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January 1, 2022IM -
On June 24 of this year, a group of legislators and musicians gathered on Capitol Hill to introduce the American Music Fairness Act (AMFA). The AFM and the MusicFIRST Coalition worked closely with members of Congress to help craft the AMFA. If adopted, the bipartisan bill will establish a performance right for sound recordings, ensuring that all of the performers, musicians, and others involved in the creation of a recording will receive fair compensation for its broadcast on AM/FM radio. Among the supporters was bassist Ken Casey, member of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) and longtime frontman of the Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphys. It was hardly the first time Casey has lent his voice to a cause.
Together for more than 25 years, the Dropkick Murphys originated in 1996 when Casey, then a bartender at Symphony Hall in Boston, accepted a bet from a co-worker. He’d never played an instrument before, but he vowed he could win the bet by starting a band, and soon they were rehearsing in the basement of a nearby barbershop.
Today, the band’s lineup includes Casey as well as Local 9-535 members vocalist Al Barr, drummer Matt Kelly, guitarist James Lynch, bass player Kevin Rheault, bagpiper Lee Forshner, and Tim Brennan and Jeff DaRosa, who both play a variety of instruments.
With a vibrant, community-focused fan base, Casey recognizes that he has a powerful platform. Most people outside of the industry are unaware of what goes on behind the scenes. He knows that his presence at events like this one will help to educate the public about the struggles faced by working musicians.
“Dropkick Murphys has always been about workers’ rights and standing up for people whose voices aren’t being heard,” says Ken Casey. “Truth be told, the whole world of radio play isn’t really affecting us, because that’s not the world [punk bands] operate in. But no matter what the issue is, we’re all in this together. A win for musicians, or any working people, is a win for us all. We stand alongside people, no matter what, even if it’s not a cause that directly affects us.”
“The royalties paid for streaming or for radio play might make the difference between someone being able to stay on this career path or not,” he says. “I know many musicians who have had to say, ‘Screw it, I’m getting a day job,’ you know? Maybe we’d have a lot more great art out there if people were able to make a real living.”
That’s never been truer than over the course of the last two years, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down nearly every avenue of employment for musicians. “I can’t think of any other industry that has been upended like the music industry has been,” Casey says. “When a musician can’t tour, can’t get out and work, it’s devastating. Most musicians aren’t in that top 1% of the rich and famous who can afford to stay home.”
Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars large media corporations like iHeartRadio make from advertisers, they never share a penny of that with the musicians who create the music. Musicians deserve compensation for work—just like everyone else. Sign the American Music Fairness Act petition, visit https://bit.ly/AMFA-fairpay
While life hasn’t exactly gotten back to normal, Casey and his bandmates have managed to stay busy. Dropkick Murphys released their 10th studio album, Turn Up That Dial, in April and this fall they embarked on a US tour. Bassist Kevin Rheault officially became the eighth member of the band this year, freeing up Casey to focus on vocals and spend more time engaging with the crowd. He adds, Rheault is a better bass player, anyway.
Recording in the age of COVID isn’t ideal, but they were up to the challenge. “You know, technology is great,” he says. “We’d never really used it because I think we’re old-fashioned in that sense, but the technology for the writing process is really amazing. It was a lifesaver.”
To comply with social distancing guidelines, the band took advantage of every spare inch of space they could find in the studio. Casey explains, “The studio has lots of different rooms and little closets. For a lot of the gang vocals where we’d normally all be in one room, we were in a bunch of different closets at the same time. It was different, but I don’t think it’s noticeable on the album.”
Casey spent much of the pandemic pursuing a solo goal: he returned to college to finish the degree he’d abandoned 25 years before. Joking that he only hit the books to combat “total and utter boredom” during the downtime, he goes on to say that it was something he wanted to do for his family as much as for himself.
“I wanted to be the first person in my family to graduate from college,” he says. “I had always thought both my grandfathers graduated from college after the war. They were both always waving the Boston College flag. Come to find out, they never graduated, they just took some classes through the G.I. Bill. So I said, hold on a minute. I could be the first. I have a daughter who’s in college, and I’m not letting her be the first!”
At the time of this interview, Casey was just weeks away from graduating. His degree program combined communications and American studies, and he was able to weave his experience as a musician into his coursework. “My final thesis project was a documentary on touring in the COVID era,” he says. “I filmed and documented our whole fall tour. The ups and downs of everything and the precautions we had to take¬—from catering being different to testing every day.”
He recalls a scare on tour when a member of the crew tested positive. Fortunately, it was an isolated case, and they never had to cancel any shows. “Almost worse than not being able to tour at all is being out on the road—trucks, buses, crews, all this overhead—and having to cancel shows. There’s no income, but you still have to pay the daily overhead. With our low ticket prices, even two or three canceled shows can turn a profitable tour into a loss.”
Will Casey’s documentary find its way to the theater or a streaming service? No, he says. “If you want to see it, you’ll have to go to UMass Boston and take Professor Jeffrey Melnick’s class.”
The pandemic was also a time of transition for the Claddagh Fund, the nonprofit organization launched by the Dropkick Murphys in 2009. The fund raises money for a variety of charities supported by the band and has been embraced by their fans. Even at a time when money is tight for so many, Casey has been humbled by the generosity of donors.
“We’ve had to get creative because our biggest fundraiser of the year is typically a golf tournament, and we’ve done it, but it’s been restricted a lot by COVID and hasn’t made as much money,” says Casey. “We’ve always given $1 of every ticket sale to the fund, so when we started touring again that helped. We’re doing a t-shirt of the month now, and people have been snapping those right up.”
He is especially proud of the work they’ve been able to do to combat substance abuse—particularly opioid abuse—which has risen significantly during the last two years. He thinks that coming together over a shared cause has made the fan community even stronger and brought greater meaning to their music.
He explains, “Listening to music is, obviously, a personal thing; it’s an intimate thing. Sometimes it’s a solitary thing, especially during a pandemic. But when you feel like there may be some kind of greater good attached to it, I think that makes it all that much better. I look at the fund from the perspective that someday the band won’t exist, but maybe the charity will be the piece that continues, you know? I love how tied together the band and the fund have become.”
After 26 years, fans of the Dropkick Murphys are still as passionate and loyal as ever. Casey says that, while they may not be a traditional mainstream success story, they’re proud of the community they’ve built. Over time they’ve seen their audience change and grow, becoming an intergenerational mix of grandparents, teenagers, and even young children. In fact, they’ve started sending stagehands into the audience at the beginning of each show to make sure that the children have ear protection.
“It’s like, we’re trying to do a punk rock show and whip up a frenzy, but at the same time, we’re running a little punk rock daycare,” he laughs. “It’s funny because most of the people in the audience wouldn’t ever imagine the vantage point you get from the stage, what we can see going on in the crowd. From age variation to the way people listen to our music, whether it’s jumping into the aggression of it or into the community spirit. There are a lot of reasons why people come to see us, but I hope they come back and hopefully they stay.”
Despite all his achievements, Casey balks when asked if he thinks that he and his band will leave a legacy. He’s not comfortable with that word. “I don’t think that we’re of the level of importance that they’ll be talking about us in textbooks in 200 years,” he says. “But when you’ve made it 26 years as a band, chances are there’s going to be a few more generations that hear about you. And that’s not always the case for a band that has huge levels of mainstream success, but only lasts a few years. So, I’ll take what we’ve got any day.