Working towards a fairer music industry

For two decades Attitude is Everything have been working to improve Deaf and disabled people's access to live music by working in partnership with audiences, artists and the music industry at large.

Through extensive research and consultation they have devolpled a Charter of best practice, which provides a framework for venues and festivals across the UK looking to improve their accesibility. Over 200 venues and festivals have signed up to the Charter, showing an increasing willingness from the wider industry to shift towards a more equitable live music environment for audiences and artists. Thanks to this Charter both Glastonbury and Download festival now welcome over 1,000 disabled customers a year. This comes from a long standing belief that live music is for everyone.

Behind the scenes, however, the industry has been incredibly slow to cotton on to this belief. Findings from Arts Council England reveal that just 1.8% of staff at music industry organisations, consider themselves to be disabled. This is particularly alarming given that among the UK’s general population, 19% of working adults are considered disabled under the Equality Act.

Recently, the Arts Council supported independent charity have announced a new three-year programme, Beyond The Music, that aims to boost employment opportunities for Deaf and disabled people in the commercial music sector.

As part of the research for the new programme, Attitude Is Everything are gathering as much information as possible on the barriers that Deaf and disabled people face around work and what steps can be taken to address them. If you would like to help, head to the Access and Working In The Music Industry survey here.

We spoke to Head Of Volunteering and Skills Development, Paul Hawkins, about the new programme, the steps companies can take to diversify their workplace and the potential impact of COVID-19 on accessibility concerns. 

Can you tell us a bit about the origins of Attitude Is Everything and how it started?

The project started in 2000. The charity was founded by Suzanne Ball, who’s now our CEO. She’s a wheelchair user who in the 1990s, had a lot of bad experiences trying to access live music. She spent a lot of time trying to find the best ways to change things and in 2000 she set up a one year project called Attitude Is Everything, where she worked with a small number of venues to get mystery shoppers to start identifying and addressing barriers. The principle was, and still is, to talk to disabled people about the barriers they face and to talk to venues about how they can address those barriers. Basically, making sure that everything is based on finding out exactly what the problems are and exactly what the solutions are, and grounding everything in practicality.

We celebrated our 20th anniversary this year (obviously not in the way we had hoped we could celebrate) and for the first seventeen years of the organisation we were primarily working around the barriers experienced by audiences when accessing events, and we’re still doing that, but from 2017 onwards we started our Next Stage project which looks at the barriers faced by artists. We’ve also got a new project this year Beyond The Music which is about addressing the barriers faced by people wishing to work in the music industry, and when I say work, I mean that in a very wide sense. So people seeking employment opportunities but also people who volunteer, who work as freelancers, who want to start their own businesses, and people who are engaging in the music industry in any kind of professional role.

Have you come up against much resistance to change from within the music industry?

There have been times when people have been reluctant to change for one reason or another, but I think generally speaking, what Suzanne worked out in 2000 still holds true today – the biggest barrier to people making things more accessible is not knowing how to get started. Often people want to do the right thing but aren’t really sure what that is, and because of that it becomes one of those things that gets put further and further on the backburner.

The way we address that is with our Charter of Best Practise which is a set of simple tools and ways people can get started. For example, in 2015 we started a campaign called Access Starts Online, and that was basically about the fact that 75% of disabled gigoers that we’d surveyed had been put off going to an event just by the website. They didn’t end up going any further than that. Explaining your accessibility on your website is a very simple thing that any venue can do, even if what you’re saying isn’t perfect, or even if it’s just “get in touch if you have any questions”. If you have something on your website, it shows a level of commitment.

One of the big issues early on was that people didn’t realise disabled people wanted to go to events, and particularly with the deaf community, there’s an element of incredulity about the fact that deaf people go to events and enjoy music. It’s still something that a lot of people don’t realise. Similarly, I’ve had conversations with people who think disabled people don’t want to go to festivals. So a huge thing early on, was trying to convince people that yes, disabled people do want to go to events and enjoy themselves just as much as anyone else. Through our work, we’ve been able to show that for every £1 that’s spent on us by the Arts Council, £47 is spent by punters at events, so once we’ve been able to convince venues and festivals that there is a fanbase that wants to go, it’s made a huge difference.

Glastonbury now has over 1,000 disabled customers a year, and similarly so does Download festival. Kendall Calling had a three-fold increase over a three year period in terms of the number of disabled people going, and I think when businesses realise that this is a substantial customer base, they want to try and make it work. The music industry is full of people who are essentially involved in events because they love the sense of community and want everyone to have a good time, so I think there is a lot of good intention already there. They just need a bit of guidance on how to get started.

Where did the idea for Beyond The Music network come from?

It’s a new project that started this year, and is for anyone who works or wants to work in the music industry who has access-requirements. It’s a space where people can come together and talk about shared problems and find shared solutions, but also get introductions to talks and events to learn more about the industry and build up their skills. We want to empower and upskill people as much as possible so that they’re ready to apply for opportunities. The other side of the project is working with the industry – everyone from record companies, to venues, to industry bodies and organisations. We want to get accessible practise in places as much as possible, so looking at how we can train people around improving workplace culture, and around accessible recruitment and selection. It’s very much about trying to make sure that when opportunities do come up they’re as accessible as possible to apply for and equally there are people who are skilled and confident in applying for those opportunities.

Can you tell us about the Access Hours sessions. Who are they aimed at and why is it necessary for something like this to exist?

That’s something that we were really excited to start. It’s essentially the first piece of joint work we’ve done between our new Beyond The Music network and our Next Stage network, which is our network for artists with access-requirements who want to work in the music industry. It’s a series of talks with industry professionals from different areas of the music industry. We had PRS last week and we’ve also got grassroots promoters, record companies and artist managers. It basically gives people a chance to learn about different areas of the industry, to talk and network with an industry professional and it's part of trying to get people as skilled as possible for when opportunities arise.

How has COVID 19 affected your work?

Our Beyond The Music project was started just as we entered a global pandemic, which wasn’t the best start to a volunteering-based project. You kind of need a functioning music industry in order to get people placements, so that’s made things quite challenging. So a lot of our time has been spent thinking how best to respond to things. We have a survey out at the moment, that anyone who identifies as having any form of access-requirements can fill out about their experiences in the workplace, particularly the music industry. We’re using that to get as much of a clear set of data for our work as possible.

I was talking about this yesterday, but I think weirdly one thing to come from everyone working from home is that doing these Zoom calls and being able to see someone's kitchen actually has a massive psychological impact. People usually envisage the people they work with or the people they employ as people that exist in the workplace but don’t have lives outside of that. I think that when you’re actually looking at someone sitting in their home you have to confront the fact that the people you work with are people with a wide life, and that can have a positive impact on how we see people as individuals.

Do you feel that people will have accessibility concerns at the top of their agenda post-covid, or is there a worry companies may focus their priorities elsewhere?

At the start of the pandemic I was really concerned about this, because at that time there was a shift in language where we talked about the disabled community as being vulnerable, which is never a good thing. I was worried about a situation where people would start to think that if they employ disabled people they might need time off if there’s another global pandemic, which sounds ridiculous, but that kind of thinking could hinder things.

At the moment I feel optimistic, partly due to what happened over summer with BLM – there is a real focus on diversity, and people realise they should be doing more. I really hope that attitude does hold when everything gets up-and-running again, but I think there is always a risk around conversations of diversity for there to be an element of fashion about it, and come next year they’ll be worried about something else. I really hope we can make access a priority and something people continue to think about, but also that it becomes something where all of the organisations trying to diversify the industry do so together.

What we don’t want to do is end up in some kind of situation where there’s a false sense of competition to prioritise one issue over another. I really want to make sure that we’re not contributing to that, but that we’re talking about what we’re doing as part of a wider conversation about diversifying the industry. The conversations we’re having are really positive though. A lot of the major record labels, for example, are really aware that they could be more diverse and there does seem to be a genuine will for change, so I do have a sense of optimism.

In the past, initiatives that have managed to get more diverse types of people into the industry, be that gender or race or disability, have got them in at low levels but because they’ve been there for a few years they’re now starting to come into positions of power and those people actually do want the industry to be more diverse.

What’s your advice to employers who want to take the first steps to diversify their workplace?

Firstly, we are here and we’re very happy to have conversations with people. One of the first steps is for employers to actually tell people that they want to recruit a more diverse range of people. If you make it clear on your application form or on your website that you want to employ more disabled people, then disabled people will see that and feel like they can apply. One of the biggest barriers we face, which the music industry can directly address on its own, is that it’s not just about jobs. It’s about the fact that many young disabled people are constantly having their horizons narrowed by people around them. Sometimes parents or friends with the best will in the world will say “don’t expect too much, don’t get your hopes up because you’ll be disappointed” and I think in a way, a big barrier is not the music industry being inaccessible but disabled people not believing that working in the music industry is something they can aspire to do. So the more that music organisations come out and say “we want to recruit more disabled people”, the more people will think it’s something for them.

Sony, for example, are actually doing lots of great things but I imagine lots of disabled people will look at Sony and think “wow that’s a massive company, is that somewhere I could apply for? Would they be interested in me?” The music industry is an incredibly nepotistic business, where if you don’t know the right people you’ve got a low chance of getting into it, but actually I think there are people in the industry who want to challenge and change that.

Once you are making clear your intentions and you’ve got more disabled people on your radar, you should be talking to them about their barriers. Another common issue is that companies try to make things more accessible for disabled people without actually talking to any disabled people about what they need. We’ve seen on festival sites, so-called accessible showers that are not accessible at all. We’ve seen companies make good intentions with completely misguided policies. Particularly with music venues and record companies, you’ve got huge numbers of people who are really interested in what you’re doing. It’s possible to put a post on social media and say “we really want to hear from disabled people” and disabled people would respond to that.

Over the years, which of your projects or partnerships are you most proud of or have made the biggest impact and why?

In 2007 we started working with Festival Republic and Glastonbury to supply volunteers to events. That was a big thing because it meant disabled people started to see other disabled people working at festivals and being points of contact at events, which has made a big difference to people’s perceptions. In 2012 we were involved in the paralympics when they came to London, and that was a hugely exciting experience.

We’ve now got over 200 sign ups on our Charter of Best Practise, which I think has made a massive impact, and UK Music has now adopted it as an industry standard. Another key project was launching the Ticketing Without Barriers initiative in 2018 where we created a coalition of ticketing organisations to try and have a uniform policy in ticketing across companies, so that people weren’t struggling to navigate accessing different types of ticketing systems.

And on a personal level, a big thing for me was giving the Gibraltar government disability training. That was an exciting challenge for me. Last year we did some work in Japan and Australia, and I think pushing things internationally has been really exciting as well.