Youth Music is 20

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National charity Youth Music celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2019. The organisation’s CEO, Matt Griffiths, looks back over the past two decades.


It is a huge privilege to lead Youth Music – a dream job – and I’m excited and humbled to take this opportunity to reflect on what we’ve achieved, and think about what’s still to do.

The National Foundation for Youth Music was created in 1999 by enlightened thinking, particularly from Chris Smith, then Culture Secretary, and Gerry Robinson, then Chair of Arts Council England (ACE). They recognised that while music was central to the lives of young people, many did not have the opportunity to take part in music making due to various barriers they faced. The driving force for the creation of Youth Music was that young people – with their diverse backgrounds, interests and tastes in music – weren’t being fully catered for within the music education sector. Youth Music would have never happened without funding from the National Lottery (just five years old at that point) via ACE. That backbone of support continues to this day and is as vital as ever.

A founding CEO (Christina Coker) was recruited, a board was formed, and a national consultation took place. The excitement among the sector was palpable, as was a significant sense of expectation. Those of us who are old enough will remember the political and social mood music at the time – Britpop and Cool Britannia, Tony Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ mantra, the introduction of the National Minimum Wage and Sure Start Children’s Centres, social justice and multiculturalism. This was the backdrop for the formative years of Youth Music. I remember it vividly – I had just started working at Plymouth Music Zone and observed with great interest how Youth Music was taking shape.

And it took shape pretty rapidly. New funding, new projects, celebrity endorsement and, most importantly, greater access to regular and diverse music-making for many more children and young people – from their earliest years through to young adulthood.

There was lots of capacity-building in the sector, with a particular emphasis on growing and supporting a diverse music education workforce. Youth Music coined the phrase ‘music leader’, professionalised and raised the status of the ‘non-formal’ music education sector, and created a range of new national initiatives. These included Youth Music Action Zones from 2000, the NYMO Fund in 2001, Power Play and Music Leader in 2003, Sing Up in 2007 and Youth Music Mentors in 2010. In order to set these up, Youth Music was able to leverage National Lottery funds to unlock new investment from a variety of sources including government, corporates and private philanthropists. In the first fifteen years, the charity raised an additional £56m of direct funding as a result of the £140m of National Lottery funds.

Chart-topping band Rizzle Kicks started their career at AudioActive, Brighton. They performed on the Youth Music stage at the Underage Festival in 2010.

It seems inevitable now that good times were going to turn into challenging times. The financial crash in 2008 and the coalition government in 2010 ushered in the ‘age of austerity’, the ‘bonfire of the quangos’, local authority cuts, school reforms. And of course music education wasn’t immune to any of this.

Back then there were three terms knocking around for music education: formal (describing music in the classroom, instrument lessons from peripatetic teachers, traditional local youth orchestras and the like), informal (young people forming bands, teaching themselves, or learning from friends and family) and non-formal (the kind of community-based youth-led work that Youth Music predominantly funded). It might have helped in giving definitions for all the different work going on but boy was it confusing.  And it reinforced differences and competition rather than similarities and collaboration.

In 2011, Classic FM Managing Director Darren Henley (now Chief Executive of Arts Council England) was commissioned by the government to carry out a wide-ranging review of music education. One of his main observations was the patchiness of provision and the lack of effective partnership working across the sector. Many organisations were doing their own thing, promoting their own achievements rather than working well together. Youth Music was criticised by name in the report. It was tough, but Youth Music took this feedback seriously. A significant restructure took place, with the size of the staff team reduced by two-thirds. Richard Stilgoe, then Chair, appointed me as Youth Music’s second CEO, and I joined the organisation in June 2012.

I was delighted of course, but what was completely clear to me was that we had to get our house in order and, to be honest, pretty quickly. There was a huge appetite for change among the team, and a sense of optimism. The values and mission of Youth Music were strong and socially just. What needed to change was how we went about achieving them. And we had to restore our reputation across the changing sector – with Music Education Hubs on the horizon – working well with stakeholders and partner organisations.

I felt that Youth Music had been partly responsible for creating different types of music education. We were reinforcing the formal, informal, non-formal pillars. Rather than dividing music education into three parallel tracks, I was seeking a more integrated, embedded approach.

What was needed now was inclusive practice rather than inclusion projects – embedded across all aspects of music education and within all aspects of an organisation’s work. Our current business plan is called ‘Towards a Musically Inclusive England’ – our vision for the future, where every child gets to make music in a way that works for them. It’s significant goal needing a collaborative approach and collective leadership, taking practical decisive action to make change.

The organisational change happened and the inclusive approach is happening. We launched our Quality Framework in 2013, which is now embedded across our portfolio and influenced the wider sector. Our outcomes and impact measurement approaches are nationally recognised within music education and the wider charity sector.

Arts Council England carried out a review of Youth Music in 2014 and overall we got a clean bill of health. We’re now jointly aligned in what we want to achieve, and our National Lottery funding through ACE is in place until March 2022. Inclusive practice is on the up and ever more visible. The debate in the sector now is not what inclusive practice is, but rather how best to do it. And this is where we can really lend our expertise.

Young people who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance are regularly making music. And they’re doing it with conviction, energy, innovation and sense of social action. They’re at the heart of our work, just as they have been throughout our 20 years. This isn’t being ‘done to’ young people – more and more they’re doing it for themselves. But they continue to need advice, guidance and inspiration – the projects we invest in provide this supportive environment every step of the way.

We can only currently fund around 40% of the projects applying to us for grants. That’s why our support from the National Lottery, People’s Postcode Lottery and all our other donors is so vital. If you’re able to contribute financially to help us meet this demand, we’d love to hear from you.

Mercury Prize nominated artist Nadine Shah mentoring young female musicians in Newcastle as part of Generator's WeCreate project. Photo by Victoria Wai
Mercury Prize nominated artist Nadine Shah mentoring young female musicians in Newcastle as part of Generator’s WeCreate project. Photo by Victoria Wai

As we look ahead, we and the wider music education sector need to be open to change, exploring how we can enrich and develop young people’s involvement in music, rather than preserving the ways it’s always been done. Yes, there are challenges – particularly about the role of music in the school curriculum. But I firmly believe they can only be overcome if music education refreshes its purpose, narrative and business model and, of course, the music curriculum in school is backed and supported by school leaders and government. I’d like to see the curriculum in schools delivered through new partnerships between school teachers and music education organisations making best use of each other’s expertise. You can’t have one without the other.

And what of the music industry? An economic success story for the UK, as we’re so often told. In many ways, the industry has risen to the challenges posed by the emergence of streaming and new technologies from the early 2000s onwards. After a period of uncertainty, the industry has adapted, transformed itself and good money is being made. But where’s the content coming from, what’s the talent pipeline? Who are the musicians, and where do they come from? If the only emerging artists are those who have the financial support to spend time on its creation, it starts to all look and sound the same. And the best art comes from a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. We know from our work that there’s a whole range of young people making music in a variety of genres, creating new styles and scenes – but they face barriers to entering the music industry. Concerted action needs to be taken to diversify and expand this talent pool. It’s the right thing to do and good for business – not an either/or, it’s both. And at Youth Music, we’re ready to take a lead on this with industry leaders.

So welcome to our 20th year. Yes, let’s celebrate, look back and look forward. But let’s also use the year to campaign with and on behalf of young people about the importance of music-making in their lives. Their music, their ideas – with the right support and workforce in place. Let’s demonstrate what 21st century music education could look like, and work with the music industry to widen and diversify the talent pool.

A massive thank-you to everyone who has played a part in helping us support more than 2.9 million children and young people over the past 20 years. Our work continues to be a huge team effort – the Youth Music team and board, our grantholders, education, health and youth justice sector partners, and fundraisers and donors. Perhaps most importantly though, I want to acknowledge the achievement of every single young person who has taken part in music-making supported by Youth Music projects. You’re all inspirational and are the reason why we do what we do.

Here’s to the next 20 years.

Matt Griffiths, CEO of Youth Music, January 2019

Matt Griffiths © Harvey Apsell
Matt Griffiths © Harvey Apsell
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