Kenan Behzat Sharpe
Since COVID-19 began to impact Turkey in March 2020, concerts have been banned in the name of social distancing measures. For nearly a year and a half now, with the exception of a brief relaxation last summer, tens of thousands of music industry workers have been unemployed. Many musicians interpret Erdoğan government’s recent renewal of the ban on live music as an active desire to bring the industry to its knees.
On May 31, the Turkish government announced a new relaxation in COVID-19 restrictions. Musicians waited with bated breath to hear the expected good news: concerts, at least in open-air venues, would be given the green light. Instead, they learned that political congresses, shopping malls, restaurants, and sporting events would now open while concerts, playhouses, and movie theaters would remain shuttered.
Since COVID-19 began to impact Turkey in March 2020, concerts have been banned in the name of social distancing measures. For nearly a year and a half now, with the exception of a brief relaxation last summer, tens of thousands of music industry workers have been unemployed. This includes not only musicians but also those who work in concert halls and venues: light/music technicians, roadies, bouncers, venue bartenders, and janitorial staff. This is a job sector that includes tens of thousands of people. Many have had to sell their instrument or equipment to survive. Others have left the industry. Dozens have reportedly killed themselves.
Yet as we speak, countries from Spain to the United States are gearing up for a summer full of live music. With higher vaccination rates and governments eager to restart closed industries, these countries are eager for people to enjoy live music again. In the summer months, it is more than possible to hold concerts outdoors in a socially distanced and responsible manner. When there is a will, there is a way.
Meanwhile, in Turkey there is little political will to help the live music and entertainment industry—in fact, many musicians interpreted the government’s renewal of the ban on live music as an active desire to bring the industry to its knees. For example, Harun Tekin (founder of the rock band Mor ve Ötesi and an advocate for musicians’ rights) had this to say on Twitter: “Arbitrary restrictions cannot take the place of vaccinations. What our country’s valuable musicians, music workers, and stage artists are being forced to undergo is not rational but ideological.”
Cinema writer and director Melikşah Altuntaş linked the ban on concerts to the restrictions on other sectors of the arts, as well as bars. His statement on social media echoes the feeling of many others that the ban on performing arts is not about stopping the pandemic. Rather, it is an intentional and ideological effort to kill the live music and entertainment industries: “There is only one explanation for cinemas, movie theaters, bars and other venues of the entertainment sector being banned for a year and a half while others are open: a desire to destroy and control them.”
In speeches, President Erdoğan frequently mentions the question of cultural hegemony. In his mind, one of the ruling party’s greatest weaknesses is its inability to establish dominance in culture and the arts. Since the early days of the Turkish Republic, the dominant voices in literature, theater, music, and so on have been well-educated and Westernized artists as well as people associated with left-wing or liberal values.
The most influential figures in the arts range from committed revolutionaries to social justice-oriented liberals: from the 20th-century “greats” (Nazım Hikmet in poetry, Yılmaz Güney in cinema, Nükhet Duru in music) to contemporary celebrities like Hazal Kaya or novelist Orhan Pamuk. It’s a wide tent with many disagreements, but the people on this political spectrum tend to oppose religious-based conservatism and ultra-nationalism. In contrast, the number of high-profile artists cozy with the ruling party remains surprisingly low (former rocker Mazhar Alanson, folk musician Yavuz Bingöl, actress Hülya Koçyiğit, and so on).
This war over cultural hegemony, or who controls the arts, shapes how many see the continuing ban on live music. For example, folk musician and writer Erdal Güney echoed a common sentiment when he wrote that Turkey’s COVID-19 restrictions are a form of “punishment for the culture/arts workers that [the government] wasn’t able to recruit.”
The question then remains: what is to be done? One solution is for the government to provide aid for musicians and industry workers. If they cannot perform, at least help them stay afloat with financial support. The government has taken some steps in this direction. In January 2021, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced an aid program. 30,744 applications were accepted to receive 1,000 TL each month for 3 months. In May, this was extended for another 5 months. However, many criticize this aid program both for the low amount and for its exclusionary eligibility criteria. Roughly 90% of musicians are self-employed and thus do not meet the necessary tax requirements to receive aid.
With government aid still insufficient, others have turned to self-reliance. They think that musicians need to help each other. One example of these efforts is musician and philanthropist Haluk Levent’s Ahbap Derneği, a charity organization. Most recently, the project is collecting donotations to help musicians pay their water and electricity bills up to 400 TL. Soccer player Merih Demiral recently made headlines for donating 50,000 TL. Others have followed suit. Veteran rocker Ahmet Güvenç sold his guitar to raise funds while pop star Aleyna Tilki is auctioning off her outfits. These efforts are certainly commendable, but it’s a little like putting one’s finger in the dyke. It’s not enough to stop the flood.
Others have taken to social media to raise awareness with the hashtags #sahnenesahipçık #gözünüyumma (”Don’t turn a blind eye” and “Protect our stages”). Yet it’s unclear who exactly these campaigns are addressing. Are they asking the government to do something? If so, what? Or are they addressing fans? What precisely are they being asked to do?
The most necessary thing at this moment is organization. Musicians and others in the industry are workers first of all. There are a number of professional associations and unions for musicians but membership rates remain low. Perhaps a new and more militant era of labor organization for cultural workers is necessary at this stage.