Notes of despair: pandemic exacerbates struggles of Indonesian musicians – art & culture


A dreadful new normal

For many independent / session musicians, performance is at the heart of their profession. Without the possibility of presenting their art form, the essence of their music feels lost.

Nathania Karina, DMA, M. Mus, is a pianist who, in addition to performing, conducts the Trinity Youth Symphony (TRUST) Orchestra and teaches piano. In 2019, TRUST presented more than 15 performances. Before the pandemic, they averaged 10 to 15 major concerts a year.

“Believe it or not, in 2020 [we had] zero live performance, ”Nathania said.

Alongside guitarist and music producer Christofer Tjandra, Nathania founded Music Avenue, a music entertainment company. Before quarantine, they would get up to eight bookings to perform at weddings each month. In recent peak seasons, they’ve even had over four bookings per week.

But now, says Christopher, “there are still marriages, but fewer. The parts are also smaller due to the [COVID-19 protocol]. Now only 30 people can [attend weddings]. “

Fewer parties: Christofer Tjandra used to perform dozens of weddings a month, but the number has dropped significantly since the pandemic. (Personal collection / Courtesy of Christofer Tjandra)

During most of the pandemic, Music Avenue got only one to two concerts a month. These concerts are generally smaller performances. While usually they could have up to 20 musicians for a reservation, customers now only ask for one to three musicians.

Christofer has a theory as to why this is so: “Maybe the customer thinks there’s no point in having music live. [when there are so few guests]? “

Dealing with other “pockets” of income

Given current security measures, for musicians based in Indonesia, live performances seem out of the question. Musicians had to find other sources of income to support themselves.

Nathania advises: “As a musician, our [mindset] can’t be ‘oh I just wanna play’ which I think is very risky. She is grateful that people usually already know her with several “pockets of income”, whether as a conductor, teacher or songwriter. However, Nathania acknowledges that this might not be the case for many other musicians who may have focused on performance.

She notes: “It’s very difficult if we only play before the pandemic and suddenly have to switch to [other sources of income such as] education. To teach, you need a certain reputation and a certain method. It can’t come overnight – people need to know you as a teacher.

As a new source of income, Nathania released a three-volume music book titled, Childhood Series: Memories, Dreams, Adventure. Additionally, although teaching piano online was not an option before for her, Nathania has now used it to her advantage.

She says, “Now I can have students in the United States, Australia, Surabaya and Bandung. It is quite amazing.

Christofer also looked at other sources of music-related income. He spends more time in his home studio producing songs for musical organizations such as Symphony Worship and solo artists such as Arvi Josh.

Apart from music, he has also created a new product Kicks Bag, a shoe bag that he sells through online marketplaces such as Tokopedia and Shopee.

The fans too

Beyond the musicians, the lack of live music has been much more difficult than fans realized. As it turns out, the human connection that concerts evoke goes far beyond mere entertainment value.

Before the pandemic, 17-year-old Erin Michelle regularly attended classical orchestral concerts. The last live performance she watched was an exuberant string quartet recital at Balai Resital Kertanegara, a concert hall in South Jakarta. Unfortunately, since entering quarantine in March 2020, she has only watched classic performances via virtual platforms, whether it be live streams on YouTube or Zoom recordings.

For Erin, like many other music fans, the online experience is far less satisfying. She says, “If you look at the artists in person, it feels real. [But] if you’re attending a Zoom recording, you can just as easily search for YouTube recordings of the play online.

The problem of post-pandemic music

Needless to say, the world of music has undergone substantial changes due to the changing performance landscape.

Christofer says: “Now the culture is more ‘do it yourself’: learning to edit videos, to record videos. This is where an important problem arises. Group performances, such as those in an orchestral setting, are the result of collaborations between a myriad of musicians. It is simply not possible for everyone to “do it themselves”. As a result, the transition to online performance has been detrimental to independent players who have struggled to adjust.

Nathania explains: “Most musicians don’t have an annual contract to stay with an orchestra. Most of them, even if we talk about the Jakarta City Philharmonic [the official orchestra of the city of Jakarta], are not paid on the basis of a contract, but as self-employed.

Helping other musicians: Nathania Karina founded Music Avenue, a music entertainment company.  (Nathania Karina)Helping other musicians: Nathania Karina founded Music Avenue, a music entertainment company. (Nathania Karina) (Personal collection / Courtesy of Nathania Karina)

The culture of independent musicians in Indonesia is particularly pervasive.

Nathania asks a pertinent question: “If everyone is independent, how are they going to survive? She further specifies that foreign musicians are no longer hired as independent musicians. They are given contracts which often include medical insurance. On the other hand, independent musicians do not enjoy benefits such as insurance which is increasingly important to the modern worker.

“We have to revolutionize this. Especially in Indonesia, the culture is that being a musician is not [considered] serious work, ”says Nathania.

As we reflect on the plight of musicians in Indonesia, Horn player Adhar Lukman offers words of hope.

He evokes a saying attributed to the Indonesian national hero Kartini: “I am sure that setelah gelap, terbitlah terang [after dark, there will be light] for music in Indonesia, regardless of type and genre. He will certainly be victorious again after the end of this pandemic. For my musician friends, keep up the spirits and let’s continue to pray for a healthy Indonesia, [so that the] the condition will soon return to normal.


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