Sociology of the arts and culture

Culture in Times of Crisis: the Music Sector facing COVID-19

June 28, 2021 13:15
June 28, 2021 14:45

Research Committee Sociology of Arts and Culture (RC-SAC – Foko-KUKUSO):

Olivier Moeschler, University of Lausanne; Miriam Odoni, University of Neuchatel; Loïc Riom, University of Geneva/Mines Paristech; Samuel Coavoux, Orange Labs/SENSE; Valérie Rolle and Thibaut Menoux University of Nantes; Guy Schwegler, University of Lucerne


Kristina Kolbe, Department of Sociology, University of Amsterdam

David Arditi, University of Texas at Arlington, USA

Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt/M., Germany

Like other societal and economic sectors, the world of arts and culture has been put under hard pressure by the COVID-19 pandemic. The current crisis endangers, questions, and reshapes cultural actors and industries already marked by precarious work conditions, deep inequalities, and uncertainty.

Organized by the Research Committee Sociology of Arts and Culture (RC-SAC), this SEMI-PLENARY SESSIONS echoes its eponymous paper sessions. It aims at analyzing and discussing what is at stake for arts and culture in face of the COVID-19 crisis by taking the music sector as a case study.

Uncertainty of employment is only exacerbated as institutions are forced to reduce attendance to comply with distance rules or even close their doors due to lockdown restrictions. What reactions have artists and cultural venues respectively found to address these constraints? The new need for dissemination of works other than live performance that followed put into focus the inequalities in terms of distribution of culture. Who, among artists, is able to get access to broadcasting media like radio or television? And who manages to be heard, seen, and appreciated in the accessible but vast world of online social networks and streaming? These adjustments on how to present one’s work inevitably brought about changes in terms of cultural and artistic production itself. At the same time, changes are observable in the relation to the artists and their audience as well. How has the orientation of cultural policies directed towards music been redefined in these times of crisis? And how has the cultural sector itself been advocating for more social justice and sustainable practices especially during these times of crisis? 

This SEMI-PLENARY SESSIONS is supported by a grant awarded to the RC-SAC by the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW) after a seed money call on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the Agenda 2030.

‘Diversity’ in crisis: Inequalities in the classical music sector in light of the covid-19 pandemic

Kristina Kolbe, Department of Sociology, University of Amsterdam

This presentation draws from 30 qualitative interviews, conducted between September and December 2020, with musicians based in the UK and Germany who have been involved in ‘diversity’ work in the (Western) classical music sector. Building on current literature that seeks to understand how notions of racialised otherness are not just represented but made in cultural production processes, I explore how diversity discourses figure in and take form through the aesthetic, institutional and social practices that make up classical music production. Moreover, I look at how my interviewees reflect on their work as musicians, and on diversity work more specifically, amidst the severe consequences that the covid-19 pandemic has had on the arts and culture sector. While I show how discourses of crisis risk deepening long-standing inequalities around ‘race’ and class as institutionalised by the Western art music sector, I also discuss how they can further push for a diversity of practices that unsettle the standardised workings of classical music.  

Keywords: Diversity; Inequalities; Racialised otherness; Classical music; COVID-pandemic crisis

Precarious Labor in COVID Times: The Case of Musicians

David Arditi, University of Texas at Arlington, USA

While the coronavirus pandemic has had lasting effects on employment opportunities throughout labor markets, workers who earn a living through precarious employment activities have faced unique barriers to securing wages. When many governments shutdown all gatherings of 10 or more people in 2020, the impact was devastating on musicians' lives and many supporting workers in the entertainment industry. The structural insecurity of gig work became amplified as venues were forced to shut down performances for a year or more. In this paper, I argue musicians’ post-COVID livelihoods were exacerbated by their position as independent contractors instead of record label employees.

When a musician signs a record contract, they sign away their copyrights in exchange for an advance on royalties. That advance needs to be paid back before they ever see a dime from the sale of their music. For all intents and purposes, they work for their record labels, but they are not considered workers: they are contractors. Musicians remain independent small businesses who contract with labels to provide a service. Under this system, labels do not owe musicians anything as workers. It is up to recording artists to market themselves and generate sales. Many recording artists have described the system as akin sharecropping.

First, this paper will provide a discussion of musicians as workers by exploring the way record contracts establish inequity in the recording industry. Second, I argue the COVID crisis for musicians was largely an affect of their precarious employment situation. Finally, I will provide a vision for an alternative labor construction whereby labels provide stability and dignity to musicians for their work.

Keywords: Music labor market; Workers/contractors; Musicians and labels; Recording industry; COVID-pandemic crisis

The Return of “Umgangsmusik”? Musical Practices During COVID-19 Lockdown

Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt/M., Germany

Soon after the first COVID-19 lockdown had been implemented in a number of European countries and in the U.S. in March 2020, media reports on new social forms of musical engagement started to brighten up the dire daily news on massive unemployment, domestic aggression, surging cases and death tolls. Reports on balcony singing in Italian neighbourhoods or performances as a thank you for health care workers were received with enthusiasm and imitated in other places. In addition, the internet became a platform for all sorts of musical responses to the crisis, and reflections and exchanges about it: Choirs and musical ensembles tried to find ways to make music together via videoconferencing platforms, musicians who could no longer perform live started streaming concerts from their living rooms, songs about the pandemic and a large number of its accompanying aspects were written, produced and distributed, and all-stars line ups came together in multi-hour virtual concerts such as Lady Gaga’s “One World: Together at Home” on April 18.

That musical engagement can be a powerful resource for individual wellbeing, resilience and coping is well-known from music psychological research (DeNora 2000, North & Hargreaves 2008, Juslin & Sloboda 2010). Specifically, it can help to regulate emotions and moods (Saarikallio 2011), and serve as a social surrogacy (Schäfer, Saarikallio, & Eerola 2020) – two aspects that are of particular importance in the present context. And in contrast to many other effective coping strategies, it is a cheap and lockdown compatible activity.

A lot of studies have been initiated to examine COVID-related changes in musical behaviours and their role for resilience and coping (see the papers in the context of the Frontiers Research Topic “Social Convergence in Times of Social Distancing: The Role of Music During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, ed. by Hansen, Davidson, & Wald-Fuhrmann). In this paper, I will first review the existing evidence and showcase important findings on potential benefits of music considering also sociological factors. In a second part, I will focus on COVID-specific musical practices and repertoires (“coronamusicking”) that have been found to be particularly relevant in the context of musical coping (Fink, Warrenburg et al. 2020). In order to understand the specific virtue of coronamusicking, I will argue to understand it as a new form of what Heinrich Besseler called “Umgangsmusik” (as opposed to “Darbietungsmusik”; Besseler 1926). With this, Besseler referred to forms of musical engagement embedded into the everyday lives of social groups, addressing and dealing with their shared worries, challenges, tasks, understandings, and beliefs.

Lastly, I will discuss options for policy making and the social role of music that can be deduced from these observations.

Keywords: Musical practices; Umgangsmusik; Coronamusicking; Wellbeing, resilience and coping through music; COVID-pandemic crisis