How Greek musicians weathered an economic crisis could help UK performers handle COVID fall-out

On the evening of Sunday December 13 the president of the Greek Musicians’ Union stood in front of an empty auditorium at the Athens Music Hall, as thousands watched at home. Opening a virtual concert in support of music workers, his words were emotional – but firm:

We want to make known that the music we love and keeps us company in our most difficult and most beautiful moments, is the result of a complex form of labour, which takes toil, sacrifice and dedication.

The idea that musicians are workers is self-evident – yet somehow often disregarded. As a recent controversy involving the BBC has brought to the fore once again, employers, organisations and the state frequently assume that musicians will perform unpaid, merely for “exposure”.

My research on Greek musicians over the past 15 years has shown that work in artistic performance is as precarious as it is enjoyable. Musicians all over the world see creative opportunity in being “free” from permanent contractual employment, but these conditions often make them poorly paid, prone to exploitation, and insecure when it comes to work.

This is especially true in places that have suffered long periods of austerity, such as Greece and the UK. Under COVID-19, the precarious condition of performing workers has reached such breaking point that many will be unable to continue in their careers. Listening to musicians’ experiences could tell us a lot about how to defend the creative industries without leaving anyone behind.

Group of UK musicians protesting outside British parliament against shutdown of music industry due to Covid
British musicians outside the UK parliament in October 2020 protesting the shutdown of their industry. Ilyas Tayfun Salci/Shutterstock

Is music work or play?

When lockdown measures across Europe began, I was finishing a book on Musicians in Crisis, based on research in Greece since 2005. As I witnessed venues closing and gigs being cancelled across the globe, the words of my research participants resonated more than ever.

Musicians were eager to tell me that “crisis” in their work was somehow both new and familiar. Even as the infamous Greek financial crisis became particularly devastating after 2010, musicians experienced it as an intensifying of the precarity they had dealt with their whole lives.

As before, they still had to balance several, often contradictory, engagements. They still had to confront exploitative employers or fight for their right to get paid and receive legal benefits and social insurance. Musicians have always been conditioned in job insecurity – long before austerity and crisis. But as cultural academic Angela McRobbie has shown in the UK, these conditions of insecurity in the creative sector are “a way of laying the groundwork for the transformation of work, first for the few, then possibly for the many”. In other words, musicians may be a test-tube case for making other kinds of work more precarious.

As economic crisis intensified in Greece, these jobs became shorter term with lower pay, so musicians needed to work harder across more sectors. Gigs were scarcer, so they became more competitive, which made the idea of musician collectivism less appealing.

A group of musicians protesting against lack of support for struggling artists in Athens.
The Panhellenic Musicians’ Union in Athens get vocal about the plight of struggling artists in May 2020. Author provided

Unionisation and campaigning was not much in evidence throughout that period. This is partly because musicians in Greece do not see themselves as a collective campaigning body and receive very little support from the state or arts organisations. There is also considerable mistrust – even fear – of those in power in the music industry, who are often seen as rogue and unregulated.

As a result, during the crisis musicians had to battle it out individually and in isolation, leading to personal moments of rupture and issues of mental health, as was also the case on other countries, including the UK.

What worked for many of the musicians I interviewed was compartmentalising work and play. They emphasised that their work as hired performers needed to be properly compensated and safeguarded by hard-won labour rights. At the same time, they kept a portion of their activities separate in the realm of play, where they allowed themselves to indulge in creativity simply for their own pleasure.

Away from the precarious professional music industry, some joined groups where they could perform for enjoyment in smaller venues and for select audiences. These musical micro-cultures rarely generated much profit. Instead they were a way of resisting the commercialisation of the industry by finding expressive forms outside it. But division of work and play brings with it the danger of exploitation. The UK Musicians’ Union’s Work Not Play campaign speaks directly to this issue by stressing that the pleasure of making music should not excuse practices of unpaid labour.

Will Covid see the end of musicians?

Research commissioned by musical and cultural initiative Aptaliko – to be published in January 2021 – will show that the overwhelming majority of musicians in Greece have lost more than half of their earnings as a result of the pandemic. This mirrors recent findings in the UK, Spain, and Brazil.

Under these conditions, performing might become a luxury only for those who can afford it, while many musicians will abandon the profession altogether. Apart from the devastation this will cause arts professionals, it is also worth considering the impact on music itself. What kind of performing arts will we have if what remains only reflects the experiences and the sensibilities of the privileged few?

Thankfully, the pandemic crisis is also generating new solidarity and campaigns among performing workers. The UK Musicians’ Union is campaigning for universal basic income, and in Greece a new grassroots movement under the hashtag #SupportArtWorkers has been gathering momentum across sectors of creative professionals.

As many of these campaigns talk to one another and develop new demands, it is worth remembering that musicians and their colleagues in other creative industries have been in crisis for a long time. What they need in a post-Covid future is not a return to a perverse and unequal “normal”, but a radical rethinking of employment conditions that ensures fair pay and rights for all.The Conversation

Ioannis Tsioulakis, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Ethnomusicology, Queen's University Belfast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Amanda Palmer Amazon ambient Andrew Elias andy warhol animal farm anna freeman anonymous Anthropocene Anthropology Anxiety Archaeology aristotle ars electronica arse art art news Art therapy Arthur O'Shaughnessy articles artists Arts Arts funding artzine ash audience Austerity australia avant garde Axwell babel bacon Bacteria bame bangalore Barnabe Barnes bat bats BBC BBC charter BBC licence fee BBC television Be Bop Deluxe beardsley bebop beer bengaluru Berlin Berlin Wall Bhutan bigotry Bill Nelson Billy Bragg billy childish Bird conservation Birds Black academics Black history Black History Month 2019 black lives matter blinded by the light blue light Blur Boards Bob Dylan books Boris Johnson bow box sets British art British Empire British Museum Bronze Age BST Byron Camper Van Beethoven cartoon castle Cate le Bon cats cds channel charity charlie chaplin chatterley Cheese Cheesemaking childhood rhyme choir Christina Rossetti christmas cinema Classical music Climate change clocks clothing Clubs Cold War collage colonial Comedy Coming up for Air Community competition Composition Coolio coorg Coronavirus Courtney Barnett covid-19 COVID-19 lockdown COVID-19 recovery creative industry creativity Cultural institutions culture curator curious Curious Kids D H Lawrence dada dadaism dale harding dance Dance music Darren Hayman David Bowie david hockney death declan welsh deliveroo democracy Desert locust destruction Diet digital Digital archives DJs Dominic Cummings Dóra Maurer Doris Day download Dr Johnson dream Drenge drums Dumfries dundee Dylan Thomas e-book E. E. Cummings East Germany ECO economics economy Edgar Allan Poe Edinburgh Edna St Vincent Millay Edward Lear electronic Elizabeth Barrett Browning Employment English language Ensemble environment Epicurus Erasure Eric Ravilious Esra Furman essays Ethnic minorities European Research Group Evelyn Ida Morris exhibition extinction rebellion Ezra Furman facebook fanzines fashion Federico García Lorca Feminism Feminism and art festival film folk fontaines dc Fontaines DC Food Food science foot artists France free free russia Future Gare Loch GDP gender inequality George Gascoigne George Harrison George Orwell Gig economy Glasgow Global perspectives GMT Grammar Grayson Perry green issues grenfell Grime grotesque handel happiness Harry Graham hate Heatwave heaven 17 heritage heroes history hogmanay Hollywood homeless Homer Hot Chip humour if you feel it it's real iggy ignorance illustration Inclusive Music Making india indian Indie music Industrial Revolution instagram Interdisciplinarity international labour day international workers day interweb Iron Age Isolation Italy ITV Jack Peñate James Joyce James Taylor janey godley jazz John Cooper Clarke John Keats john Lennon John Linney Journalistic ethics Judi Werthein kara walker Karl Marx Karnataka kat himmel Katharina Garrard (no relation) Katherine Mansfield Keep the Aspidistra Flying keith haring Ken Loach Ken Sprague kensington Kenya Khalil Gibran labour Lamb Language Laurie Anderson les dennis Lewis Carroll lgbtq lgbttqi lights literature live live performance lockdown Locusts london love lucy spraggan lyrics Mae West magazines Malcolm X manchester Martin Niemoeller Marvin Gaye Matthew Arnold may day Maya Angelou McGonagall Meat Meat eaters memorials mental health messiah MGM Michael Sailstorfer Milk Milton mind MISSY HIGGINS Mistakes Mobile apps modern Monty Python moon Museums music music hall Music industry Music therapy music venues Musicals Musicians my map mysore mysuru nanohour national gallery of scotland National Orchestra For All neil finn neon news nhs norfolk norwich Nostalgia Not sure if it's a poem novara media Ocean Colour Scene of course older age Older people Oliver Herford online Opera Orchestras For All Ensemble Ornithology oxfam pain Paramount Pictures Patrick Staff Paul Garrard Paul McCartney Pay gap peace Pensions financial planning people people power perception Performance Philip Larkin photo photography photos picture pitchfork podcasting podcasts poem Poet Laureate poetry Political accountability Political communication Political journalism politics Pop music poster pottery poverty Primal Scream print printing prints Psychasthenia public domain pubs Purple pussy riot quote Race racism radio rainbow Raves RBSA Relaxation religion research Retirement Rewilding Richard Hawley Ringo Starr Robert Burns Robert Frank Robert Herrick Roman Empire Rose Finn-Kelcey Roy Lichtenstein Rudyard Kipling Rutles salad sandalwood satire sayings science scooty Scotland Serpentine sex Shakespears Sister Shelley Shocking Blue Sierra Leone silvery tay sin Sixties Sixties culture sketches Slave Trade Sleaford Mods snippet Snow Patrol social media socialism soundscape sparks Species reintroductions springsteen stained glass stand up comedy Stanley Spencer Steve Knightley Stewart Lee stratford-upon-avon streaming Strypes stuff style Swinging Sixties Switzerland Sybil Andrews Sydney Smith taking back control tapes tate tay Techno music Telegram Tennyson the arts The Beatles The Clergyman's Daughter The Jam The National Gallery The Only Ones The Pocket Gods Theatre thing time tips toilet humour tories traffic trains Transatlantic slave trade Trumbull Stickney trump Turner Prize tv twitter type Uber UK comedy UK culture UK economy UK election 2019 uk music UK politics UK pop music UK theatre UKIP understanding Unemployment unfinished unions Universities unknown author US movies valie export Van Gogh Veganism Vegetarianism Victorians video Vijaya Vitthala Temple vinyl Voter registration Voting W B Yeats wanted war Wassily Kandinsky water Wellbeing Welsh poetry Wendy Cope West Germany Wetlands WH Auden whales what is art WhatsApp Wildfire Wilfred Owen William Blake William Shakespeare William Wordsworth Wilson Keppel and Betty Wolfy O'Hare women women academics Women in film woody guthrie Wordsworth working from home yeah yeah yeahs Young Composer Youth Orchestra youtube Zero-hour contracts zines Zoom
Show more