Serbian musicians battle the coronavirus blues

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Serbian musicians battle the coronavirus blues
Members of the "Dingospo Dali" band rehearse at their studio in Belgrade on July 26, 2020. Vladimir Zivojinovic / AFP.

by Jovan Matic

BELGRADE (AFP).- In a studio embedded deep inside an old Belgrade printing factory turned artists' space, the rock group Dingospo Dali rehearses for a show they are not sure will come to pass.

Like musicians around the world, the group's plans have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, which has silenced the concert scene in Serbia and thrown Balkan artists into an even more precarious existence.

"I lost a lot of work, as a musician and also as a sound engineer," Nikola Vidojevic, the band's 33-year-old drummer, told AFP.

"The pandemic stopped everything."

The six rockers still jam in their studio in the former BIGZ printing and publishing house on the Sava river which has become a mecca for independent musicians and artists in the Serbian capital.

Built in the 1930s, the building housed one of the largest printing works in the region before Yugoslavia's collapse.

Over the past 15 years, its rooms have been reclaimed as a hub for independent rock and alternative art.

Music wafts through the building's huge network of graffiti-streaked hallways, with rooms occupied by dozens of bands, nightclubs and art studios, helping cut the loneliness of the pandemic.

But today the moody neon-lit corridors carry a new heaviness, with many artists now in dire financial straits.

"Most of the tens of thousands of musicians in Serbia have no other source of income than music," said Nikola Jovanovic, owner of a music publishing house and concert organiser.

Exit out
The loss of Serbia's popular summer festivals, including Exit, one of Europe's biggest events, as well as Beer Fest and the Nisville Jazz Festival, have spread the anguish across a whole economy of entertainment workers.

Sreten Kovacevic, 63, who runs a company that builds stages for Exit and Nisville, has had to let go of seven of his eight employees.

"The people who used to work for us -- technicians, sound and lighting people, sound engineers -- are now probably also looking for alternative ways to make money. It's all stopped. The future is very bleak," he said.

Previously graced by the likes of Manu Chao and The Cure, the Exit festival was initially postponed to August and then cancelled altogether due to the resurgence of coronavirus.

"For the first time in its 20 years of existence, the festival won't be taking place," lamented Exit manager Zdravko Vulin.

A thousand jobs are ultimately threatened, he said.

"It's an absolute catastrophe for the industry as a whole," added Ivan Blagojevic, 60, director of the Nisville festival, which has previously hosted global stars like Candy Dulfer and Tony Allen.

He's wishing for the festival to be able to go ahead in September but the worsening course of the pandemic leaves little room for hope, with hundreds of new cases recorded daily.

Plea for help
Deprived of concerts, artists have asked for financial support from the government -- so far, with little luck.

"We went to the ministry of culture, we didn't get an answer, to the ministry of finance who never answered us, just like the chamber of commerce," says Jovanovic.

The chamber of commerce told AFP that it was examining "all aspects of the crisis" to seek solutions, acknowledging that income from copyrights was on course to contract significantly this year, by nearly 50 percent.

The culture and finance ministries did not respond to AFP's requests for comment.

In the meantime, groups like Dingospo Dali are figuring out how to survive.

Singer and lyricist Sandra Vidojevic, 31, is pessimistic.

"I gave up my job to devote myself to music, maybe I shouldn't have," says the former airline employee.

© Agence France-Presse

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