Andy McGraw, associate professor of music and an ethnomusicologist

How coronavirus is changing music

July 23, 2020


The pandemic has uprooted how the world conducts business. We asked five faculty members for their thoughts about the economy, the judicial systemleadership, and journalism.

In our final Q&A we hear from Andy McGraw, associate professor of music and an ethnomusicologist, who discusses the impact the pandemic has had on the music industry.

As an ethnomusicologist you explore how music is integrated with and affected by history and society. How do historical events like the COVID-19 pandemic change music? 

Because they require suspending public gatherings, pandemics and plagues devastate music scenes and are very disruptive to musicians’ livelihoods. We’re seeing severe economic impacts on musicians and venues around the globe. Musicians in Indonesia, where I do a lot of research, have been especially hard hit partly because many of them survive solely on performance income, rather than teaching, which can be partly shifted to digital formats. If you look back in history, you see similar impacts from plagues in Europe. You also see recommendations for using music as a form of therapy in the home during quarantine. My students this semester produced some really interesting original research about the “soundscape of COVID-19” in their homes. 

What have been the biggest impacts of COVID-19 on the music industry?

I would guess that revenues from digital streaming and downloading have increased as people have had more downtime and use music to fill their day and modulate their mood, as my students’ research suggest. We’ll have to wait for the Nielson data to know for sure. But very few artists can pay rent from streaming or downloads. They derive a greater portion of revenues from live shows, now suspended. We’ve seen a lot of virtual events appearing, but those favor the big names and the economic models for those are unclear. Is anyone really making money from these events? Some services require people to pay a fee to get in to a private virtual show, but I think that represents a small proportion of virtual music events.  

Why do you think music has the ability to bring communities together during troubled times?

All human cultures anthropologists know about have made something we can call music, but no one knows why, although there are plenty of speculative theories. I think it's probably connected to some very old functions of music and its potential for coalescing group sentiment, solidarity, and feeling. By sharing the experience of music we’re saying: “We’re in this together!” And being in it together has given humans adaptive advantages throughout our evolutionary history.  

What advice do you have for those who would like to help support music during this time of uncertainty?

Take virtual lessons from local musicians and buy instruments from local makers. Google will point you in the right direction. 

You teach your students how to develop a deeper understanding of their surroundings through listening exercises. As people spend more time in their homes, how would you encourage them to explore the “soundscapes” that surround them?

Stop everything else, put the devices away, and go for a walk outside, consciously listening to your surroundings. It’s a great time for it, with lower “anthropogenic” noise — like cars and airplanes — right now. You can really hear the birds, kids playing outside, the river. Those natural sounds are typically masked by the sounds of the city. And if you want to go deep with your listening, check out the composer Pauline Oliveros’ book Deep Listening, which was a set of mediations on sound she started publishing in the 1970s.