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If your life has been enriched by WNY musicians, it’s time to give back

Jeff Miers

We’ve always been outliers. Fringe characters, driven to the margins of polite society and “normalcy.” That’s part of the reason we chose this life in the first place.

Musicians, roving gypsy types, outsider artists, folks who make it their business to report on happenings in the darkness on the edge of town.

Quite likely, at one point in our adolescences, we realized we were different. That we didn’t really fit in so much. Yeah, we might’ve gone to the big football games in high school, but we were quite likely the ones sneaking cigarettes beneath the bleachers, huddled around a boombox, or today’s equivalent of the same. Not for us, the pep rallies and homecoming crowns. We had our eye on a different sort of existence.

We’re outsiders, then. But we’ve always been there for you. We played your weddings, your bar mitzvahs, your happy hours, your work holiday parties, your Irish wakes and your birthday celebrations. You treated us decently, most of the time, acknowledging we were actual human beings, not just jukeboxes on legs.

But at times, the feeling we were all just “the hired help” – roving minstrels performing at and for the king’s pleasure, to be enjoyed and then dismissed to return to whatever subterranean existences you imagined us inhabiting – has been hard to deny. We move among you as uninvited guests, as often as not.

Enter the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, that outsider status has moved from the metaphorical into the literal realm.

As my colleague, Buffalo News Food Editor Andrew Galarneau pointed out in a direct hit of a column last week, restaurants were closed in response to the current pandemic for the public good, putting a potential populace of some 4 million people out of work. Galarneau advised those 4 million not to take this lying down.

“After I filled out the unemployment forms, I’d do one more piece of paperwork,” Galarneau wrote. “I’d write a letter to the people who are about to hand out trillions of taxpayer dollars to businesses for coronavirus damage and demand a place at the head of the line.”

Like restaurants, the clubs, concert venues, halls and arenas where musicians make their living have also been closed for the public good. The likelihood of any of those taxpayer dollars being earmarked to ease the sacrificial struggles of independent musicians in this country is not something any of us should be holding our breaths about, though. We’re outsiders and outliers, after all. We’re going to have to do it ourselves this time. Frankly, by this point, we ought to be used to it.

The Buffalo-area music community seemed to have accepted this hard reality from the get-go. By the time nonessential workers in our region had set up their offices at home, the musician communities had already fully embraced the idea of working remotely themselves. Using Venmo or other cash apps to accept payment was not a new thing for musicians. So, the living room or the home studio became the stage, and musicians took to social media to simultaneously satisfy their need to play and their need to pay their bills.

By the middle of last week, local live streaming enterprise Buffalo.FM and live sound company Ripe Audio had teamed to create Band Together Buffalo, a high-end live streaming hub that allows musicians to perform for a digital audience and be paid from a general fund created through donations. (The fund now sits a bit south of $5,000 dollars, $15,000 shy of its stated goal.) There have been multiple performances delivered through the Band Together Buffalo site every day for nearly a week, and the schedule is packed for the foreseeable future.

These are encouraging signs. Also encouraging was a quote from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, as far as I've been able to ascertain, the sole politician who has mentioned the significance of independent musicians and bands to the cultural health of the country.

"All over this country, we have met so many great musicians," Sanders said during a digital rally March 16. "Some of them ... are internationally known. Some of them may only be known in their community — a small band.

"If we make it into the White House, what we will do is more than increase funding for the arts — that's easy. But what we will try [to] do is integrate the arts into the culture, into who we are as Americans."

While it remains indisputably true our community of health care workers and first responders – in fact, all of the workers who have been deemed essential to the prevention of society’s full collapse and are still working in public – deserve the most praise and support in the current crisis, it’s also true musicians do for our souls what health care professionals do for our bodies. They deserve as much support as those who’ve had their lives positively affected by their talents are able to offer during this time when they so badly need it.

Outsiders and outliers, yes, and a hardworking subculture that has never expected a handout. But the musician community could use your help right now.

The future remains completely up in the air as we proceed through these dark days. It’s not difficult to feel helpless. We should all do our part to keep our culture alive until we break on through to the other side of this crisis. Our local music scene is more than worth it.

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