There is Still a Class Ceiling in the Music Industry, and It Needs Breaking

As the UK’s creative sector is set to create more than 8 million new jobs in the next decade, how do we ensure that working class musicians have equal access?

WORDS Lucy Dover

There are three things you should never ask a musician: who are you dating? What is your backup plan? And why are your parents’ names blue on Wikipedia?

Nepotism – the practice among those with money, power and influence of favouring friends or relatives, particularly when it comes to appointing job roles – has long been the preferred career route for the children of Hollywood’s famous faces. From Golden Globe-winning actress Jamie Lee-Curtis to queer popstar (and Macy’s heiress) King Princess, the film, music and arts industries have routinely provided a safety net for the white and well-off. After all, when creativity is itself subjective, who’s to argue that Brooklyn Beckham’s photography book isn’t an oracle of our generation?

While we all may be guilty of utilising the connections of friends and family on occasion, the practice is limiting the opportunities available to creatives without a little black book handed down from generation to generation. In fact, 7 in 10 young people aged 16-25 use family connections to get their first job. This has a significant impact on the future of the expanding creative sector, which according to a recent study by Deloitte, is predicted to grow up to 40% by 2030, resulting in more than 8 million new jobs. 

For working-class creatives, the door is often shut to new opportunities and this has shaped the industry – even though working-class people make up 39% of the UK workforce, only 23% of those in the music, performing, and visual arts sector are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as opposed to the 57% coming from professional family backgrounds. And while the rise of “bedroom indie” artists has democratised music production and dissemination across TikTok and Youtube direct to audiences – think Justin Beiber, beabadoobee and recent hitmaker Katie Gregson-MacLeod – this has not impacted the industry’s ingrained gatekeeping. 

As reported by The Creative Independent, 35% of industry professionals have reported that one of their greatest challenges in pursuing a rewarding career is “nepotism/ unfair gatekeeper culture,” and Gregson-MacLeod’s latest viral-hit-to-major-record-deal trajectory last month is a reminder that even those with loyal followings still must rely on the resources of music industry stalwarts.

Despite the obvious negative impacts of nepotism, the practice has inspired new fascination on TikTok, with the hashtag “nepotismbaby” garnering an impressive 128.8 million views in the last few months. Once thought embarrassing, some stars are taking this in their stride with Hollywood child Maude Apatow speaking candidly about her nepo-status in an interview with Net-a-Porter.

And yet there’s no denying the clear inequality facing thousands of aspiring creatives across the UK as they fail to compete with the extreme wealth of children of the industry. Meanwhile, the vast majority of musicians from working-class backgrounds struggle to make a living through music-related work. In fact, over two-thirds reported that music-related earnings only account for 0-20% of their income, despite 41% of these musicians having worked in the industry for ten years. 

Seb Yates Cridland, member of London-based indie pop band The Ology’s, expressed his own financial struggles: “I find myself constantly living paycheck to paycheck,” he admits, expressing how stressful it can be. To help subsidise and balance his finances, the musician also works 30 hours a week on average at a pub to ensure that he still has a guaranteed paycheck, but it is a struggle to save money due to the cost of travel, rehearsals and gigs. 

Nepotism babies won’t feel these effects. Why would they? With their families able to afford tuition at the best schools in the world, and network connections piled around them, they won’t see the struggle that working-class musicians and creatives are going through. Perhaps, that is why both Kim Kardashian’s “nobody wants to work these days” and Molly Mae’s “24 hours in the day” sound so tone-deaf – both failed to acknowledge their privilege, leaving working-class creatives even more frustrated by the classism in their industry. 

Ruby Howells was one of these working-class musicians left stunned by their comments. She is a professional musician, currently at the Royal Academy of Music, and she spoke honestly about her experience in such a classist and nepotistic environment. Harking from the Midlands, Ruby is from working-class roots, attending music colleges thanks to grants and scholarships. Although never actively discriminated against, she admits that she felt different to her peers, many of whom came from privately educated backgrounds. Having grown up in a world of cultural capital, her more wealthy peers already knew dress codes, social cues, and most importantly, how to behave and network around donors and sponsors. This was “a world alien” to Ruby, who had never been exposed to that environment, and left her feeling isolated.

Gatsby Foundation research shows that young people who make at least four professional connections while in full-time education are five times more employable.

Lucy Dover

Networking is a huge factor in the music industry. Gatsby Foundation research shows that young people who make at least four professional connections while in full-time education are five times more employable.

The Creative Mentor Network is a charity dedicated to helping talented young people across the UK and is trying to tackle this problem, offering mentors in a wide range of creative industries to those who wouldn’t usually have that opportunity. They think that it is crucial to bridge the gap between musicians from low socio-economic backgrounds and musicians from more privileged backgrounds. After all, according to them: “creativity is at its best when there are different voices creating and telling stories.”

The Creative Mentor Network believes that the government is not doing enough to help musicians from low socio-economic backgrounds break into the industry. Miles Zilesnick, Senior Marketing Manager for the charity, says that the government should be “focusing on adequate funding to improve career services, grants to cover equipment costs and working alongside employers,” encouraging them to hire a more diverse workforce. Seb shares similar sentiments. He believes that grants schemes should be introduced, or a string of concerts to help expose new artists. He expressed, “Music is the lifeblood of this country and it’s so important that nobody gets left out due to elitism.” But unfortunately, this government seems set on widening the wealth gap even further.

Music is the lifeblood of this country and it’s so important that nobody gets left out due to elitism.

Seb Yates Cridland

Earlier this year, the Tories announced that they would be cutting university arts funding by 50% and funnelling that money into STEM and medicine courses. Although not directly music-related, this cut sets a dangerous precedent for the creative industry and is going to result in even more talented, low-income creatives missing out on their dream. Even more disgustingly, ex-education secretary, Gavin Williamson – who began the biggest attack on the arts and entertainment industry in living memory – has been awarded a knighthood. It feels like a kick in the teeth for those workers, despite the creative industries contributing £111.7 billion to the UK economy each year.

Speaking from her experience, Ruby criticised the move, explaining that music can be a great distraction for young people suffering from poor mental health and protect them from bad paths. She admitted that she knows people who have used music hubs and youth clubs as a way to “escape the world around them.” This is particularly important for those in lower socio-economic backgrounds, who are not always in the safest environment. Taking away these opportunities could harm them both mentally and physically. She also suggested that taking away the creative industries would “take away peoples’ uniqueness, and innovation, leaving behind robots.”

It is clear that a change is needed in the music and creative industry and charities like the Creative Mentor Network are leading the charge. However, this needs to happen nationwide, with schools being offered adequate funding that they can translate into better career services and resources. Along with this, with a rising interest in conversations relating to nepotism, it shouldn’t be long before diversity quotas regarding class in the industry come into action. But these conversations need to continue and they need to grow in volume, forcing employers and the government to listen, and hopefully stamp out the “class ceiling” for good. 

<strong>Lucy Dover </strong>
Lucy Dover

Lucy joined the BRICKS team in 2022 as an editorial assistant. She is an aspiring journalist with interests in classism, fashion and pop culture. Outside of BRICKS, she is a student at the University of Sussex.

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