Music is still at work even if musicians aren’t: care, reproduction, crisis
Marie Thompson (The Open University, UK)
Eric Drott (University of Texas, Austin)
It hardly needs to be repeated that the coronavirus outbreak and the social distancing measures enacted in response have dealt a serious blow to the already precarious livelihoods of music workers. Yet even as many musicians find themselves out of work, unable to play live gigs for the foreseeable future, music itself has been put to work as rarely before. The work for which it is being enlisted is that of social reproduction, what Barbara Laslett and Johanna Brenner define as “the activities and attitudes, behaviors and emotions, responsibilities and relationships directly involved in the maintenance of life on a daily basis, and intergenerationally” (Laslett and Brenner, 1989 : 382). Such work ranges from the daily routines necessary to sustain individuals and families (in whatever way these might be defined), to the collective effort required to cultivate and maintain communities, even society writ large. And yet the reproduction of these and other forms of social life is inextricably tied to the reproduction of capital. This is not simply because access to the means of subsistence for most people depends on the sale of their labor power. It is also, and just as importantly, because labor power is itself one of the principal “outputs” of reproductive work. Furthermore, the costs of providing capital with a steady supply of labor power are held in check by the fact that much reproductive work often goes unrecognized as such, being regarded as something other than work. It is moreover work that historically has been both gendered as feminine and consigned to subaltern populations, especially immigrants and people of color—a coding that is both a cause and effect of its disavowal as work.
Given the threats coronavirus poses to people’s mental and physical well-being, reproductive work of all stripes has become all the more visible (and audible) in recent months. The increasing salience of reproductive work also applies to that carried out with and by means of music. To cite one example: in response to the pandemic, the nonprofit organization Musicians on Call has expanded its Music Pharmacy program, which (according to a press release) provides hospital patients with “innovative technology to access the healing power of music at their bedside.” These include a set of noise-canceling headphones (donated by Bose), a Fire tablet (donated by Amazon), and a free subscription to Amazon Music Unlimited. To cite another: the nonprofit Project: Music Heals Us has organized one-on-one live-streamed concerts where musicians, playing from their homes, perform for Covid-19 patients isolated in intensive care units. Such organized efforts to harness music’s therapeutic benefits are paralleled by more ad hoc initiatives. Describing the increasing number of hospitals and healthcare facilities that have integrated music into their treatments, a feel-good report by NBC described the trend as welcome news “about finding joy in these challenging times,” adding that “nobody—nobody—is doing that better than our healthcare heroes, who are using music to help heal.”
It is not just nonprofits, hospitals, and public institutions that have enlisted music in the urgent work of care at present. Corporations have also gotten in on the act. Streaming platforms, in particular, have been quick to launch new playlist categories and rebrand existing ones as resources that can help individuals and families cope with the strains imposed by shelter-in-place ordinances. The Paris-based service Deezer introduced a “Stay at Home” channel in an effort “to give you and the family all the lockdown tunes and shows you need, in one convenient place.” Among other things, “Stay at Home” featured activity-based playlists centered around everyday tasks like “working, studying, cooking, exercising, or cleaning,” as well as content intended to keep “kids entertained at home”—thus providing caregivers with a digitally-mediated babysitter that can shoulder for them some of the work of childcare. Not to be outdone, Spotify has likewise introduced a new “At Home” hub that blends music meant to motivate people working remotely (“Work at Home”) with that meant to accompany the kinds of tasks that are normally (and normatively) associated with private households (“Cooking and Dining”). Casting music as a means of both ‘enhancing’ production and reproduction, the juxtaposition of these playlists also gives sonic expression to the way the current crisis has begun to erode the boundaries separating these historically segregated spheres.
Underpinning efforts to enlist music in the work of care is a mix of empirical data and folk wisdom concerning its unique affordances: its power to entrain people to its rhythms, to synchronize action, to elicit memories, to structure the passage of time, to alter moods, to reach us in ways that language cannot, and—perhaps most important of all at present—to connect people across distances. For policy makers, private health insurers, administrators of corporate wellness programs, among other state and commercial actors, it is another attribute that explains music’s appeal: its cheapness. The historic devaluation of musical labor—a tendency exacerbated by the capacity of mechanical and digital reproduction to copy recordings at an ever diminishing cost—has rendered music one of the many “cheap things” that capitalism depends on to assure not just its continued survival, but its continued expansion (Patel and Moore, 2017). As such, music and the arts more generally have increasingly been used to help suppress the cost of other reproductive services, including but not limited to health care. Exemplary in this regard is a 2017 report issued by a cross-party group in the UK parliament, titled Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing (APPG, 2017). Across the report’s 200-odd pages, which enumerate numerous scenarios where music and the arts may be usefully applied in health care provision, a recurrent thread is the savings such programs can achieve. On the first page of its foreword, the report already extolls the arts not just because they “can help keep us well […] and support longer lives better lived,” but also (and tellingly) because they “can help save money in the health service and social care” (APPG, 2017 : 4). Here as elsewhere, recourse to music and the arts operates on a number of levels simultaneously. At one level, it is a vivid symptom of the degree to which neoliberal policies have hollowed out funding for public health, and public services more generally. At another level, it is proposed as a solution to the crisis of social reproduction that has resulted from such cutbacks. And at still another level, recourse to music may be a potential factor in prolonging this crisis, to the extent music is used as a stopgap that takes the place of adequate funding for the social services whose shortfalls it is supposed to remedy.
The current amplification of music’s role as a panacea for the ‘problem’ of reproductive work comes at a time when reproduction is undeniably in crisis. Schools and nurseries have closed, leaving children in need of care and education. Health and social care provision have been disrupted. The ‘just-in-time’ supply chains of household commodities are failing, with understandably concerned shoppers stockpiling toilet rolls and other goods. Rent and mortgage payments are impossible demands at a time of mass redundancy, the diminishment of the gig economy and evaporation of freelance work. Many of the labour-saving service industries to which reproductive labour was once outsourced are currently unavailable: cafes and restaurants are shut or risky to visit, cleaners are not entering the homes of others. Of course, the effects of this crisis are unevenly distributed. It is unsurprising, for example, that the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that women in two-parent, two-gender families are doing comparatively more childcare and household chores; and were more likely to be disrupted while undertaking waged work while stay-at-home orders are in place.
The pandemic-induced crisis of musical work and the crisis of reproduction are not simply occurring in tandem. These two crises intersect, insofar as musical workers are also reproductive workers (and/or rely on the reproductive work of others). Amongst many other things, this intersection has significant implications for the various calls by artist development agencies, which seek to encourage musicians to make good creative use of their time during the pandemic. The UK’s new music charity Sound and Music’s call ‘Interpreting Isolation’ is illustrative of this tendency: aiming to ‘capture this moment in history’, the call sought to commission ‘new works that respond to our new lives’, while also providing ‘much-needed support for those whose livelihoods are being affected by the current circumstances.’ The call mirrors many media descriptions of ‘everyday life’ in the UK during the pandemic, however it relies on some telling conflations. For some, being confined or ‘isolated’ at home is not particularly new; likewise, for those deemed ‘key workers’ and for those who are carers, these so-called ‘new lives’ may not be particularly isolated. Furthermore, there are questions as to who is able to respond to such calls for work, insofar as those with suddenly increased reproductive responsibilities are likely to find themselves ‘time-poor’ (as well as potentially ‘money-poor’). More generally, for those struggling to reproduce themselves – due in part to the psychic and physical effects of the pandemic – creative labour may seem like an impossible demand. Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian has written about her own refusal of the demand to remain musically productive during a time defined by grief, horror and solitudechoosing instead to prioritise the ‘very basic functions of living in order to support myself for a healthy and creative life.’ The uneven distributions of reproductive work are thus likely to impact upon what is and isn’t heard in creative responses to this ‘historic moment’.
The crisis of musical work, then, is also the crisis of social reproduction: a crisis for which music is itself posited as a (cheap) solution. At the same time that musical workers’ already-precarious lives have become increasingly unstable with the closure of recording studios, music venues, rehearsal spaces, music is increasingly being put to work as a means of enhancing production and reproduction. Of course, the imbrication of music and reproduction extends beyond the current pandemic. However, at a time when the gaps in the organisation of social reproduction become more apparent, music’s promotion as a stopgap also comes to the fore.
It is understandable that musicians may respond to this situation by embracing the opportunities that arise from positioning music as cost-effective means of ‘maintaining life’ and seeking out ways to make their musical work ‘useful’: be it by lifting the spirits of listeners or helping to heal the sick.However, the conflation of musical value with its reproductive utility needs to be resisted. The problem is not a moral but a political and cultural economic one. There is nothing wrong, in and of itself, in using music to offer or take comfort. But the ability of musicians – or anyone else – to reproduce themselves should not be contingent upon a real or perceived ‘usefulness’. Music may well be a tool to help us care for ourselves and others, but this should not be a condition of its existence. The current disruption of musical work and social reproduction provides an opportunity to consider what else a life with, in, and by means of music could be.
Barbara Laslett and Johanna Brenner, “Gender and Social Reproduction: Historical Perspectives,” Annual Review of Sociology 15 (1989), 382.
Raj Patel and Jason Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2017).
All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health, and Wellbeing, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing (2017). Available at https://www.culturehealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/.