Researching Musical Work While in Lockdown
Birmingham City University
Since the 20th of March 2020, following the World Health Organisation (WHO) designating Covid-19 a global pandemic, most countries immediately went into lockdown, including the United Kingdom, my home country. As a Birmingham City University doctoral student, researching the political economy of the music business, with music industry workers as the object of my study, I didn’t fully realise how the lockdown would impact on my research. Seven weeks into lockdown, the United Kingdom is gradually easing lockdown measures, as the nation attempts to return to some semblance of normalcy. However, drawing on unfolding permutations in other countries, which went into lockdown, earlier than UK, things are likely to drag on for some time, before we return to yester-year, pre-Covid-19 era, if at all that would ever be possible.
As a media scholar, it’s a time to reflect on how my research has been impacted by the pandemic. Of interest to me is to evaluate; what it’s been like, researching musical work while in lockdown. I was caught up in the throes of lockdown, at a time I was in the midst of conducting fieldwork interviews with music industry workers, and related stakeholders. Previously, the bulk of my initial interviews had been conducted over the phone, and so I was in a false sense of comfort zone, that the pandemic wouldn’t impede on my research much, as I could still manage to conduct telephone interviews, without the need to have in-person interviews. Unfolding events during the pandemic quickly disabused me of my erroneous notion, as I soon found out. Securing interviews has actually turned out to be a challenging exercise. This, I realised can be explained by multiple reasons; i.e. last-minute unexplained cancellations by songwriters’ and performers, some which I put down to the stress of dealing with the unintended consequences of the lockdown, most conspicuously, loss of revenue. What the lockdown has brought to the fore for me, is to underscore firsthand, the discourse of precarity, synonymous with those who work or are connected to the music industries, ranging from, technicians, agents, artists, songwriters, performers, etc. Whereas, the greater part of my population sample has constantly reiterated the discourse of precarity they face as cultural workers, in interviews thus far, Covid-19 has made this clearly palpable to me as I have witnessed stakeholders and players’ source of livelihood seemingly thrown into disarray.
Initially, I struggled to understand why hitherto friendly potential interviewees were suddenly unwilling to be interviewed, and some would cancel interviews at the very minute I rang to commence a pre-arranged interview. It is quite possible there may be other legitimate reasons to explain this sudden apathy, but the multitude of music networks I subscribe to have been abuzz with a plethora of emails, imploring for understanding and patience with large swathes of music workers’ and musicians whose livelihood has been torpedoed by Covid-19. One such group I subscribe to is famed bassist, Steve Lawson’s Bandcamp platform. Steve Lawson has been brilliant in highlighting the plight of affected performers especially upcoming, yet to be established musicians for instance, calling on innovative ways to help provide some relief funding to them, in these difficult moments. Through his Bandcamp online community, to which, I am a member; Steve has launched a bailout initiative, in which Bandcamp platform waives their revenue share for 24 hours to help out artists and labels impacted by Covid-19. The initiative has been hugely successful raising over $4 million a day, in March 2020, which went ‘straight to the pockets of artists.’ As Steve points out in an email to Bandcamp members;
On March 20, 2020, we waived our revenue share in order to help artists and labels impacted by the pandemic. The Bandcamp community (very possibly including you) showed up in a massive way, spending $4.3 million on music and merchandise,15x the amount of a normal Friday – helping artists cover rents, mortgages, groceries, medications, and so much more. It was truly inspiring.
On May 1, 2020, we did it again and fans paid artists $7.1 million – amazing!
But the pandemic and its impact on the music community a ren’t over, so on June 5 and July 3 (the first Friday of each month), we’re waiving our revenue share for all sales on Bandcamp, from midnight to midnight PDT on each day.
It is largely because of this maiden success that Steve has been replicating this gesture periodically, i.e. waiving their revenue share on selected Fridays, as highlighted on the different dates above, with the proceeds remitted to those affected artists and labels. The bailout has also been complemented by Steve making available, online links to his three albums to his January 2020 tour of Italy. What is remarkable about this ‘crowdfunding’ is, Steve affords consumers; the pay what you want for 24 hours model, and the advantage being, pay what you want, means you get to decide what you can afford. This is similar to the Radiohead’s initiative of yester-year whereby they released In Rainbows album online and let their fans pay whatever amount they wanted to access downloads of their music. The overarching narrative from Steve’s bailout model is; helping out fellow musicians affected by Covid-19, and this ought to be highlighted. As a supplementary measure, he also encourages people on the mailing list to join the Bandcamp subscription, as he maintains, its ‘the way to support’ his music. Incidentally, I am still hoping for an interview opportunity with Steve, though I’ve sent numerous requests for a telephone interview, and yet to hear from Steve. Famed BBC Radio 2-disc jockey, Tony Blackburn is yet another taker to respond to my interview request, among some high-profile names I am keen to interview for my PhD project. Perhaps, the lockdown hiccups have been taking their toll on these esteemed celebrities.
What is usually lost to the general populace is, for most musicians and related stakeholders’, working in the music industry is their vocation, but the industry is littered with ‘unfair’ labour practices, like opaque and exploitative contracts, which leaves these mostly self-employed employees in dire straits especially in unprecedented times of Covid-19. Whereas, the UK government quickly introduced a furlough scheme to cushion the greater part of UK workforce affected by the pandemic, pledging to pay 80 percent of their salaries up to £2,500 a month, with employers’ making up the remaining 20% difference; such generous offers have not been within reach of those in the gig economy or mostly music industry workers, some who are mostly self employed or session musicians without concrete work contracts to fall back on. The picture is much more grim for women employees in the music industry as attested by some of my female interviewees, thus far. This explains Steve Lawson’s efforts cited earlier to assist. For the researcher, the emotional challenges of conducting research in a new normal; mundane lockdown setting, ought to be acknowledged. I have had fleeting emotional fluctuations as I navigate the uncertain daily confinement in my flat, not knowing to what extent this will last. Scholarly pursuits punctuated by my daily exercise routine has been my panacea.
Researching musical work in such a delicate scenario has largely been an eye opener to myself and my ongoing inquiry. Initial findings in my inquiry have suddenly started making greater sense especially, as they are amplified by Covid-19 ramifications; for instance, clarion calls by numerous music and media industry players interviewed, for digital service providers, (DSPs) like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and Tidal among others to reform their payment models, patterns to musicians, whose music is streamed on their platforms. In all this, the role of the researcher is not to lose sight of the research objective and thus to continue to probe and investigate his/her subject area, drawing on input from those working in the media and music industries. I remain hopeful, post Covid-19, I may be able to secure those elusive interview opportunities with some of the big names in the media and music industries, whose input would greatly enrich my empiric study.