The arts scene in Turkey vs. COVID-19
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Fittingly for the age of COVID-19, this common phrase has its origins in medicine and was first uttered by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. The phrase also perfectly describes the creative and often surprising solutions that workers of all kinds are currently coming up with to survive the coronavirus slump.
The situation of artists and musicians is no more desperate than that of other precarious workers. Yet at a time when so many of us are turning to films, songs, and other media for consolation, it is important to remember that cultural workers are indeed workers. And with concert venues, exhibition spaces, and movie theaters all closed, many of these workers have suddenly found themselves out of a job.
Recognizing that artists would also be hit hard financially by the coronavirus, countries like Germany and the UK have created emergency funds for creative workers. While the actual effectiveness of these measures varies greatly from country to country, state support is essential for both the survival of individual artists and the health of the cultural sector as a whole.
In Turkey, securing support for creative workers such as musicians has been an uphill battle. For instance, on March 17, a team of recording artists, managers, venue owners, and festival organizers met with representatives of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism to pressure the government to provide financial relief for the music sector. On March 26 another group led by musician Candan Erçetin met with the ministry to demand that musicians also benefit from the economic shield package announced by President Erdoğan last month. Neither group has announced success.
On April 8, the government announced a new financial aid package, offering a low stipend of 40 liras ($5.8) per day for people who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits. One might say something is better than nothing. While it seems self-employed workers like musicians may benefit from it, the fundamental problem remains unsolved. Even positive measures like the project of Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş to provide food and cash support to local musicians (alongside taxi drivers, tailors, and shopkeepers) cannot supplant nation-wide support for people struggling to pay their rent, bills, and basic expenses.
And so in the absence of wide-ranging financial support, cultural workers have turned to more creative measures. For example, indie musician Can Kazaz has launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site Patreon. Kazaz explains: “I launched this account in order to pay some of my loyalty during the COVID-19 pandemic to my teammates who supported me to exist with my music in all conditions with their efforts in all conditions.” While venues remain closed, monthly donations go to support his bandmates as well as sound, light, and stage engineers—the behind-the-scenes heroes of the music scene. For every 500€ raised, Kazaz will perform an online concert. Those who donate €19 per month not only get access to these performances, they also receive an autographed CD and the chance to meet Kazaz backstage when the concert halls reopen.
While Kazaz’s campaign only supports the five musicians on his team, it does provide a helpful model as to how creative workers can support each other and successfully engage fans. It is important for high-profile musicians to bring attention to the often invisible people who make the music scene possible. Forms of monthly support are also essential, as it is unclear how long this situation will continue. In turn, fans are motivated to subscribe through opportunities for contact with the artist, whether digital conversation sessions or autographs.
Further, Kazaz has made the interesting choice to release his digital concerts in high-resolution on YouTube. Since mid-March, online concerts have become a common feature of everyday life. Many of these are live-streamed on Instagram. I imagine that many users of the photo/video-sharing platform were as excited as myself to see their Instagram Story banner light up each evening with live shows from their favorite musicians. Yet in the space of just a few weeks, these concerts have transformed from novelty to nuisance. As everything moves online, the danger of over-saturation is very real. Once everything is equally accessible, nothing feels quite as special. For this reason, it is salutary to keep experimenting with different models and platforms.
The film sector is experiencing similar challenges and possibilities. On March 27, cinema lovers across Istanbul were saddened to learn that the historic Atlas and Rexx cinemas were closing due to financial difficulties. While local municipalities and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism have offered somewhat vague promises to keep these beloved institutions afloat, short of more substantive aid packages they will be only the first of many cultural spaces to close their doors forever.
Seeing the danger approaching, the historic Beyoğlu Cinema has decided to be proactive. On March 30 the movie theater officially launched its weekly cinema magazine 1989. For a 10 lira per month subscription, the theater’s supporters will receive a glossy bulletin filled with cinema news, curated film lists, criticism, and more.
Similarly, the independent film festival Başka Sinema (Other Cinema) has found a creative way of keeping the show going. Under normal conditions, Başka Sinema teams up with local theaters across the country to make independent or art house films available that would otherwise be too big of a financial risk for owners. With these theaters now shuttered, Başka Sinema is collaborating with the Turkish streaming service BluTV to make festival films available in your home. Viewers can access these films for the price of a ticket on the BluTV website without having to buy a subscription. Films are available for a period of 14 days and part of the proceeds go to support the movie theaters.
As this difficult pandemic continues, we are bound to see new ideas in the cultural realm that either flop or succeed. Let us hope that people in the creative industries continue to develop methods for both connecting lovers of art, music, and cinema with the work that they love while also reminding us that the people who spend their lives creating this content deserve, like everyone else, a living wage.
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