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Music’s Class Divide is Only Getting Worse


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Twenty years ago, music was one of Britain’s proudest exports. Since as early as the 1960s British acts have been shaping global music trends, artists like the Beatles, David Bowie and Oasis have consistently made their mark on global music culture. This had been done with remarkable representation among the UK’s working class, for years the music industry gave working class people the opportunity to have their voices heard across the country, and the world.

These opportunities have now all but disappeared in the last 20 years, and with it the level of relevance on global music culture the UK once enjoyed. What’s left is a music industry that suffers from systematic exclusion of working-class acts as a result of a lack of educational resources, rampant nepotism, lack of financial support and collapse of small independent venues that working class acts once relied on to start their career.

As early as 2010, people have begun to point out that those who were privately educated were beginning to dominate the charts. There had been a major shift since the mid-1990s where charts were dominated by working class acts like the Stone Roses, Oasis and Blur to today where the biggest names like Coldplay, Mumford and sons and Dua Lipa were all privately educated or from wealthy and connected backgrounds. What little remains of working-class representation in UK music comes almost entirely from a single school – The BRIT school, where acts like Amy Winehouse, Adele and Rizzle Kicks all studied. The success of acts from this school should not be the exception to the rule when looking at which socio-economic backgrounds are represented in the industry.

I’m not arguing that this necessarily undermines the merit of the music produced by well-off/privately educated acts, but it’s undeniable that they have had opportunities afforded to them that many equally talented artists wouldn’t have. Successive governments under both major parties have consistently failed to recognise the importance of promoting accessibility within the arts and much of the crisis can be attributed to governments’ simply not viewing music education as a priority.

When I began researching how funding for music education has changed over the last 20/30 years, I was genuinely taken by surprise at the extent of cuts made. First, local authority funding for music education fell by half between 1990 and 2010, then central government funding was put through a round of cuts due to austerity policies under the Cameron government and most recently, the education secretary proposed cutting higher education music subsidies by half which was labelled as ‘catastrophic’ by representatives of the Musicians’ Union. Over the last twenty years successive governments have continually stripped music education funding to its bare bones. It has actually reached the point that A-level music may disappear as a qualification by 2033 if funding continues to decline in the way it has. If government policy continues in this direction, it will almost certainly prove disastrous for any remaining working/lower middle-class representation within the industry. Ordinary children as a whole will have limited access to any quality musical education through the state sector and will have to rely on self-funding throughout their musical education.

The need to self-fund doesn’t even end with artists’ education if anything it worsens when acts leave education. Without a label to help fund touring, producing an album and promotion, artists are often required to self-fund or apply for grants, this naturally gives those from well-off backgrounds an advantage. Though this would have also been true 30 years ago, what has changed is that the cost of self-funding has increased dramatically, with no action taken by the government or the industry to alleviate the pressures on struggling artists. In the last 10 years there have been huge waves of closures of small independent venues which were traditionally a lifeline for small acts trying to grow their audience. Between 2004-2019 around 20% of all small venues closed, now consider the impact of the COVID pandemic and the current inflation crisis we are facing and it does not bode well for many of the remaining small venues that we have left.

Not only is the music industry doing nothing to improve the situation, but they are actively making it worse. Recently the royalties collection body for British music, PRS for music, announced a 60% cut to the budget of the PRS foundation. This foundation is responsible for providing crucial funding for rising artists’ recording and touring costs with over half of all mercury prize nominees receiving funding from the group. Such a dramatic cut for such a vital institution will no doubt come back to hurt British artists and will most likely eventually hurt the UK music industry. Artists won’t have access to the seed funding necessary to record and tour therefore those very same labels who fund PRS for music (and by extension the foundation) will lose out on potential revenue.

The cuts also seem to be motivated by nothing more than corporate greed on the part of music executives. PRS for Music reported a 22.4% growth in revenue between 2020 and 2021 while simultaneously citing financial necessity to justify cutting £1.75 million from its foundation’s budget. This is despite the body’s budget reaching over £80 million whilst it collected over £777million in royalties for its members. Data put out by industry representatives like UK Music also seems to obscure the truth when it comes to working class representation. Its most recent diversity report included data measuring representation of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, geographic location and disability status though still somehow managed to ignore collecting data surrounding social background. 

As it stands, there seems to be institutional refusal to address the growing inequality of access to the music industry. Neither government or industry executives seem willing to address this issue at all and because of this the British music industry will continue to experience a decline in global relevance and may even potentially contract as far fewer acts are able to sustain themselves financially.

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