British Music has a problem and we need to talk about it: Tom Gray calls for national music strategy

British Music has a problem and we need to talk about it: Tom Gray calls for national music strategy

In the DCMS Committee’s updated report on the economics of streaming, MPs sparked another debate by recommending that the government take a more strategic role to support cultural production and the creative industries. Here, Ivors Academy chair Tom Gray says the time has come for a national music strategy…

This article is probably not what you think. The problem I’m addressing, through encompassing it, goes far beyond the specifics of streaming or the remuneration therein. 

If you expect me to be banging my usual drum, well, this is the whole drum kit. What’s really facing British music is a hazardous form of complacency. The further we get away from the generational memory and shared skills brought about by interventions like the Education Act and free music lessons in schools, the further we creep away from the path. While the rest of the world is rapidly innovating, the UK has the appearance of a deeply musical nation resigned to its decline. But, for me at least, and now the DCMS select committee, the way forward feels tangible and clear.

The committee’s recent update report on the economics of streaming was a breath of fresh air. Sure enough, it dealt with the nuts and bolts of keeping the industry and government engaged in the Intellectual Property Office’s process of reform; it gave a much clearer, unspun perspective on the findings of the CMA; but, surprisingly, the members of the committee chose to go much further in their assessment of the government’s whole outlook to music and the cultural space we all inhabit. They outlined something I’ve spent a lot of time arguing for behind closed doors: a national strategy for music.

I was recently at a party, creatives and politicos mixing together. One MP introduced me to another saying, “this is Tom Gray, he’s, you know, the one who does that Broken Record thing about making sure musicians like him get paid.” And first I thought, well, I’ll ignore the slight about me trying to fill my own pockets (even if, on one level, maybe that’s a fair assessment), but then I thought, nah, I’ll speak up. 

I said yes, losing our professional class of music maker would be beyond damaging to our culture, but really, even more fundamentally, I just want a happier, healthier country to live in. It’s not simply about the money around music, it’s about our collective mental health, it’s about the power of music to flatten barriers of background or ability; it’s about our towns and what brings us together, but above all, what ought to be a real social responsibility to encourage, champion and support young and old people to participate in something which can change and enhance their lives. Ever present and ever neglected, music is a magic glue our fracturing communities need.

We know from available data that music helps kids with their emotional regulation, and, as a result, can play a vital role in reducing mental health interventions later in life (and helps them perform better academically). We know what a powerful tool it is for dementia patients. We know that music brings people together and makes them happy. We know that because you can create music out of thin air, create value from nothing, music has a vital, historic role as a vehicle of social mobility... A little while ago I met a composer who went to a comprehensive school, was lucky enough to be engaged by a community music project and now one of her pieces is in the national syllabus. 

Music is a bloody miracle and the British have a historic reputation for being bloody miraculous at it

Tom Gray

Given music as a tool, a young person can change their academic, health and life outcomes. At the very least it can help to self-soothe or entertain. It bewilders me that something so jaw-droppingly positive in every imaginable way can be treated as a kind of ‘fringe’ benefit. You think something cannot be miraculous if it’s abundant and happens every day? Well, you’re wrong, and I say this without a hint of hyperbole, music is a bloody miracle and the British have a historic reputation for being bloody miraculous at it.

The select committee asked the government to look at the examples set by Korea and Canada. Far from a top-down, deadening effect, governments can open doors, bring support, investment and development to every part of communities, not just our industry. The opportunity is clear. We can make the UK a happier, more vibrant place to live and, alongside, a hugely better home to engage in the industry of music.

Embracing education and skills, communities and placemaking, higher education and industrial strategy, copyright and IP, competition law, exports: a national strategy would cross all departments: Culture, Business & Enterprise, Health and Social Care, Education and Housing, Communities & Local Government. Put simply, the UK should be the best place in the world for music in every sense. 

To achieve such an ambitious goal, we all need to ‘get it’. We need cohesive planning with a shared vision. Set aside our fiefdoms, agendas or silos to harmonise our objectives and values, work out where we can accommodate, provide space and support one other. 

If our industry can compromise and help the government develop such a strategy, everyone will benefit. Tangible support and recognition of creators with fairer pay, accurate data and contract transparency, can be balanced with wide-ranging tax incentives and export support for the industry (Bewilderingly, unlike many countries we don’t even have a music export office). We can stop the UK from resigning itself to diminishing global reputation, market share and accompanying soft power, and instead make sure it is a catalyst for brilliant creativity and careers across our cities and regions, lasting long into the future. 

And, of course, cheer everyone up (God knows we need it).

Subscribers can read our Tom Gray interview from 2022 here.


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