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OPINION: Are working class acts being drowned out at Glastonbury?

Laura  Barnes
OPINION: Are working class acts being drowned out at Glastonbury?

In her latest column for MI Pro, radio presenter and DJ Rowena Lewis chats about Glastonbury, Jeremy Corbyn's appearance, and why the festival’s line-up isn’t quite as diverse as you would think…

This year’s Glastonbury weekend saw an historical event when politics and culture truly converged with the appearance of Jeremy Corbyn MP on the Pyramid Stage. The Labour Party leader drew one of the most expansive crowds at the iconic festival and delivered an impassioned speech that electrified crowds whilst rousing debate amongst critics.

A standout moment was when he articulated fervently one of his key manifesto pledges from the election, that “all of our children have the right to learn music”. Whilst many undoubtedly concur with this view, as the raucous cheers testified, it is ironic that privately-educated musicians dominated this year’s festival – a far cry from the ideology of inclusivity being hailed throughout the audience. What a stark juxtaposition of a speaker asserting equality of opportunity, regardless of your background, against the backdrop of an event where the majority of performers are from such a tiny fraction of the overall population. Only 7% of UK people attend private schools, which can cost up to £34,000 a year, as in the case of Laura Marling’s school.

When discussing Glastonbury 2017, Sir Peter Lampl (Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust) reiterated the foundation’s research showing “alumni of private schools continue to dominate the top areas of all British life”.
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Interestingly, even he found it “remarkable that so many Glastonbury musicians have been educated at an elite school”; by selecting from such a small social pool, the festival therefore misses out on an abundance of talent. It is bad enough that the self-proclaimed progressive festival has not taken positive steps to buck this trend, but then to also have the nerve to invite such a high-profile speaker whose slogan is “for the many, not the few” simply adds insult to injury. Discussing concerns of growing inequality starts to appear hypocritical when the festival line-up seems to be indicative of the problem – possibly even perpetuating it. Surely this is an instance where actions should speak louder than words?

Sadly, this all reflects a much wider problem: the lack of accessibility to the arts for everyone in this country. The Conservative Party has repeatedly seen the arts as a soft target for deep cuts, with a £165 million reduction in funding since the party came into power. This government’s austerity measures have also hit schools with some taking “desperate measures”, including asking parents for extra donations for creative studies or dropping minority subjects – often the arts – due to the government’s emphasis on the importance of STEM subjects above all else.

Even considering cuts to the arts in society and schools, people may assume that children can at least still access a musical education in the home. However, it is very unlikely when you discover that the number of three-day emergency supplies from foodbanks over this past year was 1,182,954 – if families are struggling to feed themselves, paying for instruments and musical tuition pale into insignificance. When a report shows that this government has enabled the “wealth of the super rich to soar as the worse-off lose out”, it becomes apparent that it does not matter to them whether or not every child has the chance to play a musical instrument, as long as the privileged can.

A reason the government is content with maintaining the privately-educated musical landscape is the fact that it keeps protest music out of the mainstream. Naturally, musicians are less likely to speak out and rebel against a system if they are a product of it and benefit from it – there is no urge to speak out in order to inspire any social change. Alternatively, if someone is from a working-class background or educated at a state school, they are assuredly more likely to provide a social commentary exposing systemic failings in the country if they are experiencing and living with them. So why would those in power want to enable dissenters to have a voice and wider exposure through music if it might raise awareness of their shortcomings to the masses?

Whilst Jeremy Corbyn’s much-lauded speech was a breath of fresh air and showed the recent popularisation of politics, the festival itself feels insincere as to its dedication to truly bringing about the changes Corbyn promoted on their main stage. Cultural, social and musical enrichment is a right for all, with proven benefits for children and their futures. To some extent, Glastonbury must agree with this as they invited the Labour leader to speak, but they must set more of an example at the core of the festival. The music industry (including from live performances) makes an enormous contribution to the UK economy with a whopping £3.5 billion – the festival should represent the scale of this by having a more diverse line-up. Until seminal events make more of a stand and prove that they, too, genuinely want a musical future “for the many, not the few”, it is simply another classic case of the public having to “do as I say, not as I do”. This is just not good enough.

Rowena Lewis is a BBC Three Counties Radio entertainment reporter, radio presenter on Hoxton Radio and Boogaloo Radio, and DJ.

Read all of Rowena's MI Pro columns here.

Tags: music education , glastonbury , festivals , Opinion , Rowena Lewis , private education

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