Creative industries in Mongolia: The challenge of COVID-19 for arts and culture

The young and up-coming jazz scene in Ulaanbaatar is hit hard by the lockdown in an already challenging economic environment, as are artists of all genres. However, being accustomed to the ups and downs of creative industries, they are successfully growing in resilience and are building support systems for themselves.

The effect that the lockdown is having on arts and culture is often overlooked in the discussions on the social and economic damages it causes. This is also true for Mongolia. Even though it borders only two countries, Mongolia’s cultural scene has attracted massive international exchange and depends on open borders. Musicians, especially jazz musicians, depend on physical proximity to each other on stage as well as their audience. As freelancers, they rely on live performances held in public bars and jazz clubs.


Venues remain closed and concerts cancelled

Mongolia took distancing measures very early on and has been prohibiting public events since February 27. In the case of the performing arts, this does not only affect staff but also artists who are making a living by performing in venues across the country. Although restaurants and bars were partly allowed to operate until 10pm, live music venues did not really benefit since 50-60 per cent of their income is generated after the cutoff time of this newly instated curfew. Live music is essentially a late-night affair.

Venues and arts organisations are hit much harder by the lockdown than regular bars and restaurants. Those working with foreign musicians to support education usually book their acts up to one year in advance. Thus, travel arrangements and marketing expenses for cancelled engagements contribute to the general loss. And even if concerts would be permitted again, culture will probably be considered a luxury by an economically weakened society.


A threat to the livelihoods of artists and their families

Government funding for culture and arts in Mongolia is relatively low and focuses on a few government-run institutions, such as the Philharmonic Orchestra and the Opera House. But even the musicians who are employed there need to generate additional income as their wage is not sufficient for making a living. The situation for freelancing musicians is even worse. Where other industries develop concepts for creating income through some online channels, jazz musicians do not have that opportunity, since jazz music is a real time interaction of various people on a very intense level, depending on extreme acoustic accuracy among other things. Moreover, most musicians in Mongolia are rather young and thus responsible for a large part of the family income. During lockdown, the only funding they have access to now are family savings.


Music education forced to a halt

Most aspects of music education depend on physical proximity. The use of facemasks for brass, reeds and vocalists is impossible. Whereas classical and traditional music training in Mongolia is rather institutionalised through all levels; other genres, such as jazz, pop and rock are often taught privately. Government-funded institutions, such as the Mongolian State Conservatory, work hard to provide lessons online; however, these efforts are only feasible for 40-50 per cent of the subjects taught. Consequently, most teachers’ salaries and benefits dropped drastically without any compensation from the government.


Establishing a support system for the local music scene

Most societies show a discrepancy when it comes to praising their artists versus enabling them to generate a living in an economical sense. That is why the arts have always been dependent on private support and sponsorship. The young jazz scene in Ulaanbaatar became a very important and well acknowledged contributor to the city’s cultural environment in a relatively short time. The local FAT Cat Jazz Club and JazzLab NGO have a lot of practice in generating funds from local and international supporters since this has always been an essential part of financing their work. Through their initiative, generous donations from various local and international music lovers were successfully attracted, thereby supporting musicians in need who regularly work for these institutions.


A post-COVID-19 future for jazz music in Mongolia

Throughout history, artists’ lives have always been full of economic and emotional challenges. Most artists have experienced social and psychological insecurity more than once, and often faced an uncertain future. Yet, the same emotions drive them to continue on their path. In these trying times, when the whole world is talking about resilience, the young Mongolian jazz scene is a great example of how to deal with the manifold challenges. This lockdown will certainly have its effects on the development of the Mongolian jazz scene, but it will also bring about new inspiration and outlets for its members creatively.

Want to get a taste of the Mongolian jazz scene? Watch a concert with South African and Mongolian musicians at the Fat Cat Jazz Club in Ulaanbaatar.


Professor Martin Zenker designed the Jazz Studies Program at the Mongolian State Conservatory for Music and Dance in 2014. He is still running that program in Ulaanbaatar. He also works as an instructor for jazz double bass at the Munich Academy for Music and Performing Arts and as a consultant for the Cape Town Music Academy. He was awarded Mongolia’s second highest medal for cultural achievements and the title of an honourable professor of the Mongolian State Conservatory.

Mandukhai Tugstogtokh is the founder and CEO of the NGO JazzLab, which is dedicated to facilitating jazz concerts and education in Mongolia. As a music agent, she is responsible for the “International Jazz Series“.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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