by Author Gavin Lombos

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Changing Times... how to engage with challenging young people in changing times?

Sometimes when you finish a project you just breath a sigh of relief, make a cup of tea and start the next funding bid, but other times the process of reflection and evaluation gives you pause for thought as you question whether you achieved what you hoped.  In these constantly changing times its becoming harder to 'be strategic' when planning work that may stretch over more than a couple of years. We've just completed an Urban Orchestra programmed supported by a Fund B grant from Youth Music. The process started with an unsuccessful Fund C application in Sept 2014 which was the result of planning in spring and summer 2014. That was back in the days of the coalition government, we've had 2 general elections and a referendum since then. I was still using an iPhone 5s and Grime and vinyl were yet to come back. It took until Summer 2015 to have a funding agreement in place and the music-making to begin.

Our Urban Orchestra concept and approach was built on a successful series of projects that started in 2006 (before iPhones and Facebook) repeated in 2009 (before iPads and Gove) and developed in 2011/12 (post credit-crunch).  

So as 2017 draws to a close, I'm reflecting on the world of music as I understood it in 2013/14 and how that helped to form a music programme that has just ended as I think about and plan programmes that stretch forward to 2022...

So what's changed?

Everything that used to be difficult, continues to be difficult or more difficult... In our world this is about partnership working with large organisations - schools, music hubs, local authorities, strategic bodies. Funding cuts have turned former partners into competitors for scarce funds and have made many more inward looking, less likely, willing or able to share resources, more protectionist about the young people they work with for fear of losing income linked to their custom and much more concerned about the cost implications of partnership working. All of which, tends to stifle new work.

We can only be open and sharing when we have the funding to allow it and Youth Music support has enabled us to work with new partners during this period and our newly acquired ACE NPO status will enable this to continue.

Some things that used to be straightforward have now also become difficult...

  • The big changes seem to be more linked to societal shifts, the lives of young people and how music is now perceived used and abused.
  • Young people have no money. When they are not in school or college, they're working. 
  • Young people have no time. They have many more demands on their spare time and many more choices of things to fill that time. Music-making demands time and attention.

If you're in, you're in. If you're out you're out.

Young people have to stay in education longer now. There are more young people in music courses because they need to be 'in education' rather than through an active choice. This has an effect on the informal sector. Our role becomes less about offering access to music because those who are in education have access to facilities and support and the establishment is focused on retention and results, which effectively discourages them from making music elsewhere. Those young musicians who are in school bands and orchestras and the hub system or ensembles and more orchestras have their diaries rammed and planned with rehearsals and events and concerts and tours that they have no time for anything else.

Music is devalued but is more important.

Taking Part report that fewer teenagers are making music than ever before but we seem to see more singing groups and Uke bands in primary schools. The proportion of students taking arts subjects falls to the lowest level in a decade but college music courses are busy and the evidence says more music is better for results...

Music is more accessible but seen as being of less value as it fights for attention and artists compete to make a living from 'free' music.

So where is this leading us?

Our focus is moving towards those young people in their journeys into and out of music education. Access and engagement with primary aged children is improving and the popularity of singing and ukulele bands is helping to create a music habit among many young people that can lead to more challenging and creative opportunities. 

There are still cold spots. Some are big and some are small and persistent. When we focus on these young people and those how are 'out of the system' we find we make the biggest impact and see greatest engagement. The key thing we've seen at Readipop and other youth/community music projects is that we're good at reaching the 'hard to reach' and that music still matters a great deal to young people facing challenging circumstances. This has not changed much at all over the last decade. It may not be new and original but it is still powerful and effective.

We need more support for 18+ music-makers. Young musicians are leaving well-resourced college music courses and degrees into a world with fewer music venues and music spaces for young musicians in the 'real world'. We're now focusing on supporting these young musicians rather than the 14-18 year-olds who can become lost to us within formal education during those years. We have to take on the role of the old 'music industry' of talent development, A&R and professional development. The next Motown is more likely to come out of a the world of community music than commercial music because there's no big payoff from record sales at the end of the musical production line.

So as I make another cup of tea and start another funding bid this is what will be informing my thoughts about the next few years...