Working on Working in Music during the Virus

Martin Cloonan
University of Turku

I feel that my work has nothing to contribute to either understanding or helping to solve this disaster. I am superfluous and my work is a luxury which can no longer be afforded. 

There is no doubt that the working life of those Working in Music has been drastically affected by the Corona Virus. To even write such a line feels trite. Most people who work in music have been unable to work or, at best, have been able to work in very different ways and on far fewer occasions than they would do normally. With one or two exceptions, gigs have stopped, recording has been suspended and/or radically altered and it has been impossible to meet fellow musicians in order to undertake the sorts of collaborations which are necessary for musical life. Of course, music is hardly alone in this, but those working in what might be broadly termed “the entertainment industries” are particularly affected when, rehearsal spaces, recording studios and venues close. 

Other respondents to this call will be better placed to comment on what it has meant for their artistic practice. What I would like to do here is offer a few thoughts on what this has meant for those of us whose prime role is to try and understand and comment on others’ musical activity and those industries which are related to it. So, what follows is some personal reflections on what this has meant to me. At times aspects will be overstated for effect, so please bear with me. I will also be rather self-indulgent but I hope that it at least rings enough bells to allow some people to feel less alone in their feelings. So, here goes with some selfish reflections which also have aspirations.

1. My work is of no consequence

This was a very strong feeling as the Virus hit and normal life closed down. 

Even in “normal” times, those of us working in Popular Music Studies might have good reason to fear that our work is undervalued and to have grown tired of explaining why it is important. Then a silent killer emerges which kills thousands and closes down normal life. Our institutions close. Our favourite venues do the same. The places we hang out in too. We don’t see colleagues. We don’t see musicians. We watch in horror as the death figures mount. It is hard to even comprehend. In my case, I started to hide from the news channels which were previously my staple diet. 

As all the things which I love – gigs, bars, live sport, sauna etc – closed down and even the thing I normally take solace in – work – was also radically transformed, it was hard to cope. In terms of work, I sometimes like to be the lone scholar, but also need a daily academic community around me, one which I meet and interact with. Moreover as the Virus quickly became the only news in town, anything which wasn’t directly contributing to alleviating or ending it seemed utterly futile. As thousands of people around the globe suffer a terrible disease and many thousands die, who gives a fuck what I think about live music or artist X? Or even about music’s role in the crisis? I feel that my work has nothing to contribute to either understanding or helping to solve this disaster. I am superfluous and my work is a luxury which can no longer be afforded. 

Of course, as things progress, I can muster arguments against such despondency and I do. I know that music is part of what makes us human and whatever the long term consequences of the virus are they will involve music making. Music will be used to help in the healing process. Policies will need to be developed to help restore music’s place in society. It will not go away. But that’s all in the long term and in the immediate term I struggle to finish work that no longer feels important. 

2. Everything I thought I knew has gone

As someone who for 15 years has been banging on about the cultural, social and economic importance of live music, its disappearance as a major industry almost overnight was something of a shock. I had come to take it for granted that the organisation of live music was more interesting than that of recorded and then all of a sudden recorded music is the only thing keeping me alive. I have to rethink a lot of things. At least it keeps me on my toes.

3. Except I do know a few things…. Or do I?

I was struck by the fact that crises have often been good for the entertainment industries. If there is a crisis people need cheering up and they seek solace in entertainment. Sometimes this has been to be benefit of some industries such as Music Hall and cinema and it’s important to point out such things. Historically some musicians have sometimes benefitted from crises such as wars as people flock to entertainment venues. The problem is that they both rely on venues and this time venues are closed. Hmm… I wonder what lessons this history will teach us.

4. I am so fortunate

I’m a privileged white guy whose university should weather the storm and my salary has come in every month. I’m still researching stuff I love and talking to smart people about their projects. The country I’m resident in has far fewer cases than many and many things stay open. I’m lucky, but that just makes me feel guilty.  Because part of my luck is that I don’t actually work in music.

5. I have no conclusions

But music did help to keep my alive. It provided so much. I listened when I was sad. I sometimes sung and I always needed it. It doesn’t need me, but I take solace from the fact that know that millions of others will have taken similar solace. People have to Work in Music for others to survive. It calls us still.


Professor Martin Cloonan is Director of the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS) in Finland. Before joining TIAS, Martinwas Professor of Popular Music Politics at the University of Glasgow. His research concerns the political economy of the music industries. He also chaired the anti-censorship NGO Freemuse and managed the Glasgow-based band Zoey Van Goey. He is a founding member of the Working in Music international research network and current co-chair of its executive committee. He was the chief organiser of the WIM 2020 conference in Turku, which has sadly had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic and the related lockdowns worldwide. 


Featured image by Ethan Sykes


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