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So you want to be a working musician in Greater Boston? Here’s what it takes.

Johnny Trama and The B-3 Kings performed at The Plough and Stars in Cambridge in March.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE — It’s a Tuesday night and that means Johnny Trama is playing his guitar at The Plough and Stars, as he has for the last 12 years.

The bar is small, but crowded. There are about 25 patrons here. Trama’s playing surfs atop a soulful and funky backbeat provided by one of several bands he regularly plays with: the Reckoners. The notes crescendo and dive, weave, and dip. Outside, a cold early spring wind blows down Massachusetts Avenue, but inside, it’s warm, and patrons sip pints of Guinness as Trama and the band play. Some chat, others are absorbed in the show.

“I love what I do,” said Trama, 49, hours before the gig. “This is what I do. I don’t know anything else.”

Trama has been here, at the Plough, for more than 600 shows. For a local working musician such as Trama, that’s a lifetime. Venues open and close, musicians come and go. His Tuesday night residency is also a crucial financial anchor, the kind of job a full-time musician in the Boston area needs these days to stay afloat.

The region’s cost-of-living crunch has not spared performers like Trama and his craft. Real estate prices are squeezing small performance venues and performers alike. And there is the creeping concern among some working musicians that the real estate crisis and the closure of some small venues means Greater Boston is becoming less vibrant, less weird, and more bland.

“Everything’s controlled, and everything’s expensive,” Trama said. “The common ground of anarchy and art, it is being pushed out. It’s Disney, it’s Starbucks.”

Trama is affable. Bearded and small in stature, he smiles a lot when talking about his work. He came to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship but dropped out after two semesters. He doesn’t consider himself “the greatest guitar player,” he says; his strength “lies in how I can play with a rhythm section” and in his songwriting. His influences range from Jimmy Page to Freddie King to George Benson.


He owns seven guitars and 15 amps, which he refers to as his paint brushes. He transports the equipment to and from gigs in a 2011 Honda Element that is approaching 300,000 miles. He plans to drive the car until the wheels fall off.

Trama grew up in and around New York. His mother was an art teacher; his father, a jewelry designer, died when he was 13. That instilled a hustle in him that persists to this day, he said.

“I’ve always understood nothing’s coming to me unless I go to it,” he said recently over a tea in a Harvard Square cafe.

Trama likes to stay busy, but it’s also a necessity: he has no normal day job. This is his livelihood. If he wants that to continue, he has to grind. And grind he does. He easily clears more than 300 gigs a year.

“Obviously no matter what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to make money because this is what I do,” he said.

Johnny Trama was all smiles before the start of his set with The B-3 Kings at The Plough and Stars in Cambridge in March.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

It’s the start of his work week. Trama, who lives in Watertown, likes to leave Mondays open to spend time with his elementary school-age son, whom he tries to drop off at school each morning. But most nights, he’s gigging.

Over the next week there are three more shows for Trama: two in Somerville and one in Vermont. Each with a different band; he’ll play soul covers from the 1970s in support of singer Sarah Seminski, with a funk ensemble at a brewery in Brattleboro, and with a reggae group that goes by the name Dub Apocalypse. He has other bands: Band of Brothers, an Allman Brothers tribute band; a rock band out of Rhode Island he played with called The Silks, which he says just broke up; and a band called The Reckoners, formerly known around Cambridge as Band of Killers, that he just finished making a record with. On this night, the Reckoners are filling in for his normal Tuesday night band: the B-3 Kings.


“Good is good,” he said, “and good always finds the way to the top.”

He doesn’t want to walk away with less than $80 to $100 a gig, and on a good night he can make much more than that. But sometimes, gigs let him down. On a recent night, he was upset with himself for maybe not properly communicating how much he needed to perform, but also irritated with the venue. When he was handed a pittance at the end of the night he kept asking himself: “Are you kidding?”

“There are the downsides of it,” he said.

Many musicians’ wages have been stagnant for years, if not decades. Trama thinks musicians need a bare minimum living wage and a labor union to stick up for them.


Some clubs will nickel-and-dime you. Some don’t offer a guaranteed base payment, or even offer a complimentary drink, he said. He’s seen arguments between musicians and door men over the number of people at the gig. (For some performances, the band sometimes gets a cut of the cover costs at the door, meaning that more people would mean more money for the musicians.)

“Everyone wants more for nothing,” said Trama.

Musicians agree that networking is key, that one weekly gig, or one band, is not going to pay the bills. Diversifying one’s work, being willing to play in multiple outfits, is crucial.

Seminski, a singer who lives in Medford and performs with Trama, said there is no “business model right now that matches where we’re at and what we do.”

“There’s no record labels that have financial means to help put on and help produce and promote a band,” she said.

There are other lamentations. A certain type of live music venue — small, established, and intimate — has begun to disappear in recent years. Gone is Great Scott in Allston. Bull McCabe’s, in Somerville, too. Toad in Cambridge’s Porter Square is closed down.

New venues, some with capacities in the thousands have cropped up, such as Roadrunner in Brighton and MGM Music Hall at Fenway, but, Trama says, “the small scale is where the whole art exists and comes out of.”

Tom Arey, a Framingham resident and drummer who plays with Trama, concurs.

“There’s no middle-class rooms to develop young acts either local or nationally,” he said recently. “National acts are coming through town, and they can’t put a thousand seats in the room, and their options are very limited.”


Morgan Luzzi, a musician and the program administrator for the Berklee Popular Music Institute, said: “Not having that kind of steppingstone . . . it has a pretty big effect.”

There are moments of joy and triumph, though, reminders of why they are performers. Trama takes pride in “getting the creative idea and having it become tangible. It just exists. A lot of people do a lot of talk, and they don’t get to that place.”

At the Plough and Stars, there is no cover. Trama passes around a bucket during a set break and encourages those in attendance to chip in. Tuesday nights, he said, are his “think tank,” where he tries things out, to see if they work or don’t work.

“When you feel something,he said,it recharges you.”

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.