Friday, 21 January 2011

The Posh Music Scene

Manic Street Preachers' bassist Nicky Wire delivered an impassioned speech at the 1997 BRIT Awards about how the British government needs to protect and invest more in the comprehensive school system. He later cited that the comprehensive school system was "a unique environment [in which] to be [both] creative and academic." Despite the Labour Party's record investment in British state education, not even Nicky Wire could envisage how bad the situation would get

Like we all know, making a living out of music is getting harder to do. Hearing stories about British bands like The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, Pulp and Oasis coming from nowhere and acquiring the support of major labels is now hard to believe. Nowadays it seems that record labels aren't interested in signing working-class talent and are hewing towards privileged white kids from comfortable backgrounds. Just look at Mumford & Sons' Marcus Mumford and Ben Lovett who formed the folk rock band after meeting at the £5,560-a-term King's College School in Wimbledon. There's also Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine who was educated at £4,430-a-term Alleyn's School in South-East London. Laura Marling attended Leighton Park in Reading, which has fees of £7,740 a term. Continuing the trend is Marina Diamandis of Marina and the Diamonds who was educated at the £12,345 a year Haberdashers' Monmouth School for Girls in Wales..

The list is never ending with singers like Coldplay's Chris Martin and Pop Idol's Will Young all coming from expensive private school backgrounds. But what makes it even worse is when high-born kids try and obscure their advantaged heritage and pretend to be something they're not. Just look at Elly Jackson of La Roux who has called herself "the falsetto from the ghetto," but is in truth from a leafy part of Herne Hill and was schooled at Royal Russell in Croydon with costs of £4,430 a term. Adding further fuel to the fire is Lily Allen whose 'mockney' singing style belies the actuality that she attended the £9,605-per-term Bedales School in Petersfield, and is the daughter of a famous entertainer and a major film producer.

The only real chance for people of humble origins capturing the music industry's attention is for them to compromise their talent and audition on something like the X Factor, but even that seems unfair when we consider that frivolous pop singer Pixie Lott had the benefit of the some of the country's best schooling by going to London's Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts which cost £3,545 a term. Pixie Lott's rich stockbroker daddy then bankrolled her musical career. Even La Roux's dad pulled strings by passing her demos to a friend with industry connections, eventually helping her get a deal with Polydor. If anything this proves that it's not merely discernable talent that you need, but rather more, industry contacts; the types of contacts most normal people (and their parents) don't possess.
This exercise in the naming and shaming of well-bred musicians has a social purpose because the Daily Mail's Liz Thomas reported last month on a new survey into the heritage of modern musical acts that has found 60% of acts in the charts today attended public school compared to just 1% two decades ago. Thomas argues that one of the reasons why public school alumni are now dominating the charts is because there is a growing split of music provision between the state and private school system. In 1990, local authorities spent £100 million on music provision but that figure has now slumped to less than half that. The situation is so bad that some local authorities allocate as little as £1.15 a child per year for music and this figure will drop to zero in some areas as the government spending cuts come in to force. There are already more than 26,000 pupils on the waiting list for tuition, whereas in public schools extra lessons are easily arranged and there is a greater access to tutors. Additionally, families who can afford private school fees are often affluent enough to also pay for extra music tuition ― for equipment such as drum kits, guitars, amps, and also for rehearsal space.

Arguably, it's unfair to dismiss every band hailing from the private school system as somehow being unworthy of their fame and success. Bands like Arcade Fire, Radiohead and The Stokes are supremely revolutionary in both their sounds and styles yet all come from the types of affluent backgrounds that would make the well-to-do acts mentioned in this post feel like filthy serfs. Even The Clash's frontman Joe Strummer was revealed to be the son of a diplomat who attended an exclusive boarding school but that still shouldn't nullify his impact on British music.

The danger is that those who are not from money and lacking in industry contacts will find fewer opportunities to get their music heard and even less scope forging a living from music. Instead, we will have a series of rich kids faking their street credentials and deforming authentic sounds of singers who actually come from such areas but have their voices crowded out by performers the industry naturally gravitates towards because they are of the same social ilk as themselves. It should be about fairness but there has never been a more unfair time in British music ― and in Britain in general ― than what currently exists.


  1. Ironic, considering your own background. Judging by your writing style I'd say that you yourself had the privilege of a wealthy upbringing and a bit of private schooling. Am I wrong?

    Poor = Good, Rich = Bad is such a boring argument

  2. You’re very wrong. I went to a sprawling inner-city Comprehensive that was overwhelmingly comprised of under-class Pakistanis and difficult white kids from the estates. I think I got a good enough education without my parents having to pay for the privilege.

    I’m not saying rich people are bad and I’m certainly not saying poor people are good. I am saying that Britain is no longer a meritocracy. Getting a foothold is no longer about good qualifications or talent; rather more, it’s about contacts.

    You’re probably cool about the way things are. You must have gone to a poncy public school and are feeling like an idiot because I’m being critical of the way things are going. You needn’t feel defensive, but if you are going to be like that then at least put up a better defence than what you are doing.