Dov Katz is on the phone constantly with couples calling to book his bands, Krohma Music, OnKore and Sozo Live, for spring and summer weddings. “I think spring and summer will be crazy,” he said. “Couples who got engaged in September, or are getting engaged now, are waiting until they can go back outside. Meanwhile, hundreds of weddings were postponed until 2021.”
But spring is still several months away. Jewish music performers are figuring out ways to survive until the weather is warm, COVID-19 is not surging, and outdoor weddings can bloom with the flowers.
Katz has fewer events on his calendar this winter than in any other year. One bright spot was the Unity Chanukah Drive-In Celebration Concert produced by Black Arrow Productions and Teaneck’s Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. Families drove their cars to the Garden State Plaza in Paramus for a concert with headliners Mordechai Shapiro and Simcha Leiner.
Katz was brought into the concert production team by his band leader, Nochi Krohn, who also runs Black Arrow Productions, a thriving events production company. They built a massive stage fully loaded with high-end lighting and LED walls. In addition, giant screens were suspended 30 feet in the air on either side of the stage, giving all attendees a close-up view of the concert. Concert audio was broadcast on a local radio station so listeners could hear comfortably in their cars; or they could roll down their windows to hear excellent quality sound on the system that was mounted high in the air.
“It was very successful, a beautiful event,” said Katz. “As we walked through the parking lot people kept stopping to thank us and say, ‘We needed this so badly, something to do as a family in a safe way’.” The smiles and appreciation keep Katz going. “We work hard, but it’s the greatest job in the world. It’s all about bringing joy to people and making them happy.”
Katz is keeping in shape for the next simcha season by working on new music and new technologies. “Our band uses a lot of technology in performance that involves pre-programming,” he explained. “I’m working on a lot of audio and visual stuff that we will be debuting in June, plus new music that we’ve never done before.”
Katz is also keeping busy as Digital Dov, leading Zoom parties with nonstop activities for groups all over the world—Spain, Toronto, Dubai, India—rom his basement. He created Digital Dov for a shul in New Rochelle that had to cancel its Purim festivities when the pandemic first hit the New York area. “It’s a lot of fun and different,” he said. “But I never thought I would still be doing this now, nine months later. In two hours, I’m doing it for a class in a school that’s now in quarantine for the fifth time. If we’re not back to some semblance of ‘normal’ by the spring, we have a bigger problem than no weddings.”
Shloime Dachs has been in demand as a singer and band leader for many years. Now he has half the business he did before the pandemic. “It’s pretty humbling,” he admitted. His band is still playing for the occasional wedding but everything is reduced in size, including the number of musicians in the band. While he’s getting calls now for the spring and summer season, couples want to know that there’s an ‘out’ if things are bad. “They’re all stipulating that if there are still COVID issues, I will agree to credit the deposit if the wedding is postponed, change venues or change the makeup of the band.”
Over Chanukah, Dachs participated in a traveling party for Ohel Children’s Home and Family Service. Instead of 1,000 people coming to a hall in Brooklyn, a flatbed truck took Dachs and his band to more than 15 group homes in Brooklyn and the Five Towns, where they played music while the counselors gave out gifts and doughnuts.
Last week, Dachs participated in a fundraiser for Amudim, a global nonprofit helping people in crisis, with a videotaped music segment with MBD, Avraham Fried, Benny Friedman, Mordechai Shapiro and other performers. The event, hosted by Nachum Siegel, raised $5 million. He worked on a video with Rabbi Yoel Gold, “Behind the Music—Every Song has a Story,” which can be seen on www.Hashkifa.com. And he is performing Hallel and musical Havdalah events on Zoom sponsored by shuls, in which anyone can join in.
Dachs is using the pandemic down time to add music to his repertoire and record his own. He will soon release a duet he recorded with his son that will be available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple and Instagram. He still hasn’t decided if he wants to release the single now or when the pandemic is over. And he’s confident it will be over in the near future. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel and that keeps us going,” he said. “And when the pandemic does end, we’ll jump right back in.”
Jonathan Rimberg is trying to enjoy the pandemic’s enforced winter vacation. Calls are coming in to book his band, Nafshenu, for spring and summer weddings, but for now, he has more time for Daf Yomi, baking with his two teenage daughters and hanging out with his 11-year-old son. He’s sprucing up the house a bit and doing small improvement projects. Musically, he’s doing Zoom Havdalah performances, and a few “odds and ends” for schools. He just performed at a private birthday party.
Rimberg is recording a series of covers of other people’s songs, and is reaching out to musicians and singers to collaborate on projects. He has several lists of contacts in WhatsApp to whom he sends out music. “I don’t do it to make money,” he said. “It’s advertising. I’m giving people free music to increase awareness that I still exist, and keep my skills in engineering, recording, mixing and orchestration from getting rusty.”
Rimberg is in a comfortable enough position that he doesn’t feel the pressure to leave the business or take another job. He was just offered a teaching position on Long Island, but recently moved to Teaneck and doesn’t want to relocate. “I can hold out another six months and see what happens,” he said. “I am starting to use my ‘rainy day’ fund, though and I’d like to be paying bills with money I’m earning.”
Musicians who freelance for simcha bands are in the most precarious position. “It’s never been easy to be a musician, but things are now dire,” said Mike Cohen, who plays sax, flute and clarinet, and is getting a master’s degree in jazz performance. Cohen usually has about 20 or 25 gigs in December. This year he had two weddings and another gig that’s streaming two days a week. He teaches music to children, primarily from the Upper West Side school Rodeph Shalom, and adults; but all on Zoom now, with half the number of students he had last year. “The work isn’t out there. Broadway is not coming back soon. Orchestras aren’t coming back soon. They will come back but not for a long time. Contractors for simcha bands call closer to the date of the gig the band is playing.”
It pains Cohen that people aren’t hearing much live music now. Even before the pandemic, DJs and computers started becoming a larger segment of the market. He’d like to be out there bringing live music to whoever wants to hear it, but he can’t do it for free. “There are different prices for different gigs. I know what I make at a wedding and that isn’t the pay I expect if I play a school concert. But in the age of COVID, to be asked to play for free feels like being taken advantage of.”
Zvi Lampert is a keyboard player and band leader who has performed with most of the top names in Jewish music. But now, like all musicians, he has a fraction of the jobs he used to have. His work as a one-man band and performer at small parties has helped him get through the pandemic, but those jobs have declined sharply with the cold weather. He has been furloughed from his job as a music teacher; he knows he will return, but not when. To supplement his income, he is using his van to make deliveries.
Chanukah is usually a busy season for Lampert, with an average of 10 events. His only Chanukah event this year was playing with Shloime Dachs for the traveling Ohel event in the Five Towns, on the flatbed hitched to a trailer, when the temperature was below freezing. “It’s hard to move your fingers in that weather,” he said. And instruments don’t always work correctly in the cold.
Lampert says he has been asked to do some pro-bono appearances but has to turn them down. “I play for work; it’s not a hobby,” he said. “Some people don’t take us seriously as professionals. My dear friend Eitan Katz (well known singer and simcha performer) has a great line that I borrowed: ‘You’re nonprofit, but I’m not.’ A lot of us were happy to do volunteer gigs but at this point, there’s not much wiggle room. I feel bad that I can’t donate my time but music jobs are so few and far between that I have to get paid.” Lampert said he recently approached an organization to get paid for work he had done earlier this year and the administrator asked him to take less than the previously agreed-upon fee. “I had to explain to her how hard-hit the music business has been and I insisted on the full amount.”
There’s another group of Jewish music performers who have seen events dry up: chazanim. Yaakov Motzen of Englewood has been a chazan for 53 years. He regularly performs all over the world in concert, and in shuls for the Yomim Tovim. He’s still singing all over the world—but on Zoom from his home. And mostly pro bono. He does Kabbalat Shabbat in Europe, South Africa, Israel and Istanbul. Because of the time difference, he may be davening at 11 a.m. He recently performed in a concert for the shloshim of Chazzan Daniel Gildar z”l of Philadelphia.
Motzen has rescheduled dates in Israel and plane tickets to get there several times. He has a concert scheduled for March that is still up in the air. Will it happen? “God knows better than me,” he said. And that’s how he is approaching all the cancellations and postponements of the pandemic. “God controls the world. If you have emunah, life is easier. I make a schedule. I study on the phone with people from Israel. I daven in shul. I’m not making money from my Zoom performances but music makes people happy and I’m happy to do it.”