Report: Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Music, Copyright and Precarity

This event report was written by Janet Burgess, PhD student at CREATe.

On Thursday, November 12th 2020, Kenny Barr and Janet Burgess from CREATe joined Casi Dylan (Cultural Activities Co-ordinator at the University’s College of Arts) to host an online Zoom event, in conjunction with the Being Human Festival and the ESRC Festival of Social Science. Part gig, part debate, the event brought together music and legal scholars, musicians and policy makers to highlight how music is created, where copyright fits in, and the impact that Covid-19 has had on musicians, both professional and amateur. As a sector, the music industry was already characterised by precariousness and uncertainty but the devastating effects of lockdown compelled many musicians to start using online platforms as their only means of making music. A poll by the Musicians’ Union identified that: 

  • 70% of musicians were unable to undertake more than a quarter of their usual work 
  • 36% of musicians did not have any work at all 
  • Even before Covid-19, musicians’ earnings were below the average level, but this year 87% musicians will be earning less than £20,000 – significantly less than the UK average income of just under £30,000. 

The pandemic hasn’t just affected performers, but has affected the whole of the music sector, including music venues where performances are held and the live event technicians who make it all possible – to the extent that a number of artists and groups, such as Marillion, have put on events specifically to support their crews. But it’s not just the professional musicians who are struggling: right across the UK, choirs, bands, orchestras, religious groups, schools have all had to stop making music.  

As a team we wanted to create an event that highlighted these issues to a non-academic audience, and we definitely wanted it to be entertaining in its own right. Answers to a Zoom Poll question clearly demonstrated how important music was to our audience members and how it had helped get through lockdown. We were very fortunate to have the support of Mathias Kom and Ariel Sharratt of The Burning Hell, who were interviewed by Dr Matt Brennan and who performed songs from their Never Work album to highlight the precarious and changing nature of work today, even before the devastation wrought by Covid-19.  The effects on musicians of all types was clearly demonstrated by Dr Katy Cooper. She is not only the University of Glasgow’s Director of Chapel Music, but also a composer, arranger, singer and director of several amateur groups in the wider community, winning an award as Community Music Teacher of the Year in 2018. Katy explained the practical and artistic difficulties of performing live music under lockdown conditions through the examples of two pieces of music: Gaudeamus Igitur, recorded remotely by community and university singers to form part of the university’s online graduation ceremonies in 2020, and Nonmoriar, a new and largely improvised piece created in response to the challenges of using Zoom for choral performances. 

Dr Simon Anderson, a music publisher, composer and board member for the Performing Right Society (PRS), then explained the development of copyright and its relevance for creators and rightsholders today, answering questions on a range of copyright-related topics from members of the audience. Finally, award-winning Glasgow-based singer and songwriter Carla Easton talked about how precarity affects her work and how she has adapted to produce innovative works under lockdown conditions where live music was prohibited. 

Some 75 audience members attended the Zoom event and despite the challenges of meeting the expectations of a very diverse audience the event received some very gratifying feedback, indicating that ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who’ very successfully met its aims. Would we do it again??  Definitely! 

You can catch up with the event here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYr2nNCffm8

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