On Wednesday afternoon, Rob Myers sat outside 7a Foods in West Tisbury counting the music venues that he has seen shut their doors since he started playing in bands such as Kahoots and Goodnight Louise. The Wintertide Coffeehouse, Che’s Lounge, Oyster Bar, The Atlantic Connection, Nectar’s, Pit Stop. After 20 years of watching venues open and close, Mr. Myers is confused and frustrated.
“As a guy who’s been down here a long time now, I’m realizing that this exact issue is probably the thing that I care most about,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense that there should be a lack of viable music venues.”
Despite his frustration, Mr. Myers remains optimistic about the future of music on the Island. He feels confident that the talent, drive, money and interest required to foster a truly vibrant scene are all right here on the Vineyard. The only thing missing is how to connect the dots.
“I think the solution is to think a little more outside the box and start connecting the different media,” he said. “The different groups within the arts — the music people, the fine arts people, the film people — we can all really help each other out if we join forces.”
Mr. Myers has put careful thought into how to make this business sustainable, even going as far as enrolling in business classes. And he has homed in on the three historic movie theatres on the Island — the Strand, the Island and the Capawock — as potential spaces for such venues.
“I want to renovate them all and have not only movies, but music and art. I want to put in weird, unusual things. I want to build a bar into the sloped seating. To me, the sky is the limit.”
Mr. Myers is just one of many musicians and patrons of the arts on Martha’s Vineyard working to escalate the Vineyard music scene. And while Mr. Myer’s vision is still in the planning phase, there are steps being taken this summer to bring out the Island’s true potential as a musical hub. Perhaps the biggest addition this year will be the Martha’s Vineyard Sound Festival, planned for Waban Park on July 12 as a benefit for the Martha’s Vineyard Arts and Culture Collaborative. While final approvals are not in place yet with the town and a full lineup has not yet been announced, the festival aims bring together popular local acts such as Johnny Hoy and The Bluefish, Dukes County Love Affair (DCLA), Ben Taylor and Willy Mason with national headliners.
The festival itself will be open to all ages, and is limited to six hours, but plans call for the music to continue well into the night at after parties throughout downtown Oak Bluffs. The parties will be themed, with each bar hosting a certain genre of music. Festivalgoers will be able to walk from bar to bar, experiencing all of the different styles of music that the Island has to offer, organizers say.
The festival is just one of a handful of projects that Phil daRosa has undertaken to help put the Martha’s Vineyard music scene on the map. In addition to playing bass in DCLA, Mr. daRosa runs his own recording studio in Oak Bluffs and produces concerts around the Island.
Mr. daRosa has also grown frustrated because an Island with so many talented musicians has struggled to create a more vibrant scene. He recognizes the financial risk involved in bringing big name artists from off-Island to play here, but believes that it’s a crucial step toward elevating the scene to its true potential.
“I guess what it comes down to is that there aren’t those deep pockets that see the need for bigger artists to come to the Vineyard anymore,” he said. “But back in the 70s and 80s, Peter Tosh played here and Bonnie Raitt played here. All these amazing musicians were coming every season to the Vineyard. I’m trying to keep that alive with a select group of people who are supporting that idea.”
Although he does not expect to turn much of a profit, Mr. daRosa is working with Flatbread Pizza in Edgartown to book a handful of big budget concerts this summer. Mr. daRosa’s production company, TPS Presents, has already booked G Love, David Wax Museum, Third World, Collie Buddz and other artists to play the iconic venue which used to be home to the Hot Tin Roof.
In the 70s and 80s, the Hot Tin Roof was the ultimate music location on Martha’s Vineyard, regularly booking national acts. Lou Reed played there, as did Cyndi Lauper and John Belushi. In 2005, the club was sold and renamed Outerland, and when Outerland failed to make the venue commercially viable, it was sold to Nectar’s, a nightclub based in Burlinton, Vt. In 2009 Flatbread bought the property and renovated it into a pizza restaurant.
Although Flatbread has learned that it is too difficult to keep the building open primarily as a nightclub, the restaurant’s manager, Tina Miller, continues to host shows there.
“We love the property and respect it and want to keep some presence of music going, but that can’t be our focus because that’s not what our business is,” said Ms. Miller. “It is a dance, and some people get disappointed, but at the end of the day Flatbread is able to pay the bills, where doing music for a couple months in the summer doesn’t.”
For Flatbread, the key to keeping the business running but still maintaining the legacy of the venue’s history is hosting a small number of big-ticket shows. This year, in addition to the concerts that Mr. daRosa is producing, Flatbread will host a Rosanne Cash concert to benefit the Gay Head Lighthouse, and the annual Stars and Stripes Festival to benefit the YMCA, featuring Charli XCX, MS MR, The Knocks and X Ambassadors.
Flatbread is not the only venue on the Island that has shifted its focus to hosting a handful of big events. Dreamland in Oak Bluffs, with the help of Nectar’s, will be bringing in some big names from off-Island this summer, including Chronixx, Badfish and Barrington Levy. Another show on tap is Lauryn Hill, who will be playing the Featherstone Center for the Arts on August 10.
While the music community is excited for these shows, the pulse of the scene is still in the bars and restaurants that regularly host live music. Music fans can find concerts almost any night of the week at places like the Port Hunter, Ritz, Dive Bar, Wharf and the Park Corner Bistro.
Jess Phaneuf, a DJ at WMVY Radio and concert promoter, embraces the regular scene but also thinks it is sad that the music here is largely contained to small bars and restaurants that rely primarily on food and drink sales to stay in business.
Like Mr. daRosa, Ms, Phaneuf believes that the Island needs to bring in more artists from off-Island, in part to help draw attention to the local scene. Unfortunately, Ms. Phaneuf believes that this is not possible at the moment without outside donations.
“If someone stands up for this Island’s music scene and says ‘I want to help,’ then I think something can be done,” she said. “We’ve got people like Phil daRosa who know what to do, and people like me who want to help him do the leg work that it takes to get people coming through and playing. We have those people, but we don’t have the money.”
Ms. Phaneuf has seen favorite venues like the Pit Stop close its doors forever and massive 500-capacity shows that failed to get even 20 people in the door. She has had to tell friends in bands from off-Island that they can’t play on the Vineyard because there is nowhere to host them. Still, she remains motivated by the talent and culture that make the Island music scene worth fighting for.
“I’ve gone through some tough experiences, but I don’t feel like I’ve really let them get to me,” she said. “I’m sort of just rolling with it. At the Pit Stop, I was a big part of the shows there for their final year and it just closed down. That could have killed me and done it for me, but I’m looking at it like an experience and training for what’s next.”
As long as bands and musicians like DCLA, Goodnight Louise, Garrett James, Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish, Grateful Dread, and Peg House continue to play around the Island, there will be people fighting to create the scene that these musicians deserve.
“There are so many talented musicians here,” said Mr. daRosa. “It’s a mini-melting pot of musical talent. That’s what motivates me and all of the stuff that I do. It really comes down to me just loving this music.”