Marta Cinelli

Italy and Spain Lean on Music to Battle Coronavirus Lockdown Blues

A flash mob with pots and pans in Italy, and virtual concerts in Spain help soften the blow of the devastation to their music industries.

MILAN — Facing deepening isolation and economic pain from a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, Roby Perissin, a medical marketing specialist by day and Latin jazz bass player by night, broke through the tedium last week by giving a 20-minute concert for his neighbors in the courtyard of their apartment building.

With Perissin on bass, his daughter Eva on the ukulele and his Dutch-born wife Marijke singing vocals, they ran though The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for The Devil” and a selection of blues numbers.

The Milan residents were among tens of thousands of Italians last week that took to balconies, courtyards and open windows as part of the “Sound Flash Mob,” a call to music meant to alleviate the frustrations of a country-wide concert ban and subsequent lockdown on movement by citizens.

For Italy, a country reeling with the second-highest number of cases of COVID-19 and the most deaths -- with more than 47,000 infections and over 4,000 deaths -- the event was a moment of release for penned-in citizens, and it spurred other organic musical celebrations in the days that followed.

“It helped break the eerie silence that had begun to creep over our cities,” Luciano Bevilacqua, one of the flash mob’s organizers, tells Billboard. “And it helped fight other viruses, such as loneliness.”

In recent weeks, artists in other countries badly affected by the virus outbreak -- including Spain, China and South Korea -- have also turned to virtual concerts to connect with fans and keep their spirits up.

In February, as the virus was surging in China, DJ-producer CORSAK hosted a 40-minute livestream show on his TikTok page from his bedroom in Shanghai, where he played keyboards and sung. That same month the DJ joined a group of more than 20 artists of different genres from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan for a “sofa concert” on TikTok, with most performing live from their homes. In South Korea, 13-year-old Dongwon Jeong, a finalist on a popular audition program, “Mr. Trot,” uploaded a video of him singing a medley of songs, which he dedicated to "those in self-isolation and getting treatment" for COVID-19.

In Spain, where the number of virus cases has surged the past two weeks -- it now has more than 20,000 cases, the third-most in the world, and more than 1,000 deaths -- Franchejo Blázquez, an artist manager and promoter who works for management agency Must Productions, organized #YoMeQuedoenCasa (“I’m Staying Home”). The virtual festival featured some 40 artists playing live sets on Instagram, including Rozalén, David Otero and Diana Navarro. An hour after it kicked off, some 60,000 people had logged on, Blázquez tells Billboard from Madrid. The artists, some of whom had been forced to cancel concerts at major venues, performed for free.

Economic impact mounting

The bursts of spontaneous musical expression and altruistic music-sharing have masked, for the moment, the fast-spreading economic pain being felt by Italy and Spain’s music industries, which are facing massive upheaval from a shutdown of live events and overall economic activity.

The virus-related losses to Italy’s music industry could top 100 million euros ($107 million), estimates Enzo Mazza, president of FIMI, Italy’s major labels body. In addition to the live sector -- which suffered an estimated loss of 10.5 million euros ($11.2 million) for the last week of February alone -- FIMI is seeing a 60% drop in physical record sales, a 70% fall in synchronization revenues and a 70% drop in background music revenues collected from establishments like shopping malls, bars and hairdressers, he says.

The situation is just as dire in Spain, where Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez shut down most of Spanish street life on March 13 and ordered police-enforced confinement of citizens for two weeks. (Although there has been no official announcement yet, Minister of Education Josep Bargalló said Thursday that there was no date in sight for kids to return to school and people should expect to continue to stay home until further notice.)

The Spanish Music Federation, known as Es_Música, estimates that Spain’s live music sector will lose 764 million euros (more than $525 million) from March to September 2020. Until the virus struck, the sector had been growing steadily. In 2019, some 28 million people attended 90,000 live music events in Spain, according to Es_Música. Live music income grew by over 14% in 2019 to 382 million euros (over $400 million), according to Spain’s Association of Music Promoters. Before the current crisis, a report by the OBS Business School in Barcelona had projected the sector’s income would rise by up to 20% in 2020.

In both Spain and Italy, the virus has spread quickly and shown no signs of slowing. The rapid changes were illustrated by two videos posted within a week by Uruguayan pop poet Jorge Drexler. In one, shot after he canceled a concert, he played a song he had written, “Codo a Codo” (Elbow to Elbow), and urged social distancing while strumming introspectively in a Costa Rican hotel room. Less than a week later, Drexler posted another video from his home in Madrid, in which he spoke, visibly agitated, with just one message to his 393,000 Instagram followers: “Stay home.”

From lockdown to flash mob

With virus cases accelerating beyond northern Italy, the country went into lockdown on March 9, when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared there would be “no more nightlife.” The move led a group of frustrated musicians from Rome -- a 20-piece street band called Fanfaroma (a play on the Italian words for “braggart” and “Rome”) -- to come up with the Sound Flash Mob. “Things got worse with the lockdown,” says Bevilacqua, a founding member of Fanfaroma. “We couldn’t get together to rehearse!”

The original plan was for musicians around the country to play whatever music they wanted at an appointed hour. Some groups urged everyone to play the Italian national anthem, “L’Inno Mameli” (The Mameli Hymn). But not everyone did.

Many established artists took part. Giuliano Sangiorgi of the pop group Negramaro gave a short concert from the balcony of his Rome apartment. Rockstar Morgan (real name Marco Castoldi) sped around on the street outside his Milan apartment on a skateboard while singing an unaccompanied version of his track “Sincero” (Sincere). Videos of both went viral.

But the flash mob was also a moment for less well-known musicians to shine.

John Duran
Jorge Drexler

In Milan, Raffaele Kohler, an accomplished trumpeter, stood behind the ornate bars of a ground-floor window and played the melody of Milan’s unofficial hymn, “Oh mia bela Madunina,” (Oh my beautiful little Madonna). Neighbors applauded, so he followed up with “Volare,” the 1958 classic by Domenico Modugno.

With schools and offices closed, music student Marta Cinelli, 15, stood at a window in the Alpine village of Campodolcino and played a selection of pieces on her viola. And in Cisternino, a small town in southern Italy, 3D graphic artist Alfonso Miceli and his five-year-old daughter Nina banged pots and pans from their balcony.

“Italians are very creative, and the flash mob was the perfect way to bring a smile to people’s faces, not to mention a general feeling of relief,” Miceli says.

The flash mob seemed to light a fire. The following day at noon, people from all over Italy gathered on their balconies to clap their hands for five minutes to show their appreciation for the nation’s beleaguered doctors and nurses. Then at 6 p.m. that evening they came out again to sing “Azzurro,” the 1968 hit by Adriano Celentano, then a teen heartthrob.

Down but not out

Italy and Spain’s music industries may be down, but they’re not out.

In the wake of the flash mob -- though not necessarily related -- the Italian government passed a package of emergency measures on March 16. It included 130 million euros to be shared between the film and live music industries, with a further 10 million euros for all authors and artists.

In Spain, a second “line up” of artists contacted Blázquez about wanting to participate in the Instagram festival; they’ll perform the weekend of March 20-22. Another virtual event, Cuarentenafest (Quarantine Fest), dubbed a “streaming music festival in difficult times,” is also offering sets on Instagram on March 27, featuring music by independent artists.

The crisis has pushed Spaniards to return to more traditional values. “We’re kind of going back to a time when neighbors and friends helped each other,” says Blázquez.

And for artists like Andalusian singer-songwriter Javier Ruibal, who will have to deal with the financial blows of canceled concerts for the foreseeable future, the virtual performances offer an emotional payoff they need right now.

“After the concert I collapsed in a heap of tears,” Ruibal said to fans on his Facebook page after a recent social media set. “The situation is so strange and so worrisome that in the end I broke down. Thank you for being there, without your company this is going to be very hard.”

Additional reporting by Nemo Kim and Benson Zhang