Working Wherever We May
The Transition of 2020-2022
Even if the pandemic were over – as many want to maintain – music isn’t the same as it was before.
In the UK, according to an industry report, 35% of the workforce in music lost their jobs the first year of the pandemic (2020). In the second year (2021), a portion of those returned but most did not – there are still 26% fewer jobs in music in the UK than there were before COVID. That’s some 52,000 people who have left the music industry or remain unemployed by it. And that’s just the UK.
Here in the US, I don’t know of a comparable survey in music that has yet accounted for the pandemic years, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that things simply aren’t going the way they used to.
Arooj Aftab has had a banner couple of years – a breakout album, worldwide performances, even a surprise Grammy win for “Best Global Music Performance” (never mind she has been in the US since she was 19, and I would have thought most representative of Brooklyn). What else could a musician possibly hope for in an album cycle? Which is why ending up tens of thousands in debt is definitely not normal, regardless of what she has been told.
Consider this other stat from the UK: “According to the Music Managers Forum (MMF), some of its members are reporting a 35% increase [in costs] against flat live fees.”
As self-employed gig workers, artists absorb all the risks of live performance – unexpected cost increases, cancellations, travel changes, illness, etc. And obviously there are currently many more risks, with more of them more likely to occur, than before the pandemic.
The stresses from this situation are taking a toll on artists in other ways, as well. As the Guardian recently reported, “High-profile acts from Justin Bieber to Arlo Parks have cancelled gigs recently, prioritising mental health over the demands of a relentless industry.”
“There are two factors at play here: a growing willingness among musicians to talk about mental health struggles and the demands of their profession, and an industry desperate to spring back to life after a devastating pandemic, with turbo-charged touring and promotional schedules to make up for perceived lost time.
“Couple this with pitiful income from streaming, and the mounting cost of living, and the pressure to work more and chase success increases further.”
A friend of mine in the industry who always knows a ton about what is really going on told me she could count on one hand the independent tours that truly came off as they should have this year - audiences in place, shows in place, no financial hardships. (In fact she only got to three, I’m leaving a margin of two fingers for error.)
Maybe we can’t know where this leads, being in the midst of it. But with a huge loss of people working in the industry, a failure of old models for both live and recorded music under current conditions, and the stresses of the situation showing up in mental health crises as well as financial ones… I don’t see how we flip back to where we were, virus or no.
I’m reminded of the tremendous changes I’ve read about in music of the early 1940s, when the large swing bands that had dominated American popular music for decades suddenly collapsed. That change was so drastic, and so widely noted, in 1989 the composer and musicologist Gunther Schuller could write,
“To read most of the history and reference books on jazz is to gain the impression that jazz died around 1942.”
There were many simultaneous pressures in those years, any one of which could be cited as cause for dramatic change. There were technological developments: the rise of jukeboxes, with “juke joints” developing as a locale for dancing rather than ballrooms; and the introduction of FM radio, with its greater fidelity for remote broadcast. There were economic constraints: the rising cost of travel due to wartime restrictions on rubber tires and gasoline; and a 20% wartime cabaret tax introduced on events with live dance bands. There was a two-year recording ban in 1942 and 43, enforced by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) to try and protect some of the performing jobs rapidly being lost, but which some then blamed for provoking those same losses.
And then there were musical developments: the rise of singers at the top of the pop charts, in place of orchestras; and the harmonic and stylistic innovations of players developing bebop, like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, who worked with small flexible combos instead of big bands. Were these musical changes caused by the other factors, like the recording ban keeping instrumentalists out of the studio but not vocalists, and the cabaret tax applied to dance bands but not instrumental groups playing more abstract music…?
It hardly matters what caused what, because everything changed at once. And it never went back. By the mid-1950s, the AFM was telling Billboard that “Two-thirds of the union musicians are unemployed or are unable to make the major portion of their livelihood from music.”
The biggest event in the early 1940s, of course, was World War II itself. As Gunther Schuller put it, “The war disrupted not only peoples and nations but a way of life.”
Or as Max Roach says in Ira Gitler’s Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s (my favorite book about the period because it’s in the musicians’ voices themselves):
“But I think what was more significant to the development of the music – people talk about change and who did this and who did that. Well, the war had a great deal to do with what went on.”
Roach goes on in that passage to talk about the influence of the cabaret tax in particular, a wartime restriction. But what he ultimately gets to is freelancing.
“When Bird came to New York,” he explains, “he freelanced; he left the band. We were all freelancers. Everybody was around New York, working wherever we may and this and that and the other.”
A shattered way of life due to a global event. A set of technological changes in the way music is made and shared. Economic and political pressures via governmental and industrial actions. Workers leaving the industry in droves, and those still in it taking what gigs they can, this and that and the other.
This isn’t the first time music has gone through a sudden sea change. But as before, I don’t believe it will go back. We’re in a new era, an oral history yet to be collected.
Listening to: Makaya McCraven, In These Times
Cooking: Apple with honey
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