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Pssst! Wanna host a free concert? 

We’re not talking about your uncle Ned playing ukulele for a group singalong. You’ll get professional musicians paid a fair wage (but not by you), playing music of any style at your request.

Believe it or not, this generous program has been offered in the U.S. since 1948. Called the Music Performance Trust Fund, it was established as a not-for-profit independent public service organization through an agreement between the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents America’s professional musicians, and the major recording companies of the postwar era. According to its website, the MPTF’s mission “includes contributing to the public knowledge and appreciation of music, as well as making music a part of every child’s life experience.”

The MPTF has been a godsend for Orange County’s professional musicians during the pandemic, according to Tammy J. Noreyko, secretary-treasurer of the Orange County Musicians Union. “This is really helping a lot of musicians right now. For some, it’s making all the difference in terms of putting groceries on the table.”

During the last 12 months, the rules and procedures of the MPTF have changed to accommodate new realities, Noreyko said.

“Traditionally, the fund would provide for only a portion of the cost of the musicians. We would find co-sponsors who would chip in; usually the deal was 50-50 (between the MPTF and the sponsor). But during the pandemic the people who administer the fund have recognized that nobody is performing live with an audience, so they’ve agreed to provide 100% of the funding.” The decision to provide full funding was made last May.

Through Arts Orange County’s regular roundtable sessions, Noryeko met with many leaders of not-for-profit arts organizations beginning in mid-2020 and introduced them to the MPTF. The result was overwhelming. “I was inundated with requests — at least a couple of dozen,” she said. “Everyone wants to find a way to present live music.” Currently, in addition to many one-off concerts, there are two major MPTF events in Orange County: a jazz series at the Irvine Barclay Theatre and a classical series at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center.

All MPTF events must adhere to the CDC’s social distancing guidelines. Many happen outdoors. No matter what format they take, the events are live-streamed on the MPTF Facebook page and often on the co-sponsor’s social media platform as well. “They’re not captured or archived,” Noreyko said. “They’re like a regular live concert — once they’re done, they’re done.”

The history of the MPTF is closely intertwined with the development of recording technology, Noreyko said.

“In the old days, radio stations would broadcast a lot of live orchestras of various kinds from concert halls and hotel ballrooms. But when they started spinning records instead, that put a lot of musicians out of work. It was quite the scandal at the time.”

The fund was born to help restore the livelihood of musicians who had lost their radio gigs. Noreyko said. “It was decided that a portion of record sales from the major labels would be contributed to this fund to pay musicians a living wage.”

The demise of the traditional recording industry in the digital era put the fund in danger for a time. But intense negotiations led to a realignment of revenue sources and kept the fund going.

“Since sales of recorded music were falling, there was a decision at one of our conventions by the delegates to go back and get a deal to provide more revenue for the fund,” Noreyko said. “We have been able to negotiate other streams of revenue from digital sales, and now the fund is making a comeback.”

In 2018-19, more than 2,000 free MPTF events were presented in concert halls, schools, parks, shopping malls, veterans’ hospitals, nursing homes and many other locations. Priority is given to music that enhances musical education and provides an opportunity for students to interact with professional musicians. Pandemic-era statistic are not available, but Noreyko said the fund has been more popular than ever over the last year. “It’s been an ideal way to keep musicians working during a very difficult time for our profession.”

The MPTF lists upcoming live-streamed concerts here.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.

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