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The Morality Of Making And Releasing Music In A Pandemic

Photograph of the blog post author, Andy Haggerstone

Andy Haggerstone

30.3.2020

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Like many others, the coronavirus-induced pandemic lockdown has given me some additional free time. With remarkably poor timing, I flew to Thailand close to the start of the current upward curve in cases in the UK. So, I had to spend my first two weeks here in self-quarantine.

I spent the first week in much the same way as everyone else worldwide seems to have. If social media is anything to judge by, that is. Streaming music and TV shows, sending WhatsApp messages ‘just checking in’ with people I hadn’t spoken to in a while, and deleting without reading Covid-19 emails from companies I had forgotten existed. 

BBC News on the coronavirus pandemic

Eventually, however, I had to try to get back to work and face the reality of the various festival cancellations and postponements probably sitting in my inbox. 

However, alongside those inevitable bits of bad news were emails from some of my artists asking whether their upcoming releases would also be put on hold. I assumed that their concerns would be primarily commercial, but they weren’t. The concerns, instead, were ethical ones.

Should Artists Be Releasing?

They aren’t the only ones wrestling with the issue of whether they should be releasing new music at the moment. A quick search on Twitter shows a number of artists are postponing their releases, essentially citing coronavirus as the reason. 

Some, like HAIM, have explained that their decision was essentially for artistic reasons. A key aspect of how they want to present their work is based on their live performances. Now, to some extent, that option has been taken out of their hands. Even if venues were still open, the band have noted they wouldn’t want to endanger their crew or fans. 

HAIM sisters decide not to release during coronavirus pandemic

DMAs too, have postponed an album release, though didn’t elaborate on their reasons. Perhaps they were purely or in part commercial, given the current level of excitement about the band. (Though I clearly don’t speak for them at all).

It would be understandable if this was the case. Making an album is expensive, and touring that album is an important part of the financial picture for an artist. 

If the album performed worse for the band as a result of not being able to support its promotion with live shows, this could leave them in a very difficult financial situation and would throw off their current career trajectory. 

Ethical Reasons?

Man with backpack wearing a mask on a busy street

Aside from commercial and artistic reasons, there is definitely another kind of reason people are citing, which is the ethical kind mentioned above. 

Lady Gaga is a prominent example of this. Despite the fact that she thinks that “art is one of the strongest things we have to provide joy and healing”, for her, releasing new music at this time “just doesn’t feel right”.

I suspect many artists share this feeling but may not be able to pinpoint the precise reasons that underpin it. And this is absolutely fine. However, I want to unpack that feeling a little here and try to give it some grounding in some core ethical concepts that I think are very important as an artist.

Virtue Ethics

Empty metro tube station during pandemic

The general ethical theory I subscribe to is a version of what is known as virtue ethics. There are various versions of virtue ethics that all differ in the specifics. There are religious versions in Christianity and Buddhism, and secular versions in the work of philosophers like Aristotle. 

Broadly speaking, virtue ethics suggests that there are certain character traits that it is good to possess. Traits that should (ideally) help you thrive in society. Examples of these traits include things like courage, compassion, and patience.

We come to have these character traits as a result of practice. So, just like a musician can develop their ability on the guitar through practising every day, we can all develop the virtue of compassion by responding compassionately whenever an opportunity arises.

A Polarised World

supermarket with empty shelves during pandemic

In the current age, opportunities to be compassionate abound, and not only in the instances of people suffering from the medical and economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. For years now we have been living in a polarised world, reflected in the behaviour of people on social media. 

For example, when somebody Tweets something mean-spirited, this offers us an opportunity to develop virtues like compassion. You can do this by trying to understand their position or reasons, rather than angrily dismissing them with a curt response. 

Anger is, in fact, the opposite of a virtue – it is a vice. Like virtues, you acquire vices through practice. Now, this isn’t to say that abhorrent ideas shouldn’t or can’t be challenged. It is just to say that they should be challenged compassionately rather than angrily.

Possessing Virtues

Code of ethical behaviour sign on wall during pandemic

But what does it mean to possess virtues? The thought is that possessing the virtue of courage, for instance, means that you are predisposed to act courageously. That is, when faced with danger, you will instinctively choose to do the courageous thing rather than the cowardly thing. If there is a child drowning in the pool in front of you, you’ll leap to their rescue. You wouldn’t stand around floundering hopelessly on the side-lines. 

This means that, to some extent, the virtues we develop eliminate some of the need to reason through what we ought to do when faced with a moral dilemma. The more deeply ingrained the virtue is, the stronger our instinctive response should become. Although, the same can be said of vices, so it is still important to reflect upon other people’s responses to our moral choices.

In other words, our ‘gut feeling’ can guide us – so some things will just not feel right. Now, we all possess some virtues to a greater or lesser extent, and this will lead us to have certain moral instincts. And these moral instincts are important and should not be ignored. Which brings us back to Lady Gaga.

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga chooses not to release during pandemic

It is likely that Lady Gaga is motivated by something like compassion in making her decision. She states that she wants people to focus their attention on finding solutions to the pandemic. But we could, should we want to, take issue with her reasoning here.

Unsurprisingly, many people on Twitter have done so, and in quite unkind terms. But for argument’s sake let’s say that this isn’t a good reason to postpone her album release. (‘It’s not my job to find a solution to the pandemic’, ‘I’m not a scientist or a politician’, etc.) Does that mean she should abandon her moral instinct and press on with the release? I would argue not.

Music Promotion from Music Gateway

Integrity, Even During A Pandemic

Another key moral concept is integrity (and I would suggest it is also a virtue). My idea of integrity is something like being able to live with the choices you make. In other words, trying not to act against your moral instincts. It is, of course, important to think about the reasons for and against releasing music at this time, including the commercial and artistic ones. It is important to speak to your team and your fans about this issue too. Doing so is to show compassion toward those who are affected by your decision. Your manager and your label are economically impacted by this decision; your fans may welcome the distraction of new music. 

The Uplifting Power Of Art

sunflower in sun is uplifting during pandemic

Moreover, Lady Gaga is right when she recognises the uplifting power of art in difficult times. For many artists, the need to create will be overwhelming right now. One of the questions an artist asked me on this issue is ‘Won’t the music be associated with this negative time?’ The answer is ‘maybe’. But this doesn’t mean that it has to be a negative association

Vera Lynn became “The Forces’ sweetheart” with her uplifting songs during the Second World War, the deadliest conflict in human history. I have also seen many personal messages of thanks to my artists from people who have found resonance in their work when dealing with mental health issues. Arguably, at this time, inspiring and uplifting music is needed more than at any other.

Sync Licensing from Music Gateway

Listen To Your Instinct

However, if after considering all of these things, you still just don’t feel right about releasing music, then you should pay attention to that. You may be feeling pressured by others around you. Not only the kinds of people I mentioned above, but also by the choices of other artists. If Lady Gaga’s choice not to release music makes you second-guess your decision to schedule a release at this time, then you should certainly take a moment to consider why this may be the case. 

However, your moral instincts are your own, and so are hers. And ultimately you each have to live with the consequences of those choices, whatever they may be. Hopefully, these consequences shouldn’t include you living with a decision you thought, at the time, just didn’t feel right. 

So, whether you ultimately choose to release music or not, try to base that decision in the right sort of moral character. One that includes a helpful dose of compassion at a time it’s greatly needed.

About the author:

Andy Haggerstone is the founder and managing director of artist management company and independent record label Kaleidoscope, founded in 2015 and based in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK). He works with artists including Callum Pitt and Grace Gillespie. Andy founded Kaleidoscope whilst studying for his PhD in Philosophy and teaching topics including logic and ethics at The University of York (UK).

Help Is Available During This Pandemic

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