The restrictions on live music have nothing to do with public health, Veys Colak says. Courtesy photo.

Bands, fans, and government critics lash out at the ban on late-night gigs.

Like other places in the world, cafes and bars were closed during Turkey’s lockdowns. But some restrictions, such as a ban on selling alcohol during the hours 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. 

Last 21 July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on live television that most restrictions would be lifted, allowing Turkey to return to near normal. But he went on to tell viewers that live music would still not be allowed after midnight. 

Musicians and the public who felt robbed of their nightlife protested against the ban. The day the president made his announcement, rapper Agackakan (Woodpecker) performed in a park in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district. When the event ran on past midnight, he was arrested along with six audience members. They were subsequently released without charge.

In November, Turkey’s culture and tourism minister, Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, was confronted in parliament by Sera Kadigil, 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,” Kadigil 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 large losses of revenue, and this has further limited employment opportunities in the industry.

Veys Colak, a solo artist as well as a guitarist for several well-known bands, said 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 Cinar, the frontman for iconic Turkish band Ezginin Gunlugu and a journalist, believes 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,” Cinar said.

Cinar had first-hand experience of the ban while touring with Ezginin Gunlugu. 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, after many years you’re finally able to see a band you love in a live show, and the band has to apologize and leave 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,” he 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 Seckin, manager of the Karga bar on Kadife Street, Kadikoy’s main drag, is not convinced.

Shows at bars and clubs must end at midnight, making life difficult for many musicians. Image via the Karga bar’s Instagram page.

“People coming into contact isn’t an issue anywhere [else] – on 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,” Seckin said.

The music ban has led to a serious drop in the bar’s revenues, he said, adding that they were forced to lay off 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 Colak told Inside Turkey that the careers of non-mainstream musicians have been particularly affected, since more famous performers can afford the publicity that allows 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 9 p.m. and ends at midnight at the latest. Cover bands that come on 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,” Colak said.

Agac Ev, a much-loved blues bar in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, was forced to shutter its operations in 2017 as a result of urban transformation in the area, although it reopened in Kadikoy 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 time frame,” said Ali Burak Ocakci, 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 get together with many well-known musicians because of the ban.”

Musician and bar manager Ali Burak Ocakci. Courtesy photo.

A group founded by legal professionals in response to the earlier restrictions on alcohol now campaigns against the music ban.

A co-founder of the Defend Your Rights Platform, lawyer Ali Gul, 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 canceled 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,” Gul 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,” Gul added.

Gupse Korkmaz, an architect in Istanbul who enjoys clubbing in her free time, said the ban should have been lifted by now, as other restrictions have been. In the meantime, she said, party-goers have made up their own rules.

“I don’t think people are really affected by the ban except 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 Cinar, the musician who also writes for the independent online paper Gazete Duvar.

“Even artists close to the government are protesting the music ban, sometimes openly, sometimes in discreet ways,” he said.

In October, Cinar interviewed Recep Ergul, the head of the MESAM association of professional musicians. Ergul said the culture and tourism minister had told him he was working towards lifting the ban. 

“So everyone but one person [President Erdogan] thinks that the ban is ridiculous, and wants it to be lifted,” Cinar said. But he fears that the issue will soon be forgotten amid Turkey’s inflation crisis and the upcoming general election in 2023. What’s more, lifting the ban would entail the president admitting he made a mistake – something that Cinar thought was unlikely to happen.

Freelance journalist Emel Altay has written for Inside Turkey, Journo, Zero Istanbul, Istanbul Art News, Art Unlimited, and other publications. This article originally ran on Inside Turkey. Reprinted by permission.