“If I were to write an article, from my point of view, it’s how two empty nesters found a whole new life after kids.”
This is according to Beth Stein, who fortunately is not writing this article.
“Fortunately,” because in many ways this story is about something far larger. It’s about tikkun olam, the changing face of the music business, and how artists are struggling to adapt.
Beth and her husband, Perry Stein, run Ethical Brew, a series of roots (or folk) concerts run out of the Ethical Culture Society in Teaneck. The series is, in their words, “a quality blend of live music and social action.”
The Steins became involved in the concerts because of their love of music and a family history of social activism. “It was a fluke,” Perry said in a recent interview. “We go to a lot of concerts as fans.”
One series they attended on a regular basis, Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, combined music and charity. Those concerts were run by a group of young progressives and, Perry said, it “looked like a very familiar place,” similar “to the culture at Ethical Culture,” where the Steins are members.
It was here that fate intervened. At an earlier concert, they’d placed themselves on the mailing list of folk singer/song writer Vance Gilbert; they got an eblast from him, saying that he was thinking about doing a few house concerts.
And, yes, house concerts are exactly what the name suggests. People like former Hillsdale resident Peter Shafran and his wife, Paula, literally open their Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., home to professional roots singers or groups and invite music lovers into their living room to listen 10 times a year or so. It’s a pot luck afternoon, with guests bringing food and $20 each, with all cash going to the artist.
The Steins wrote to Mr. Gilbert to see if he’d be willing to come to Teaneck to do “a large house concert,” and he said yes. They got the Ethical Culture board to let them use the organization’s facility. And they were in business.
Their first concert, in January, 2013, “was a sell out,” with the Bergen County Sanctuary Coalition as the charity of record.
“It was a big success and we had so much fun doing it,” Beth said.
Although it was supposed to be a one-off, “we felt good about it,” Perry added. “We asked ourselves why don’t we start doing this on a regular basis.”
“It combined two things we’re about: music and social action,” Beth said.
“Both of us are Jewish,” Perry added. “Beth’s family was more secular while mine was more traditional. I attended Hebrew school through bar mitzvah. My parents were active members of the synagogue in Franklin Square” — that’s on Long Island — “and enjoyed many lifelong friendships through this connection.
“We were both instilled with a strong commitment to social action in the Jewish tradition as a moral responsibility, going back to my grandfather, who was an active union organizer,” he continued. “Beth’s mother, though not religious, was very involved with social justice causes such as the civil rights movement and women’s rights and was an active member and past president of heard local American Jewish Congress chapter for many years.
“Beth and I share a love of live music and the idea was to marry the two important parts of our lives. Ethical Brew allows us to do that.”
In fact, Ethical Brew does more; it is the proverbial win-win situation for everyone. For the audience, it’s an enjoyable, intimate, and inexpensive afternoon or evening, where they literally sit within feet of the performers, who’ll happily engage in conversation, pose for photos, and autograph CDs — or the merch, as it’s better known — after the show.
I’ve been attending these concerts for about three years now, invariably discovering and enjoying artists I’d never heard of before. In addition to the music, it’s a great experience. Typically, to get tickets for a concert at a more standard venue, I’ll pay five or six times the $20 Ethical Brew costs, and I’ll wind up watching the show so far from the performer that I have to see in on a large TV screen.
Here I’m almost part of the action. I’m in show business.
It’s a win for the artists, too. That they so willingly appear at these venues — in people’s living rooms — is in large measure a function of the way most people buy music nowadays. As Mr. Shafran says: “Very few people under 40 buy CDs anymore.” Singers who used to make a buck or two every time an album was sold now must be content with pennies when people download a single song, and even less when their music plays on the computer.
“You don’t need a CD collection any more,” Peter said. “Why pay $15 for a CD, when for just a few dollars a month you can get millions of songs on Pandora or Spotify?”
Perry Stein adds that in addition to cash — there is roughly a three-way split between the musicians, Ethical Culture, and the performers’ charities — these mini-concerts fill in dead days when an artist is on the road, often offering a place to crash and a home-cooked meal as a bonus. (Beth Stein and Paula Shafran always cooks for their performers.)
For some musicians, too — for example, Fair Lawn’s Jaymie Gerard — it’s a opportunity to re-invigorate a career interrupted by child birth. And for everyone, it’s a chance to sell t-shirts and CDs and add to an email list.
Beth Stein is an artist and substitute teacher; Perry Stein runs a small poster printing business. They devote about 10 hours weekly to Ethical Brew; show days are typically 12 hours of work. They are also typically out-of-pocket between $110 and $150 each show.
But they don’t mind. As Beth noted: “When our daughter left for college, we wondered what are were going to do with ourselves. Now we’re having more fun then we did when we were in our 20s.”
The next show is on November 18 at 8 p.m. and features David Massengilll and Mike and Aleksi Glick. All tickets are $20; there is a $2 ticketing fee.
For more information, go to www.ethicalbrew.org.