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Last month the MU's Education and Wellbeing Officer, Rose Delcour-Min, moderated a panel titled 'Breaking the Class Ceiling'. The discussion took place at Generator Live Conference, the industry day of a new music festival in Newcastle - and the only one in the region to celebrate and exclusively showcase North East talent.

The panel aimed to explore how to ensure music remains a diverse and open field for those from working-class backgrounds, and was centered on growing concern around research on the future of creative industries in the UK, which tells us that the proportion of working class artists, musicians, actors and writers has shrunk dramatically since the 1970s.

The discussion raised the question of social mobility in the arts, and what needs to happen to ensure working class musicians can access a career in the music industry. Panel speakers included:

  • Rose Delcour Min (MU Education and Wellbeing Officer) - Moderator
  • DJ Paulette (Author, DJ, Activist)
  • Paul Smith (Maximo Park, Unthank : Smith)
  • Alex Niven (University Lecturer, Author and founding member of Everything Everything)

How trade unions can support musicians from different class backgrounds

Historically, trade unions have increased access to training and qualifications for their members, as well as negotiating better pay and working conditions for them.

However during the panel, Rose spoke of how being part of a union can also help unpack certain topics and explain the full picture for those coming from different class backgrounds. She said:

"For MU members this can be knowing what to charge for your work, having someone on your side explaining the clauses in your contract, career advice from industry specialists, legal advice and representation, what is exploitive, what is an industry standard or what to do to get your royalties".

Using networking, opportunity, education and experience to help access a career in the music industry

House music trailblazer DJ Paulette (who won the DJ Mag Lifetime Achievement Award in February and was this year’s recipient of the Keychange Inspiration Award), discussed the start of her career and surmised that promoters would often have her work long hours for a low rate of pay. Speaking about fair pay and knowing your worth as a musician, she told the panel:

"I was someone they couldn’t afford to pay, but they told me I could DJ all night from 9pm to 2.30am. So that’s the first thing, being somebody that people can afford and of course that leaves you open to exploitation".

Knowing what a fair rate of pay is can be a challenge, but the MU helps to set appropriate rates across all areas of musicians’ work, from session musicians and live performances to teaching rates.

Panelist Paul Smith (best known as the frontman of art rock group Maximo Park) pointed to education as being the catalyst to his career, not just in terms of a resource, but also as a way to meet like minded people. He said:

"One of the key things in my story would be meeting people at art college, meeting like-minded people. Having the access to go to Hartlepool College, now The Northern School of Art, and finding those kinds of connections with people with interests outside of what I was into. The core of it, I suppose, was going to my local library and finding out more and reading music and books and putting all these different pieces together".

Government funding for the arts – across education, grassroots and the professional culture sector – has been decimated in recent years. MU National Organiser for Education Chris Walters recently discussed the vital importance of all children being able to access music and arts education in an article for NEU’s Educate magazine.

Indeed Alex Niven (a founding member of the band Everything Everything and now a Lecturer in English Literature and author of The North Will Rise Again, a book about re-imagining the future of the region) also highlighted the benefits of opportunity. He told the panel:

"I think education is absolutely central. There has been a big shift over the past two to three decades away from a situation where the kind of education infrastructure in the country provides a nurturing environment for the emergence of music of all kinds, especially working-class music and working class musicians.

"There's been a wholesale removal of the kind of infrastructural basis for musical creativity. You need to be able to experiment, particularly when you're in your teens and in your 20s. The fact that students have to have jobs now very often when they're studying removes that space and time for experimentation".

Adequate funding in the music industry is needed to support working class artists

DJ Paulette highlighted the importance of grassroots community organisations and youth centres in developing working class talent, and called for greater funding saying:

"We have just seen Ezra Collective win the Mercury Prize and in their acceptance speech they said they’d like to thank the youth club where they met. It was the Tomorrow's Warriors Youth Ensemble, a community jazz project that helped the members of the band, and thousands of others, begin a career in music. It gives young people access to music, education, instruments and also the music community. These sorts of organisations aren’t being funded adequately.”

Another key theme of the conversation and of the day more broadly was the decentralisation of the music industry away from London and conference hosts, Generator, announced a significant milestone for the ongoing development of the North East’s music industry.

Mick Ross, Chief Executive Officer of Generator, confirmed that they would be partnering with global record label EMI North, who are creating a new label and two full time positions in the region. He told delegates: "This partnership not only creates jobs but unlocks a whole manner of opportunities for the region’s talent both in front of and behind the mic. I can’t wait to see how many careers we can help to launch over the coming years."

Moving forward: working class musicians and social change

Later in the panel discussion, Paul Smith drew attention to the huge contribution that working class musicians have made to the cultural fabric of our society, and had some words of encouragement for working class musicians:

"Much of the culture that we celebrate in this country has come from the working class and in terms of its contributions to popular culture, it would be diminishing the culture - so don't take no for an answer. Keep going and don't see your class as a barrier to progress. You will encounter the blocks and the boundaries of classism, but you can't internalise it and let it prevent you from doing what you know you are able to do".

Additionally Alex Niven believes popular music will be reignited through a radical countercultural moment, and that working class musicians will use an intersection of music and politics to bring about progressive social change. He closed by stating: 

"The pace of innovation has slowed in popular music over the past couple of decades, and one of the main reasons for that is the homogenisation of music. You know most of the big countercultural upsurges have been not exclusively working class, but have been driven by some kind of grassroots and we are missing a sort of countercultural movement or moment that can bring disparate voices together.

"If you're encountering difficulties as a working-class musician and you’re not getting the recognition you deserve, it's probably not your fault. It's probably to do with wider society and that might also encourage you to look at getting involved in politics perhaps, and thinking about how music relates to politics and how we can bring about reforms and social change that doesn't just help you, but helps everyone."

Over 40% of those from low-income families say music lessons are beyond their household budgets. We’re fighting for access to music lessons in schools for every child, no matter what their background. The MU is a community of over 30,000 musicians coming together for support, equality, fairness, justice and advocacy. View our campaigns and get involved.

Photo ofPhilip Morris
Thanks to

Philip Morris

Philip Morris is an MU Regional Officer for North of England Regional Office.

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