Impact of COVID on Musical Activity: Busking, Reinvention and Professional Adaptation

José Fernando Monteiro interviews Brazilian saxophonist Marcelo Cucco about his experiences as a busker in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spread of the COVID-19 virus has affected society worldwide in many ways. In music, this was no different and music professionals suffered from cancellations, social restrictions and the consequent shortage of work. In a conversation with Brazilian saxophonist Marcelo Cucco, who works professionally as a busker in Europe, traveling primarily between Italy and France, we were able to understand a little about the transformations, impacts and need for adaptation in the work routine of music professionals caused by the proliferation of the pandemic.

Can you talk a little about yourself and your musical background?

I started to create a routine of musical studies influenced by music classes in elementary school, and at the age of 10 I joined a symphony orchestra playing clarinet and saxophone. When I became a teenager, I [developed an interest in popular music].  So, in parallel to the activities with concert music, with clarinet and saxophone, I studied bass at the conservatory in the city of Niterói and played electric bass in rock’n’roll bands.

At 17 I started playing saxophone in popular bands and quickly joined a band circuit, so I saw myself as a professional musician. Still at a young age, I shared the stage with Jorge Ben Jor, Elza Soares, Baby do Brasil, and other renowned artists of Brazilian popular music, in the song and instrumental categories.

Always dissatisfied with the technical study of music and instruments, I started studying music at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) in 2011, which directly and indirectly allowed me to develop many artistic and pedagogical projects in the city of Rio de Janeiro and abroad.

Can you talk a little about your activity as a professional musician?

Until 2011, more than 80% of my work was as a musician accompanying popular groups, that is, as a freelancer, in which I usually did improvisations and counterpoints to join groups or solo artists who hired me.

After 2011, I started to develop instrumental works, with my own compositions or covers, and to play with DJs at private and corporate events, so my side jobs became less than 20%.

In parallel, I always tried to do busking (street art), especially when the demand for shows was low.

In recent years, I moved to Europe, and I have not changed my professional profile. I continued to carry out my own projects, or look for partnerships to develop temporary projects, where I am usually the soloist.

Marcelo Cucco. Photo by Nicolò Metti.

How has the pandemic affected your professional activities?

The pandemic first cut all events in closed spaces. I was no longer able to hold concerts in pubs, private parties, etc.  On the other hand, it did not stop me from doing the busking activities.

Haven’t you been, at least for a short time, unable to go to the streets too?

In theory I was not forbidden to go outside. Here in Italy and Europe in general it is like that. They monitor the evolution of cases and, according to the percentage of infected in each region, a control measure is applied. There are “levels of infection” and, for each level, [there are] specific rules. At all levels here in Italy, they banned crowding in pubs, etc. In others, it is forbidden to stand still in the street and the restaurants are closed … In the most extreme, they only allow you to do grocery shopping and return home. This always influences the financial return.

Marcelo Cucco. Photo by Nicolò Metti.

You were also in Brazil, right?! And you did not go out, did you?!

Exactly. In Brazil, I was only able to work teaching online and with a cultural guidelines project from the government of Rio de Janeiro. I went to Brazil with the intention of returning, but I was locked up because it was starting, you know? In Europe [there was total control over the pandemic, a historic control], nobody knew anything about the virus. [The only alternative they had was to increase the restrictions]. Now knowing more, with free tests, recognition of variants, case statistics, etc, it all helps.

It is not the desire of any government to see people idle at home, right?! Street art, in fact, has [helped a lot of people who are missing] culture. I always play with a mask. In Italy, it is mandatory to wear a mask anywhere on the street. Otherwise, people receive a fine of approximately 300 euros. There is a lot of policing on the street, even the Army.  I had to improvise a special mask to play the sax. That is all I had to do differently.

However, it is not so in all parts of Europe. Remember that I live in Genoa, Italy. Law of a state, of a country. Each country, each region has its own rules. There are cities in Italy where it is a crime to play on the street, for example, in others, musicians need to have a special license. Each city and each country have different rules. It is the same for Germany, France, England, etc.

There is an official busking regulation for each region. Where I live, anti-covid laws have not affected what the busking regulation says. Just the thing about the mask you need to wear, because it is for everyone from the moment you leave home. A rule that, for example, is not mandatory in England, etc. This law that requires you to wear a mask to avoid being fined is a national law in Italy, a national decree.

In general, how have you faced difficulties during the pandemic?

I created a strict busking routine. I play every day on the morning and afternoon shifts, each day on different streets so as not to saturate the public. I also performed shows online, selling tickets and partnering with other musicians and videomakers.

What future perspectives do you envisage in the post-pandemic context (in general and for your specific activities)?

I imagine that, if the vaccine is not able to contain the advance of the pandemic, surely online activities will evolve a lot, to the point of transforming the culture of music consumption for good. Live online shows will be more and more constant. On the other hand, busking activities will continue to be the option of many who already carry out these activities, as well as the alternative for many other artists who have not yet tested themselves playing on the streets.

 Interview granted by Facebook-Messenger on February 12, 2021.


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