Musicians struggle to survive in the time of coronavirus

Musicians struggle to survive in the time of coronavirus

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A novel member of the coronavirus family, COVID-19, is now with us, seemingly everywhere, and is here to stay. Small wonder, then, that the world is overtaken by a massive wave of fear, especially as we live in a time where the spread of information happens with unprecedented speed. Also spreading swiftly are people’s reactions to the global stressor, in both predictable and innovative ways. Music, in any and every variety, is proving both familiar and novel.

With fear, and the prospect of the new pandemic’s effects lasting an as yet undetermined duration of time, resourcefulness is a key quality we humans ought to draw upon. Large swaths of the globe are under lockdown, with millions being asked or ordered by their governments to stay indoors. In richer parts of the world, where supermarkets are the places people go to find food, panic buyers are clearing different products off the commercial shelves every day. While professionals who oversee the smooth running of supply chains are doing their best to help people believe that food is unlikely to run out, other professionals are getting creative in their efforts to help the anxious find respite within. Musicians, crucially, count among the latter group.

In Italy, currently the deadliest center of the pandemic, people must stay home under stringent social distancing measures. In many Italian cities, home is an apartment in a multistory building, which means that just peeking outside the apartment door exposes residents to potentially risky contact. Musicians, professional and amateur, have taken to balconies to engage others in song. Samples of short videos circulating on social media show a variety of musical activities taking place communally, all from balconies. I have seen ones of opera song, local favorites, national anthems, solo instrumentalists giving high-quality balcony performances, and a DJ with his gear complete with lights and amplifiers. Welcoming participation from a sufficient number of neighbors makes these musicians’ efforts worth their while, emotionally if not financially.

Comparable attempts in other countries don’t seem to have had a similarly positive effect. Memes representing Germany and New York City show the song initiator shifting rapidly to quiet after neighborly shouts asked them to do so; though in not as polite a set of words. In one video, from Lebanon, pop songs played from a loudspeaker seemed to encourage some neighbors to pretend to dance on their balconies. Despite similarities in circumstances, comparable attempts elicit drastically different reactions. Culture, in fact, is too pertinent when it comes to music.

For the vast majority around the world, their livelihood depends on the next gig

Tala Jarjour

Though unfortunate, it may be no news that musicians, and music teachers, are among those most dramatically hit by economic crises. This is why many would-be musicians have office jobs, lest they have none at all. But for those who have worked hard to carve out a performer’s career, being suddenly cut off from audiences and told that they and those they regularly meet for the purpose of music making would have to stay away from each other is likely to spell disaster. City after city, and venue after venue, even entire countries, have canceled thousands of performances. While some musicians might have the relative protection of institutional employment and unions, for the vast majority around the world, their livelihood depends on the next gig.

Musicians have, for a very long time, depended on a gig economy. Now they are competing, but not for performance space, air space or benefactor generosity alone. In the current globally dominant gig economy, they are competing with an entire generation of professionals working across all sectors. Even in free market economies where governments are promising rescue packages for their citizens, the self-employed are yet to be accounted for.

In many countries of the Middle East, musicians will struggle to survive in the age of coronavirus. Even in the solid economies of Western Europe or North America, Middle Eastern musicians are, for the most part, migrants and in many cases refugees, who may not be able to weather a two-week financial storm, let alone one that has no foreseeable end. Yet many of them have rushed to post online videos of their music from the confines of their homes, inviting others to share a moment of consolation.

Music is an essential part of what we humans do, and it is an important component of our happiness, health and well-being. If we want it to remain with us, we need to pay attention to the financial security of those who make it. As governments draw up rescue packages, effectively reversing austerity cuts in some countries and promising to give attention to vulnerable groups in others, let us hope they ensure that musicians are accounted for. Musicians, and the music they make, are important for our survival and sanity, especially in the stressful months we are told to expect.

If you are a reader of this column who wishes to be directed to Middle Eastern musicians doing great work, feel free to get in touch with me at talajarjour.academia.edu/contact and I will be happy to help (for free).

  • Tala Jarjour is author of Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo. She is Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London, and Associate Fellow of the Yale College
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