Music Performance Trust Fund in 1948.
Under the terms of the sixty-three-year-old agreement, record companies would set aside a small royalty on every record sold to fund free concerts across the US and Canada, administered by a trust established by the American Federation of Musicians. The mid-1980s were the high water mark for sales of pre-recorded music and Performance Trust Fund concerts. In that decade, officials say the Fund supported almost 70,000 performances with a budget of $32 million. But as CD sales dropped and the record industry grappled with file sharing, the Performance Trust Fund's share of royalties dwindled. Last year, the fund supported just over 2,700 programs with a little more than $2 million.
In Perth Amboy, dwindling royalties have turned into dwindling performances.
"It would be sad to see them go away," says Perth Amboy mayor Wilda Diaz. Unfortunately, Diaz says, there's not much she can do. Like so many municipalities across the country, the town is facing grim economic challenges. It can't afford to contribute any money toward the concerts.
Mayor Diaz grew up in Perth Amboy, and she acknowledges the shows aren't just free entertainment — they're an important part of the town's fabric, binding together the town's newly-arrived Latino immigrants with largely older, largely white concert audiences.
"This is where I learned to love this music," Diaz says, "This is where you learn about other cultures that made Perth Amboy and the country such a strong, great place to live."
But without funding, the series can't continue. In the absence of Performance Trust Fund money they've relied on for decades, Bayview Park concert organizers are reaching out to audiences and local business, hoping for a break.
"Something will replace us, I'm sure," says Fund trustee John C. Hall, "But I'm not sure if it's something I'm going to want to be around to hear or see."
Hall says he used to have a staff of 32 to keep track of all the free concerts and school performances. Now, Hall and a staff of three are watching the Fund's slow demise. Last year, he says, over 125 local chapters around the country had no action at all.
The New York Grand Opera's Free Opera in the Park program is the Performance Trust Fund's longest-running free concert series. It, too, faces an uncertain future as the fund diminishes.
In the park — and in the city's public schools — the program has presented shows for over three million people since 1974. Soprano Lucia Palmieri believes the program offers New York audiences a valuable service.
"Our challenge is to bring opera to people who normally wouldn't be able to afford it. We attract children and young families of diverse ethnic groups," she says.
Palmieri also credits conductor Vincent LaSelva for another achievement that would be lost if the series ends.
"So many of us rely on New York Grand Opera as a stepping stone to something bigger. The Maestro has been such a light of hope to many musicians, especially those of African American heritage," Palmieri says
LaSelva has led the company for nearly four decades spreading the gospel of opera.
"I took La Boheme to a high school in Brooklyn years ago," LaSelva recalls, "I'll never forget the sixteen year old girls crying at the end. They'd never experienced an emotion like that, and believe me, they'll never forget it."
LaSelva is determined to continue providing unforgettable experiences.
"I'll never roll over and die because it looks like I'm not going to be able to do this. I'll find a way to make it happen. It's been 38 years, and I'll be back next year no matter what," he says.
Maestro LaSelva and the Music Performance Trust Fund may be able to return for an encore. The Musicians' Union and the record labels recently began negotiations over a number of issues, including a potential alternative to record sales as a source of income for the Music Performance Trust Fund. Meanwhile, performers across the country are anxiously waiting in the wings.