Like elsewhere in the world, cafés and bars were closed during Turkey’s lockdowns. But some restrictions, such as a ban on selling alcohol during the period of curfew, have prompted criticism that the government was more interested in changing people’s lifestyles than protecting public health. A ban on playing music in public spaces – which has not yet been fully lifted – has proved particularly controversial.
On July 21 this year, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on live television that restrictions would be mostly lifted, allowing Turkey to nearly return to normal. But he went on to tell viewers that live music would still not be allowed after midnight.
In response, musicians and citizens who felt robbed of their nightlife protested against the ban. The day the president made his announcement, rapper Ağaçkakan (Woodpecker) held a concert in a park in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district which went on past midnight, leading to his arrest along with six audience members. They were subsequently released without charge.
Most recently, the popular Turkish reggae band Sattas launched the protest hashtag “free music” on their Twitter account.
In November, Turkey’s culture and tourism minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy was confronted in parliament by Seda Kadıgil, a deputy for the left-wing Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP).
“If I were you, I wouldn’t enable this regime where an enemy of the arts has banned music, and I wouldn’t be their minister if they got down on one knee to ask me,” Kadıgil told him.
The government has not backed down, however, forcing music events to end before midnight. Musicians with smaller fan bases and cover bands have been the biggest victims of the situation, as they are no longer offered stage time after headliners. Entertainment venues have suffered massive losses of revenue, which has further limited employment opportunities in the industry.
Veys Çolak, a solo artist as well as a guitarist for several well-known Turkish bands, said that the continued enforcement of the music ban reflected a “completely political attitude”.
“I’ve stopped looking for logic in political discourse and the state’s decisions years ago,” the musician said.
Mahmut Çınar, the frontman for iconic Turkish band Ezginin Günlüğü, and a contributor to independent online paper Gazete Duvar, believes that the ban reflects the government’s efforts to appeal to socially conservative parts of the population.
“Everybody, including the bureaucracy that has to enforce the illegal ‘rules’ of the state, knows that the Covid-19 precautions were just an excuse for the music ban,” Çınar said.
Having been on tour with Ezginin Günlüğü, Çınar had first-hand experience of the ban. Concerts usually start late, allowing the band’s audience to commute from work, have dinner or drive to the event venue, the frontman said. The ban has forced them to finish their performances within two hours, which he found illogical.
“Think about it, you’re finally able to see a band you love live after years, and the band has to apologise and step down from the stage before midnight. [But] you’re welcome to leave the concert venue and sit in a packed restaurant until dawn; you can mingle with the crowds in a cinema. Under these circumstances, this ban seems to me to be nonsense whatever way you slice it,” Çınar said.
The Istanbul governor’s office has said that the ban, which is in place across the whole of Turkey, aims to “prevent people from gathering in large numbers,” but Murat Mert Seçkin, manager of the Karga bar on Kadife Street, the main drag of Istanbul’s Kadıköy district, is not convinced.
“People coming into contact isn’t an issue anywhere [else] – in public transportation, political meetings, shopping malls and places of worship. So it’s not very convincing that crowds become a problem only for certain spaces or cultural activities,” Seçkin said.
The music ban has led to a serious drop in Karga Bar’s revenue, Seçkin said, adding that they were forced to cut the number of staff.
The bar manager believes that other restrictions are in store for the entertainment industry. “New taxes, bans that have been and will be enforced on alcoholic beverages, difficulties faced by wholesalers in finding tax stamps – it’s clear that even harder times await venues that serve alcohol.”
Musician Veys Çolak told Inside Turkey that the careers of non-mainstream artistes have been particularly affected, since more famous performers can afford public relations efforts that allow them to continue working.
“Many bar bands are no longer able to perform, especially in Istanbul. If there is a concert scheduled, it usually starts around 9pm and ends at midnight at the latest. Cover bands that take stage after the headliners don’t charge much anyway, and they can’t find any gigs under these circumstances. Only artists who can perform every week survive,” Çolak said.
Ağaç Ev, a much-loved blues bar in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, was forced to shutter its operations in 2017 as a result of urban transformation in the area, although it reopened in Kadıköy eight months later.
“We don’t think this ban is innocent or acceptable, it really hurts businesses like ours that are only able to function within a five or six hour timeframe,” said Ali Burak Ocakçı, the manager and a musician himself. “We have a hard time with rent, bills and other payments because we’re not working at full capacity. We’re forced to employ a smaller staff. We can’t afford to give new bands time on stage, we can’t even come together with many well-known musicians because of the ban.”
Founded by law professionals in response to the earlier restrictions on alcohol, the Defend Your Rights Platform now campaigns against the music ban.
One of its founders, lawyer Ali Gül, told Inside Turkey that a petition filed by the group in August to reverse the music ban was rejected by a court. Defend Your Rights is appealing the decision.
“We’ll get this ban cancelled one way or another, and we’ll make sure it’s on record that it was illegal. Some might wonder what the point will be in a few years, but we’re trying to prevent this illegal practice from reoccurring by setting a precedent that it’s illegal,” Gül said.
Business owners and musicians have been hesitant to take legal action, however. “We shouldn’t be surprised: these are times when people are afraid of being marked out by the state,” Gül added.
Gupse Korkmaz, an Istanbul resident who works as an architect and enjoys clubbing in her free time, told Inside Turkey that the ban should have been lifted by now, as other restrictions have been. In the meantime, she said, partygoers have made up their own rules.
“I don’t think people are really affected by the ban except for in places that are very visible. People’s purchasing power has shrunk so much [because of Turkey’s recent economic problems] that anyone who’s decided to spend that money on going out won’t really care about whether music’s playing or not,” Korkmaz said.
Musicians have been unanimous in their opposition to the ban, said Çınar, the musician and journalist. “Even artists close to the government can be found protesting the enforcement of the music ban, sometimes openly, sometimes in discreet ways.”
In October, Çınar interviewed the chair of the Turkey Musical Works Owners Professional Union (MESAM), Recep Ergül. The chair said that he had met with the culture and tourism minister, who claimed to be working towards lifting the ban.
“So everyone but one person [president Erdoğan] thinks that the ban is ridiculous, and wants it to be lifted,” Çınar said. But he fears that the issue will soon be forgotten amid Turkey’s inflation crisis, and the upcoming elections in 2023. What’s more, lifting the ban would entail the president admitting he made a mistake – something that Çınar thought was unlikely to happen.