CfP: Working in Music 2018 (Lausanne)

Call for abstracts

Working in Music

International Conference
Lausanne, 11-13 January 2018

As with any artistic production, music is also – and perhaps mainly – work. Such an idea is opposed to the romantic mythology from the 19th Century which conceives of artistic activity as coming from transcendental inspiration, impossible to rationalize, and of the artist as an exceptional being whose “talent” would be irreducible to sociological analysis. It may be one of the main contributions of Howard S. Becker’s work in the 1950’s to have shown the importance of studying musical work on a daily basis. Far from the ethereal conceptions of the inspired creator, Becker undertook ethnographic observations of work done by musicians who were neither rich nor famous, whom he called dance musicians.

Sixty years later, sociology of musical work has developed considerably. To name but a few examples of outstanding work from both sides of the Atlantic, one can mention Robert Faulkner’s study of Hollywood studio musicians or David Grazian observation of Chicago blues clubs; in Great Britain, Martin Cloonan and John Williamson’s work on the Musicians’ Unions or Simon Frith’s very well known sociological accounts of popular music and its related industries; or in France, Bernard Lehmann’s study of the work of symphony players, Marie Buscatto’s on women in jazz, Hyacinthe Ravet’s on female musicians or on conductor– performer relations in classical orchestras, or, finally, Marc Perrenoud’s ethnography of “ordinary musicians”. So dynamic is this field of research that many other names and works could be mentioned across a number of countries.

Indeed, in 2016 about 100 scholars from all over the world met in Glasgow for the first Working in Music conference. The success of this first event led to the creation of an international research network on musical work1 and to the idea of renewing the experience. Two years later, Lausanne will host the second international conference on musical work as an object of study for the social sciences and beyond.

In order to guide prospective participants in their conference proposals, several topics are put forward:

1. Inequalities and discrimination: sex, race, class, and musical careers

The first topic covers social inequalities, gender or ethnic discrimination issues. Like any labour market, the musical field is a space of expression, production, and reproduction of social inequalities. However, those inequalities are often more difficult to stress in the artistic world where success is supposed to depend on “talent”, a notion the main function of which is to naturalize and individualize inequalities.

2. Collective action: unions and social struggle

Nowadays, musicians are reputed to be individualists and impossible to collectivise, but for a large part of the 20th Century they were efficiently organized within powerful unions. Is the precariousness, which seems to strike most musicians (with the general exception of the permanent orchestras’ employees), a fait accomplit? What has changed since the days when, in most Western countries, musicians’ unions had real power in the labour market and the music industries? What are the contemporary issues of social struggles in music in times of deregulation of the national labour markets and digitalisation of music production?

3. Highbrow and lowbrow: cultural legitimacy in question

For a long time, the usual distinction between “serious” and “popular” music was a central element in the study of music. To what extent is this dichotomy still useful? Does one systematically find structural homologies between the social characteristics of musicians and their audiences? What is the range of genre and styles that a musician can embrace? In other words, can an interpreter really play everything and anything or do successful musicians need to be specialised in a genre?

4. Teaching and transmitting: the music and the trade

Learning to play a musical instrument and learning to be a musician are two different things. One key issue here is that of professional training, especially in the context of the contemporary trend of institutionalization of popular music. It is also necessary to study the role of teaching within the bundle of tasks of the ordinary musicians and ask how they can successfully balance a “portfolio career” which implies having to balance teaching and playing.

5. Occupational identity: being a musician

How is the professional identity of musicians constructed and maintained? What are the cognitive and discursive resources necessary to see oneself as a musician? The “new spirit of capitalism” produces injunctions towards entrepreneurship, to which some “musicpreneurs” seem to be very well adjusted, being simultaneously musicians, web designers and community managers, without even needing an agent or manager. In this new model, what roles are left for the traditional craftsmanship of “ordinary” musicians?

6. Health at work: physical and psychological risks

Health at work is a real issue for musicians. Musculoskeletal disorders are frequent and very impairing, as are acoustic damages (particularly in popular music). Moreover, working in music often demands an important commitment, wherein the occupational culture may include the use of psychotropic substances (“sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll”). What impact has this had on musicians and what can or has been done about it?

7. International comparisons: employment status and bundle of tasks

International comparisons of musical work and modes of employment are a fertile field of research. What are the different employment statuses for musicians from one country to another? Are there any specific welfare or social protection measures for those seeking to work as musicians, or artists more generally? What are the effects of such measures, as well as of the national socio-economic context on the bundle of tasks that musicians have to undertake?


We welcome conference proposals in English or French, not exceeding 500 words, to be sent to and by 15 May 2017.

Out of respect for our non-French speaking colleagues, the main working language of the conference will be English. If you plan to present a paper in French, please consider preparing a visual presentation (e.g. Powerpoint) in English.

Launch: The conference will also witness the formal launch of the Working in Music international network.

Scientific committee: Pierre Bataille, Howard S. Becker, Marie Buscatto, Martin Cloonan, Marc Perrenoud, Hyacinthe Ravet, Jérémy Sinigaglia, John Williamson

Organising committee: Pierre Bataille, Fabiana Carrer-Joliat, Camila Moyano, Nuné Nikogosyan, Marc Perrenoud, Loïc Riom