In Turkey, we have an interesting musical tradition that stretches back centuries, originally rooted in religious traditions. Every year during holy Ramadan, for a full month at around 3 am, traditional drummers roam the streets playing loudly and sometimes reciting rhymes to wake people up for their “sahur” meal and to get ready for the next day’s fasting. People donate money to the drummers for their service. The entire exchange is unregulated: these musicians don’t belong to any association, they don’t play any particular tunes, they don’t care about copyright issues or any of the other day to day concerns of normal musicians– they are just making a wake up call.
The Covid-19 lockdowns happened to coincide with Ramadan. As the epidemic brought nearly the entirety of the music industry to a halt, the only surviving musical activity was this centuries old tradition. This might put a smile on regular musicians’ faces, because normally this activity is not considered a musical act at all, and the payment they receive is hardly enough to be called “business”. Yet, it checks all the boxes: musical instruments, free improvised grooves, and sometimes even rhymed chanting — it’s music alright.
The drummers are lucky you might say: this is social distancing at its best. There’s no one in the streets at 3 am, and the drummers are able to play as loud as they want without getting any complaints. With all the empty street acoustics and general silence, hearing them is an extraordinary experience. This would likely be a dream come true for most drummers!
I understand that when we talk about the “music business” this is probably not what comes to mind. However, given how little has survived the pandemic, these musicians are showcasing the power of the traditional functions of music. Even in the worst times, music is unexpendable.
Many people are of the opinion that the pandemic is augmenting and accelerating the world’s already evident, deep rooted economic and social problems; music and music related communities are certainly not immune from these changes, in fact, music has likely been more profoundly impacted than most aspects of culture. We all have to breathe, eat, drink, reproduce, get educated etc… these are the essential features of life. No matter what, humanity will have to find a way to keep these things available. But music… the function of music is unfortunately more up for debate. For starters, who is it that defines the function of music? Music is quite a bit more complicated in terms of its role in society than food: it is at a rather low level in the pyramid of needs. Naturally then, it gets less attention during crises.
The Western music industry under lockdown
For centuries, music has had countless different definitions and functions. For the last 40-50 years, however, Western influenced mainstream music industry has been dominant, and musicians have been divided into the “signed” and “unsigned”. This basically means that successful musicians become corporate employees while the rest must strive to achieve such a position. Although the “signed” artists were a very small fraction of music ecology, their voices were far louder and their presence was much stronger thanks to corporate hype and celebrity.
By the 2000s, with new methods of technological disruption and accelerating neoliberalism changed this dramatically: now, “unsigned” musicians became the focal point of the music industry. While traditional musicians were struggling with the first generation of filesharing software such as Napster, a new trend kicked off based on sharing music on social media sites. Exploitation of artists’ desire for fame, for their music to be heard, or simply to make ends meet, became the new norm. The majority of musicians today are hopelessly begging Spotify and YouTube for a better deal, given that these platforms essentially completely control the distribution of music. In other words, unsigned musicians are still starving, perhaps worse than ever. The digital paradigm changed things a lot, but the main problems still persist. The “desire” of musicians which is being exploited by the new players in the music industry is not new at all, but rather a shadow of the same old game: get discovered, get famous, get rich. These are the tried and true standards of the Western music industry, but they remain in force. However, the coronavirus epidemic might just change all that for good.
I maintain that musicians and the music world are far more fragile, obscure, and prone to change than any other aspect of culture. It’s hard for me to imagine that the pandemic won’t result in a major paradigm shift. I believe the lockdowns, with all the free time and uncertainty about the music business and the future, gave the musicians of the world the opportunity to think and evaluate their existence, purpose, and, most importantly, their music.
While these paradigm shifts are still unwritten, it is without a doubt that things won’t ever be the same. What kind of music will we be making and listening to after the dust settles?
Here is a tune called “2020” that I composed during the lockdown, while watching the events unfold around the world, and particularly in the US. I thought Jazz was a good style that would reflect the spirit of the story I wanted to tell. This piece also serves as a summary of what I think about the music business today. The whole world is watching, waiting, and thinking.
“Maybe, all you said to me
‘But it’s over now, I’ve never believed in them anyway’
I wish I could say that.
Days are gone, everything’s changed.
Your mask has fallen down, tables have turned.
It was sometimes sweet but a bitter life. Why?
Why don’t I want to grow?
Maybe, the only thing that never changes is;
You think that every shining thing has love in it.
World is messed up.
For unknown reasons,
This is a childish war.
What we forgot is our childhood.”