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Back on stage, local musicians describe pandemic survival

Julia King had just dropped her first full-length album when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

The Greenport singer/songwriter had everything lined up — her tours and concerts were “in the works.” But the start of lockdown meant all those events had to be canceled, leaving her with very limited ways to promote her January release.

“Everything just got canceled and so all the money and time and heart that got put into making that record kind of petered out,” Ms. King said. “It was quite a big hit for me.”

Bookings dried up for independent musicians on the North Fork during the pandemic, as restaurants and other venues shut their doors. Greg McMullen, a steel guitarist from Greenport, said live performances pretty much came to a halt.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we were afraid to leave our houses,” said Mr. McMullen, who plays both as a solo artist and as an accompanist with several others, including Ms. King.

Without access to in-person venues or recording studios, Mr. McMullen turned to virtual performances and remote recording sessions. It was a struggle at first, he said, although he figured it out eventually. He’s one of only a handful of steel guitarists on Long Island, which he suspects played a role in helping him keep busy.

Rob Europe of East Marion, a singer and guitar player picked up a day job at Greenport Wines and Spirits to make ends meet.

“Everything was in question. So I wasn’t sure what to do at the time,” he said. All his gigs, no matter how far in the future, had been “pretty much thrown out the window.”

Performances trickled in over the summer of 2020, but not like they usually did. Mr. McMullen said he’s usually booked for the summer by early spring. “Nobody wanted to book in advance,” he said. “Everybody [that] summer was going week by week.”

The pandemic was too uncertain, and everybody was suffering — the National Restaurant Association estimates that the American restaurant and food services industry lost about $240 billion in 2020.

“I feel that the North Fork community came in to help each other. It wasn’t easy for anybody.”

Greg McMullen

Sam and Tom Shaffery, a local father-son duo, didn’t perform after the outbreak until July 2020. “Nobody knew what was safe,” Sam said.

The Shafferys are not full-time musicians — Tom is semi-retired and Sam is applying to law school — so their music careers weren’t among their first thoughts when the pandemic hit.

“I kind of really didn’t think about it until all of a sudden it’s the end of June and I don’t have a single show scheduled and I’m like, ‘Oh wow, like that’s really depressing,’ ” Sam said. “There was certainly concern that the pandemic might have sunk us, you know, to a level that we couldn’t come back from.”

The pandemic may have slowed them down, but it didn’t sink them. The pair took gigs into early December last year and they believe their bookings in 2021 so far may have topped 2019, their breakthrough year.

“We found that people really enjoyed the live music,” Tom said. People were more willing to stay outside last year, even in the cold, and now, many are trying to make up for lost time, his son added.

Mr. Europe said once vaccinations started to roll out there was an “unprecedented, pent up desire for people to get out and have a good time.”

“I’ve talked to a lot of musicians about this as well [and] everybody I’ve talked to has pretty much told me that, and myself included, that this has been one of the most crazy, hectic, busy summers they’ve ever had,” he said. “I probably played more gigs than I ever had before.”

Ms. King and Mr. McMullen both saw performances pick up significantly in 2021, although not to pre-pandemic levels.

“Everybody called at once and everybody wanted music,” Ms. King said of this summer, although she added that she’s “still trying to get back to that full-time level.”

“Restaurants and places that used to hire you are still recovering and bigger venues are still [pulling] together,” she said.

Julia King performs at Porto Bello in Greenport in May 2019, 10 months before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for her industry.

Ms. King noted that it’s “hard to get in as a new artist,” because venues are looking to hire “tried and true” artists who are likely to draw a large crowd in an attempt to recoup losses.

Mr. McMullen said he’s at “maybe 70% pre-pandemic,” although even throughout the pandemic, he had some sporadic gigs. “There were some venues and restaurants willing to try to make it work,” he said.

He added that he found more empathy and compassion during the pandemic — besides North Fork venues trying to give him a performance space when they could, he found a lot of opportunities through word of mouth from fellow musicians.

“I feel that the North Fork community came in to help each other. It wasn’t easy for anybody,” he said.

Mr. Europe said he was “very surprised and encouraged and grateful” that so many restaurants hired musicians as soon as they could, even during that “first summer” of the pandemic.

“I started slowly doing gigs again, while working at the wine store. And my boss and all the staff over there, wonderful people, they pretty much were always understanding about what I needed to do,” he said. “It just kind of felt as if everybody was really coming together and helping each other out.”

Mr. McMullen also said he feels that he grew as an artist during the pandemic. Lockdown gave him pause to sit back and fine-tune, he said. He’s come out a stronger solo musician, with plans to drop an album this winter.

“The confidence I’ve gotten, my own confidence, that’s really been great,” he said.

Mr. Europe said he improved his time management and learned not to take his “time for granted.” He released a single during the pandemic and hopes to finish a full-length album this winter as well.

Ms. King doesn’t plan to drop another album any time soon, but she wrote a new song recently that she’s really proud of and she’s collaborated with another female singer from Brooklyn.

“Working with her, working with another strong female vocal, it gave me opportunities to get stronger with harmonies and work on my percussion instruments … so I’ve definitely expanded my own skill,” she said. “And that, I’m grateful for. Without the pandemic, I probably would have never had the opportunity to improve those skills as much as I did. There’s always a silver lining.”