ISM corporate members’ diversity round table – 29 March 2018 Jump to main content

ISM corporate members’ diversity round table – 29 March 2018

On Thursday 28 March, just ahead of the Easter weekend, the ISM held its second corporate members’ round table. The second round table saw the ever important topic of diversity discussed, inviting members to share their views on the current landscape and opportunities for the music industry to improve visibility and opportunities for musicians disadvantaged as a result of their race, gender, disability or socioeconomic circumstances.

In attendance were Tej Adeleye, Programme Coordinator at Sound Connections; David Burke, General Manager and Finance Director at the London Philharmonic Orchestra; David Henson, Director at the London College of Music; Nicola Hicks, Violist in Chineke! Orchestra; Nancy Litten, Trustee of EPTA; Claire Mera-Nelson, Director, Music and London at Arts Council England; Mary-Alice Stack, Chief Executive of Creative United; Nina Swann, SE Branch Director & Musicians’ Development Director at Live Music Now; Gill Tarlton, Head of Strings at Centre for Young Musicians; Isabella Valentini, Music Account Handler at Lark Insurance; Sean Tharpe, Senior Lecturer – Music at London College of Music and Bridget Whyte, Chief Executive at Music Mark.

This round table saw two guest speakers: Nadine Benjamin, a renowned British lyric soprano of Jamaican-Indian heritage, and Barry Farrimond, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of OpenUp Music, an organisation that empowers young disabled musicians to build inclusive youth orchestras.

The ISM’s Chief Executive Deborah Annetts began the morning’s proceedings by introducing the speakers and discussing the DCMS Roundtable she had attended the previous day at which Matt Hancock said that issues around diversity and inclusion were ‘morally imperative’. She also discussed exclusion and how some routes into the creative industries in general were disappearing as a result of government policy around education. It was acknowledged that access to the arts is becoming more of a challenge because of the government EBacc, which is actively diminishing creative opportunities in schools.

After Deborah’s introduction, Nadine Benjamin spoke to the delegates. In her introduction, she focused on the meaning of diversity and her experiences. She said ‘No one seems to be able explain diversity’, and stated her definition of diversity as ‘allowing [difference of perspective of the term] to teach us new ways to think about things that are always the same and giving that difference access to that space that has always been private or only been trusted for you.’

Barry Farrimond, Chief Executive of OpenUp Music, focused on the meaning of disability, calling it a ‘slippery subject and something that people can have a bit of difficulty with.’ He talked about the social model of disability, stating that ‘somebody isn’t disabled by any particular impairment they might have, but they are disabled by society.’ This in turn, Barry says, puts the ‘onus on society to change’. For example, Barry described a wheelchair user being perfectly capable of travelling around, until society tells him he needs to climb a flight of stairs to get to their destination. ‘SEND is a useless acronym’, Barry explained. ‘It doesn’t say much about the breadth and the diversity of the people categorised within it.’

In her speech, Deborah spoke from the perspective of both Chief Executive of the ISM and a former employment lawyer. Her experience as a lawyer saw her take on some of the first disability discrimination cases, as well as numerous gender discrimination and sexual harassment cases. Since joining the ISM, she has worked to make the organisation more accessible to the music community.

Deborah stated that the music sector still needs to do more about discrimination, in its broadest sense, including in relation to the protected characteristics of the Equalities Act 2010. Within this discussion, Deborah discussed the work that the ISM has undertaken following revelations of sexual harassment in the film industry. This included the survey the ISM launched last year and its subsequent interim report, titled Dignity at Work that was published in December 2017. The final report is due to be published in the coming weeks.

The interim report, Deborah explained, indicated a high level of discrimination, including on the basis of gender, race and disability, as well as incidents of sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour, bullying and intimidation. 60% of the survey respondents said they had been discriminated against in some way.

Deborah then opened up the discussion to the rest of the table, asking for their thoughts and suggestions on how to improve diversity in the music sector, and any experiences that might be useful to the conversation.

There were many areas of conversation during this round table.

We need to be specific about the issues in diversity and break barriers where possible

Although it was acknowledged that our ability to identify challenges had improved dramatically, Nina Swann, from Live Music Now, felt it would help the conversation if delegates named all the issues they are facing in relation to diversity, further to matters out of our control (for example, government funding.) She suggested that there are issues with attitude towards music in general, ‘how one couldn’t make a career out of it; how it is a waste of time; only for a particular economic class and social background.’ Nancy Litten, Trustee of EPTA, agreed, referencing the ABRSM Making Music report from 2014 that said certain instruments are linked with gender as well as income and social class.

Sean Tharpe, Senior Lecturer in Music at the London College of Music said that, although many pupils got a taster of a few instruments when he was at school, it felt that you had no time to ‘get into’ an instrument. ‘I love classical music but I felt like there was no way in – I was pushed to the drums.’

He spoke about schools collaborating on projects, which in some boroughs means bringing together children from both ends of the socioeconomic scale. ‘One way of tapping through barriers is to invite children from different schools, boroughs and socioeconomic backgrounds to work together when they are younger. They would grow up having an understanding of what that’s like and will be more likely to do that when they are grown or in higher education.’

Supporting those who are diverse; feeling the burden of being representative and equating equality to excellence

Claire Mera-Nelson said those who may be considered ‘diverse’ do not necessarily want to be the representative of a category; that society put a burden on individuals to step out and be ‘the one’ who is the representative. Many musicians she had worked with wanted to avoid being ‘pigeonholed’ too early on in their career. She stated that the sector has a responsibility to those individuals to support their bravery if they do step out. With regards to disability, Barry Farrimond stated that nobody would consider Stevie Wonder a disabled musician until he is asked to read music.

Nicola Hicks, Violist in Chineke!, the UK’s first all-BME orchestra, echoed Nadine’s words. ‘When Chineke! was launched, we were wondering what the reaction would be. No one knew what was going to happen – it was nerve-wracking. We all know that people have biases and have already made up their mind before giving things a chance. But if we fluffed a note or sent our bow in the wrong the direction, human error might have been associated with our colour. That is, for some people, a reality.’

For Nicola personally, the audience reaction to Chineke!’s first concert proved they were doing the right thing. ‘I had never played for an audience that was so enthusiastic, or so diverse, not just ethnically but in age as well’, she said. ‘Every orchestra should have that energy from their audience.’

Diversifying curriculums is a must

Perfectly summarised by Tej Adeleye, Programme Coordinator at Sound Connections, ‘it is important for young people to see themselves reflected in their education, it is an imperative of social justice that we work to reverse the erasure of diverse histories and push against the historical biases that inform the way we come to position music, musical influences and the narratives we craft about music from around the world.’

Having access to music and those faces, Claire Mera-Nelson said, is a must. ‘But if you are the only person ‘of that category’ it can be a scary place to be.’

Nicola Hicks also observed that work like Chineke!’s had been done before, but it had either been brushed under the carpet or forgotten.


It was widely acknowledged that there needs to be training in the music sector on diversity. For example, David Burke, General Manager and Finance Director at the London Philharmonic Orchestra said that there needs be training in relation to unconscious bias. This is especially important for those who sit on audition panels.

Barry Farrimond said that we need to have an understanding of the make-up of orchestras, including who is disabled within the orchestra and what their impairment might be. ‘A musician that has a learning difficulty would be very different to someone who has a visual defect. We need to get better at identifying the various categories of people that make up SEND.’

Tej Adeleye also said that we need to remember the route of diversity and needed to go back to basics to find out the root of discrimination in order to build an equal world.