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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Back in the 1940s, the Musicians' Union worried that prerecorded music would put live concerts out of business, so the union reached a deal with record companies to support a series of free concerts across the country.

Well, that deal has survived for more than 60 years and it's funded tens of thousands of free concerts, but NPR's Felix Contreras reports that the tradition may be at risk in the digital era.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Perth Amboy, New Jersey is a working class community that sits on an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, just across from Staten Island.

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CONTRERAS: It's a town proud of its history. It boasts of having the oldest working city hall in the country. A Perth Amboy ballet box caught the first vote of an African American following the passage of the 15th Amendment and the town's Bayview Park is the site of one of the longest running concert series in the country, funded by the Music Performance Trust Fund.

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CONTRERAS: Chris Pederson has played in or conducted the Garden State Symphonic Band for 56 years. Before that, his father played in the band.

CHRIS PEDERSON: I cut my honeymoon short to come back to rehearse for a concert and my wife was not thrilled with that, but she was very tolerant and we've lived without vacations and everything during the summer to keep the band going.

CONTRERAS: But this afternoon's concert may be one of the last.

Mayor WILDA DIAZ: But I really have to come out and say that we need some money to continue with the concerts, so I would appreciate it if you could kind of get a hold of anyone that you know that can give us some help.

CONTRERAS: Concert organizers asked the small audience to spread the word among local businesses that the Performance Trust Fund doesn't have any more money to offer Perth Amboy for its concert series.

DIAZ: It would be sad to see them go away.

CONTRERAS: Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz grew up here. She says, like so many municipalities across the country, the town is facing grim economic challenges and it can't afford to contribute any money toward the concerts.

But she acknowledges that the shows are not just free entertainment. They're an important part of the town's fabric that binds the newly arrived Latino immigrants with the largely older, largely white concert audiences. It happened for her.

DIAZ: This is why, I guess, I learned how to love this music, too. You know, to listen to Gershwin, you know, this is where you learn. You learn about other cultures right here. Back then, that made, you know, Perth Amboy and the country such a strong, you know, great place to live.

CONTRERAS: Sixty-three years ago, record companies set aside a small royalty on every record sold to fund free concerts across the U.S. and Canada, to be administered by a trust fund set up by the American Federation of Musicians.

Back then, union officials feared live performances would be threatened by consumer preferences for prerecorded music. The mid-1980s were the high water mark for sales of prerecorded music and the Performance Trust Fund concerts. Officials say the fund supported almost 70,000 performances with a budget of $32 million.

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CONTRERAS: But as CD sales dropped and the record industry grappled with file sharing, the Performance Trust Fund's share of royalties started to dry up. Last year, the fund could only support just over 2,700 programs with a little more than $2 million.

JOHN C. HALL: Something where will replace it, I'm sure, but I don't think it's going to be something that I want to be around to hear or see.

CONTRERAS: John C. Hall is the trustee for the fund. He says he used to have a staff of 32 to keep track of all the free concerts and school performances. Now, his staff of three is essentially watching the fund's slow demise.

HALL: Last year, over 125 locals of the American Federation of Musicians in multiple cities - that's 125 geographical areas - had no action at all.

CONTRERAS: The fund's longest running free concert series is the New York Grand Opera's Free Opera in the Park program. It's presented shows for over three million people in Central Park since 1974.

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CONTRERAS: But on this day, a steady summer storm has put off "Madame Butterfly," the company's final performance of the summer, for another day.

Soprano, Lucia Palmieri, says the company offers New York audiences a valuable alternative.

LUCIA PALMIERI: Our challenge in life is to bring opera to people who normally wouldn't be able to afford it. And what we attract are young children, families, diverse ethnic groups that aren't normally at the Metropolitan Opera or at city opera because the tickets are so pricy.

CONTRERAS: She also credits conductor, Vincent LaSelva, and the free concert series for another cultural achievement that would be lost if the series stops.

PALMIERI: It's heartbreaking because so many of us rely on New York Grand Opera as a stepping stone to something much bigger and he is just - maestro has been such a light of hope to many musicians, including those especially of African-American heritage.

CONTRERAS: Maestro LaSelva has led the company for nearly four decades in the park and in area schools, spreading the gospel of opera.

VINCENT LASELVA: I know when I took "La Boheme" to a high school in Brooklyn years and years ago, I'll never forget these 15 and 16 year old girls crying at the end of "La Boheme." They never experienced an emotion like that and they, believe me, they will never, ever forget it, either.

CONTRERAS: And LaSelva is determined to continue providing unforgettable experiences.

LASELVA: I never roll over and die because it looks like I'm not going to be able to do this. I find a way to make it happen. It's 38 years. That's a long part of my life and I'll be back next year no matter what.

CONTRERAS: LaSelva and the Music Performance Trust Fund may be able to return for an encore. The Musicians' Union and the record labels recently started negotiations over a number of issues. One of them is a potential alternative to record sales as a source of income to keep the concerts going, so performers across the country are anxiously waiting in the wings.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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