Let’s stop the name-calling: music-making should be for everyone

At Youth Music we want to ensure that young people's backgrounds and circumstances don't stop them from fulfilling their music-making dreams.

No doubt we've all followed the public spat between Chris Bryant and James Blunt and associated commentary over the last couple of weeks. Lots of words, accusations and assertions liberally thrown around: classist gimp, paranoid wazzock, talent will out, politics of envy etc. Mildly entertaining, if slightly old hat. Nevertheless there was an underlying serious issue raised by Chris Bryant in terms of how your background and circumstances affect the progress you make in fulfilling your dreams.

Coming from a privileged background often means that you can pursue a career in the arts safe in the knowledge that there's a backstop or alternative route if it goes horribly wrong. Music is a risky profession, but taking a calculated risk becomes an easier decision to make if you have something to fall back on. For so many young people though, taking this risk is a luxury they simply and literally can't afford. They have the potential to ‘make it', but they don’t have the support networks to be able to try. The majority have to focus on finding regular, reliable income to pay the bills: no mean feat in itself. Often it’s just about plain survival day to day.

The imbalance between the 'haves' and 'have nots' is getting worse. What can we do to address this?

Before suggesting some solutions, I found myself reflecting on my own family circumstances when I was young. From an early age, I wanted to be a drummer. Lessons were provided free by the music service in Cardiff, as were the various groups and ensembles I played in. Then at home, I'd set up and gig with various bands knowing I could rehearse very loudly with them in the 'new room' in our house. So loud in fact that our next door neighbours moved to Bristol! My parents made sure I had somewhere to practice, and they made sure they could drive me to where I needed to be.

I benefitted from a local authority grant to get me through my degree. The Monday after I graduated, I went self-employed as a freelance percussionist, building what we now call the classic 'portfolio career'. My parents felt slightly apprehensive about me going freelance - they had both been in stable jobs with a passion for music-making in their spare time - but nevertheless they could tell it was something I really wanted to do. They helped me with the cost of buying a Bedford Rascal, which I lovingly called the 'loaf on wheels'. It sounded like a hair dryer with its 900cc engine, particularly on the M1 on my regular trips between Leicester and Leeds. But it helped me to carry my heavy instruments around the country: something that would have been impossible without my own transport.

Why am I saying all this? Well, even though there wasn't loads of money at home, my parents were able to support me to give it my best shot, providing an environment for me to flourish and, yes, this was sometimes with financial help. And I guess I wasn't unusual in this:  safe to say the free tuition, during both my school and college days, together with the college grant cheque, made a massive difference. I wouldn't have been able to become a percussionist without all these things. I was able to directly benefit from targeted public subsidy at all stages of my musical progression.

So rose-tinted spectacles aside, and roll forward thirty years to tough times, significant funding cuts and a complete change in the music education business model. I'm convinced that the precious Lottery resources and public funding available to the sector need to be directed towards supporting children and young people in challenging circumstances. This perhaps goes counter to the notion of 'every child', but recognises that many children and young people can regularly access music provision without any need for intervention from the public purse. What I think is needed is a business model genuinely based on a mixed economy: targeted rather than universal subsidy. Those who can afford to pay do so; those who can't don't have to but still have access to regular provision.

I was very moved recently to read Darren’s story, a young man who takes part in a music-making project supported by Youth Music and run by Skimstone Arts in Newcastle. I wanted to share an extract here:

Darren explains: “I was in a really bad situation, really low. I was living in hostels and it was miserable but I had no choice. I never saw my family and only had two friends. People would kick my door, and punch me when I was walking to the toilet or kitchen. I just used to stay in my room all day. No-one even said hello.”

That all began to change when a friend suggested he go along with him to Skimstone. “I didn’t have any interest in playing music then,” remembers Darren. “In school we did music lessons but they didn’t let me play an instrument, so I didn’t know I’d like it.”

Two years after joining the project, the change in Darren has been remarkable. He now has a part-time job, and has recently moved from the hostel into a flat. He’s working towards his Silver Arts Award, has saved up and bought his own bass guitar, and has plans for his band including going on tour locally and making a name for themselves.

Darren adds: If it wasn’t for the project, I’d still be depressed, on my own, on Jobseekers and going to the job centre, I’d just be really bad, I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now. I couldn’t believe that my life could change for the better like this… I feel like a different person.”

Helping young people like Darren is the principal reason why the National Foundation for Youth Music was set up in 1999. Sixteen years on, our work with children and young people in challenging circumstances brings us closer to our goal of achieving a musically inclusive England. But there’s so much more to do: we’re currently unable to reach everyone who needs our help, which is why, as a national charity, we fundraise with initiatives like Give a Gig. As ever, partnership is key. I believe the wider sector could achieve so much more if everyone adopted a more targeted approach, rather than try and do everything spreading itself too thinly. Only then can change be achieved: going beyond the wise and well-meaning words and actually doing something about it.

Music-making is life-changing for all young people, and the projects Youth Music invests in are ensuring that those without privilege get the support others (including me) are lucky enough to be born with.

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