McMusic? The role of franchises in the arts and wellbeing sectors

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Music franchises have been a part of our cultural landscape for decades but in an increasingly competitive arena – and with government-funded services under threat – they are being seen as not just artistic development but therapy and even preventative medicine, Karen Stretch reports.


The word ‘franchise’ is a peculiar one when applied to music. There are thousands of franchises but, by their very nature, this is no McDonald’s outlet and no one is the same. Just a quick internet search brings up baby rhythm groups, music for dementia patients, ensembles for those who love to sing and choirs for those who have never dared.

The opportunities to participate as a user or provider spread right across the UK and it’s a sector of the market that has grown hugely in the face of central government cuts to regional music hubs, school services and community bands.

Squeezing the arts out of education and into the franchise market

As Dr Ally Daubney, Co-Editor of the British Journal of Music Education and international learning expert, says, the patchy provision within educational establishments plus the narrow focus on EBacc and Progress 8 accountability measures in Secondary schools have combined to squeeze the arts out of education and into the franchise market.

An annual reviewer for Stagecoach schools, she sees first-hand the multiple benefits that these private opportunities offer to children as well as those who run them.

‘The young people talk passionately about the value they place on the classes, to be creative and try new things, to challenge themselves and the opportunities they have to perform and undertake wider learning with professionals,’ she explains.

‘They talk candidly about how the ‘creative courage for life’ proliferates not just their performing arts but their wider life, learning and mental health.

‘Being inspired in and through the creative arts’

‘The most important to them, though, is being inspired in and through the creative arts and the strong and lasting friendships they make with like-minded people from all different places and backgrounds.’

Indeed, Stagecoach, with more than 300 franchisees offering youngsters singing, dancing and acting sessions, promises on its website that students will become ‘more self-assured, expressive, sociable and imaginative and they learn how to tackle situations with resilience, creativity and courage’. These life skills are considered just as important as the triple threat (acting / singing / dancing) and, for the franchisee, the opportunity to run such an establishment is much more than simply a way to make money.

A chance to be your own boss

For Sally Thrussell, owner of Stagecoach York and former Stagecoach franchisee of the year, the chance to jump from her position as a PR consultancy director gave an opportunity to be her own boss and, with young children at the time, work on a part-time basis.

Starting with just 18 children in 1999, she now has 350 on the books over two locations, having recently taken on the Stagecoach Wetherby franchise as well.

‘I think it took a year before I took any money out at all,’ she recalls of the early days. ‘It took a year to build it up but I so wanted to do it that I was going to do whatever it took. Obviously, I was still working part-time and it’s not the thing that you do if you have no other income.’

Now full-time, Thrussell admits that the franchise grew without any big plans. ‘I loved doing it and it just worked,’ she laughs. ‘For me, it was perfect combining it with my kids and I suppose, gradually, as they got older and I had more time, it just kept on growing.’

All-consuming… a big undertaking

With classes on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the remainder of the week is spent on administration, with occasional Sundays off. ‘It becomes a way of life,’ says Thrussell, ‘but it is flexible so if I want to go and do something else, I can make up the time.’

The only negative point, she says, is that it can be all-consuming. ‘I couldn’t imagine a better job than the one I’ve got,’ she adds. ‘I just love it. Do your research thoroughly to understand what is involved. It is a big undertaking and you must genuinely want to help and make a difference to the kids. That’s what makes a business successful.’

As Daubney acknowledges, not all franchises stand the test of time. ‘Those that understand learning, valuing and investing in education and teacher development have grown and raised their standards and outcomes,’ she affirms.

‘Fundamentally, we want to be musical’

Musical Bumps, a music class aimed at babies to Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) age children, has invested in its progress on a much smaller scale.

With 14 franchisees from Liverpool to Brighton, Canterbury to Pembrokeshire, the company was founded by Sarah Marsh, currently Head of Music in a Loughborough Prep school.

‘We train our musicians very carefully so if they are not classically trained musicians, then they are trained by me,’ she explains.

‘Fundamentally, we want to be musical; we are not looking at something that is a big shout or a photo opportunity. We want parents to put their phones away and really interact with their children and have something that is real.

‘Our determination is not to let commercial factors or social media trends overtake us but we feel that what we are doing is the right thing to do.’

The talent to connect and build a community

On a recent tour of the franchises, Marsh was pleased to see that, with a basis of good training, marketing support and resources, each business reflected the character of the owner running it.

‘We don’t call them ‘franchises’ because in my mind, that’s when you buy something in a box and present it exactly as you’re told to,’ says Marsh. ‘Some of the teachers are instrumentalists so our lady in Liverpool will get her flute out when it’s time to sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and our lady in Wales brings her guitar out for two or three of the songs every week and has changed the words of a song so that they sing it in Welsh. It’s so exciting to see!’

Musical Bumps © Clare Edmead Photography
Musical Bumps © Clare Edmead Photography

At the heart of the business lies the talent to connect and build a community. ‘You have to be passionate about the community because you have to build a community around you so that people want to stay with Musical Bumps,’ says Marsh. ‘It is hard work but if you work hard, you’ll make a lot of money. If you are driven, you’ll do well. You can be flexible and you are your own boss but to think it’s an easy ride is naïve.’

Music franchises for health and wellbeing

Some established franchise businesses are benefitting from the growing recognition that music is genuinely good for your health.

The Music for Dementia 2020 website was launched last month (on 9 January 2019) in response to the International Longevity Centre UK’s commission report on dementia and music. This states that music helps to significantly minimise some symptoms of dementia, such as agitation, and can help to tackle anxiety and depression.

The Music for Dementia 2020 homepage
The Music for Dementia 2020 homepage

The Department of Health and Social Care has also recommended that GPs prescribe personal playlists along with other forms of musical activities to reduce dementia symptoms.

Music for Health is 16 years ahead of the game and its interactive workshops are the result of over a decade’s research into how sound and frequency can benefit health for those with dementia.

Founder, David Grounds, spent years composing unique pieces of music to help individuals rebalance as speedily as possible, using particular vibrational levels in music, and realised people in residential care needed a programme of balanced music on a regular basis that would assist them in attaining their optimum happiness and equilibrium.

A franchise without the usual tie-in

After testing out the programme in local care homes near Chichester, Grounds realised there was more demand than he and his wife (now the company’s Managing Director), Helen, could meet and so set up Music for Health on a franchise basis but without the usual tie-in conditions, with only an annual royalty to pay (effectively, a licence fee) after the initial area purchase price rather than the usual renewal costs every few years.

More than 30,000 residents in care currently attend weekly MFH sessions from trained franchise owners who are from all walks of life, including nursing, financial services, childcare settings and even Country & Western singing (see Q&A below), although being musical is not a prerequisite. Classes include movement, playing instruments and singing along to songs, with the music changed from workshop to workshop, keeping the attraction fresh.

As Grounds says, ‘Music for Health workshops benefit all residents, regardless of the label that they have been given in life.’ Recruitment for future franchisees will begin again in April 2019.

The choral phenomenon

One business opportunity offering a twist on the choral phenomenon, Tuneless Choir, is a relative newcomer to the franchise scene. Launched in 2016 in Nottinghamshire, there are now 23 choirs across the UK, with five more set to launch by March 2019.

Aimed at those who love singing but lack the ability, practice or confidence to do so, Tuneless Choirs are run by leaders with a musical background, often in collaboration with a manager.

Tabitha Beavan launched the Maidenhead franchise after a career in corporate HR.

‘If I’m totally honest, I experienced a burnout and after initially taking a sabbatical from work, I chose to take a redundancy which gave me the chance to ‘hit the reboot button’,’ she explains.

‘As part of my reboot, my mission was to do more things that made me smile – one of which was singing.’

‘A genuine interest in people’

With a musical background, Beaven was confident about the challenge and used Tuneless’s shared resources and web training sessions on how to run a successful franchise.

‘What’s great about Tuneless is that there’s an excellent support network with the other leaders and managers so that, if you need to reach out for support and advice, there’s always guidance to be given,’ she says. ‘It also gives you the flexibility to make a choir your own and choose to get together for socials or support local community events.’

With performances at London’s South Bank, Windsor Castle and Maidenhead Festival, Beaven’s determination and passion for the role has created opportunities for members who probably would never otherwise have had the chance to perform publicly. In fact, one of just a handful of negatives Beaven lists is having to turn down performance requests because there simply isn’t enough time.

Who would she recommend the job to? ‘Anyone who has a zest for life, energy to share with others and likes to sing themselves,’ says Beaven. ‘It’s so beautiful to see a room full of smiles and hear a huge wall of noise when you create the right environment for people to feel safe, free from judgment to belt out some cracking tunes.

‘Anyone with a genuine interest in people and in helping people to feel better.’


Header photo: Tabitha Beavan’s choir is one of 23 Tuneless Choir franchises across the UK


Q&A: Tony and Louise James, Music for Health, Weston super Mare

What did you do before taking on the franchise?

(Tony) I was running a small property enhancement / maintenance company. Louise was working as a senior carer in a local residential care home.

What inspired you to take on this new challenge?

Louise saw an advert for the franchise and felt quite excited at the opportunity to combine her love of music (she is a recorded Country & Western singer) with her experience as a carer. It also gave us the chance to work together in a job which gave us flexibility and an acceptable income.

Did training match your expectations?

Training by the founder and owners of the main franchise exceeded our expectations.

How about the set-up costs?

Set-up costs were higher than our expectations but we had nothing to measure them by. In hindsight, we realised that they were, in fact, very competitive.

What are the positives of your job?

The feel-good factor of bringing real benefit and happiness to those that we visit, especially those living with dementia. The positive responses from both residents and staff make it a very rewarding experience. Being in control of the amount of work we do and the amount of time we wish to work and having a good income without the stresses of a 9 to 5 regime also helps. It doesn’t really feel like ‘work’ to us as, while benefitting others, we are also enjoying utilising our love of music.

What are the negatives?

The frustration that many homes do not have a budget that allows them to provide more ‘out of house’ activities for their residents.

Is there anything you would do differently if you had the chance?

We retired once and moved abroad – but returned after four years and took up the same work in a new area!

Would you recommend the job? Who to?

We would definitely recommend the job but only to those genuinely of a caring nature and a happy disposition. They also need to be mature enough to be aware of the special needs of those in care (for example, the behaviour of those living with dementia), well organised and reliable and someone who enjoys interacting with people and music lovers, although not necessarily a singer or musician.


About the author

After cutting her teeth on the arts pages of the Burton Mail and the Yorkshire Evening Post, Karen Stretch headed up the launch team for Metro Yorkshire’s arts section before joining its head office in London.

Now a freelance writer and mum of two, she is also a Primary music teacher and a keen explorer of the arts scene in her new home near Bristol.

Email: karen@1hub.co

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