The BBC needs to do more to improve the diversity of its “near snow-white” Proms, campaigners claim.
The only black faces at the Beeb’s Maida Vale studios – the home of the famous Symphony Orchestra – work in catering or security, say Organisation Black Lives in Music.
Musician Roger Wilson, who has worked with stars including James Brown, Dame Shirley Bassey and Michael Ball, is campaigning on behalf of the group to highlight and improve upon the “paucity of real diverse representation in classical music”.
He says: “It’s really no wonder that when we move on to professional musical spectacles like The BBC Prom concerts, we see that trend continues ever forward.
“These statistical facts, these images of a near snow white industry are the only deterrent a young aspiring musical talent from an ethnically diverse background needs to put the hand brake on and try their hand elsewhere.”
Wilson said that concert halls in general were “sadly lacking in colour on stage, off stage and in the audience” and pointed to the Beeb’s Maida Vale studios.
He said: “I welcome you to visit Maida Vale studios where the only ethnically diverse staff, almost without exception, can only be seen in roles of security or catering. Aside from the musicians, where are the Black Orchestra Managers, Black Music Librarians, Black Stage Managers, Black logistics and operational staff?”
Wilson added that while the BBC have “done so much to make their commitment to diversity visible in the many changes they have made…they still have much to do in regard to their classical music offering.”
He said that young black musicians were struggling to be selected for orchestras because of “systemic racism” on audition panels.
“Systemic racism and unconscious bias permeate every level of society, why should it not manifest itself on audition panels and recruitment processes within the UK’s orchestras?”, he asks.
Chi-chi Nwanoku, a principal double bassist and professor at the Royal Academy of Music, previously called into question the lack of black and minority ethnic composers at the Proms.
She said in 2019: “The Proms run for eight weeks, with two or three concerts a day, but you’ll have to listen carefully for music composed by anyone other than a white male – in total there will be less than four hours of it, and less than 20 minutes from black and minority ethnic composers, throughout the whole season.”
Author Candace Allen also claimed that the British classical music world is “racist”.
Allen – the former wife of conductor Sir Simon Rattle – said in 2012 that she had been on the receiving end of racist attitudes.
She said: “There are people for whom [classical music] is still very much about class, and their class only, and they can be very rough, extremely snobbish and yes, racist.”
Black Lives in Music aim to address the lack of diversity and promote initiatives that “cover areas of recruitment, governance, learning and training for staff at all levels”.
They are also calling on black musicians to conduct a survey on their experiences.
A BBC spokesperson said: “We are proud of the diversity of the proms which we will continue to build on.”
A BBC source added that a “wide range of diverse artists” have appeared in recent years including Nadine Benjamin, Sunnyboy Dladla, Jeanine De Bique and Fatma Said.
Comment by Roger Wilson
I have worked in the music business on both sides of the stage for nearly thirty years. I’ve worked largely in the commercial sector but as a Black person who is classically trained that’s not an unusual scenario.
Over the years, some of the UK’s best Black Jazz and commercial musicians have been effectively rerouted from studying classical music or simply deterred from trying. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these musicians have been physically threatened or told not to be involved in classical music – it’s more complex than that.
People from Black, Asian and ethnically diverse backgrounds and people from socio-economically challenged upbringing are not mutually exclusive groups but when we look further down the pipeline, we see a paucity of real diverse representation in classical music – there needs to be diversity going into the talent pipeline for us to see professional organisations and ensembles that are diverse and truly representative of the national demographic.
Less than 3% of professors in the UK’s music conservatoires come from Black, Asian or ethnically diverse backgrounds. The national youth music ensembles, dedicated to providing high level musical experiences for aspiring and talented young musicians continue to embarrass themselves with their lack of diversity, not only in their artistic offering but also in their organisational make up with glaringly low numbers of their workforce comprised of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
It’s really no wonder that when we move on to professional musical spectacles like The BBC Prom concerts, we see that trend continues ever forward. These statistical facts, these images of a near snow white industry are the only deterrent a young aspiring musical talent from an ethnically diverse background needs to put the hand brake on and try their hand elsewhere. That was my experience as a young conservatoire graduate and, all too sadly, it is the same experience shared by today’s aspiring Black musical talent.
Concert halls are sadly lacking in colour on stage, off stage and in the audience, I often ask myself if this model can continue to be sustainable. I also ask the question, why does society find this imaging acceptable in the 21st century? While the BBC seem to have done so much to make their commitment to diversity visible in the many changes they have made, they still have much to do in regard to their classical music offering.
I welcome you to visit Maida Vale studios where the only ethnically diverse staff, almost without exception, can only be seen in roles of security or catering. Aside from the musicians, where are the Black Orchestra Managers, Black Music Librarians, Black Stage Managers, Black logistics and operational staff? To move large orchestral instruments for orchestral touring, the qualifications needed are a HGV1 licence and an induction session for moving large orchestral instruments – and yet still the lack of diversity in this area also remains starkly sad.
Many orchestras, organisations and institutions in the arts sector posted Black squares after the heinous slaying of George Floyd last year. They also made strong and passionate statements in support of change – what further commitment have these organisations shown since? It’s nearly a year later since this tragic event and I am convinced that these same ensembles, organisations and institutions will be placed under the lens of scrutiny in just under two months’ time.
Black Lives in Music aims to address the lack of diversity at all levels and in all areas of Jazz and Classical music in the UK. We want to work in solidarity alongside like-minded groups and individuals, to partner with organisations and professional ensembles. We aim to recommend effective diversity actions and initiatives that cover areas of recruitment, governance, learning and training for staff at all levels.
We also aim to provide ground-breaking data through two annual, national surveys on the lived experience of people of colour in the music industry and on diversity in organisations. If you are involved in any aspect of the UK music industry then I urge you to complete our survey and help us produce the key data that very sadly, some industry leaders still need to persuade them to act and help make the industry representative of diversity in the UK in the 21st century. Please go to www.blim.org.uk/change and complete the survey now!
There is a lack of effective policing, both on the part of the organisations themselves but also from the funding bodies who support them. Subsequently, the incentive to expedite change simply is not there. The proms concerts receive shamefully little public comment on the lack of diversity in the orchestras that perform each year. This is the accepted norm, the culture needs to change. For this to happen organisations need to be honest in accepting that systemic racism and unconscious bias doesn’t just stop at the doors of the concert hall.
A lack of honesty about the effectiveness of any actions taken, a lack of acceptance that the agenda for diversity action is long overdue, inertia (organisations, ensembles and funding organisations) on the part of organisations and a near total lack of involvement of lived experience in the discussion are all contributing factors to the problem. I spoke with one orchestra CEO who told me that their orchestra was taking appropriate steps with regards to diversity.
This manifested itself in the form of an EDI committee from within the organisation that had zero lived-experience (people of colour). It also involved support from an outsourced EDI consultancy that had no people of colour employed within their organisation. The question needs to be asked, how effective can any such action be without the involvement of lived experience? My sincere belief is that particular orchestra will continue to struggle to address its diversity problems for years to come and while that is the case, its audiences will fail to be diverse too, a real own goal!
It’s important that the industry is brave and takes the first meaningful steps to achieving change. The life blood of the orchestras, the musicians need to buy-in and face themselves in the context of diversity. All orchestra musicians as well as administrative staff should take part in diversity training. Systemic racism and unconscious bias permeate every level of society, why should it not manifest itself on audition panels and recruitment processes within the UK’s orchestras? Chi-chi Nwonoku advocates for the European Audition Alliance Support which will help facilitate the involvement of more musicians from Black and ethnically diverse backgrounds in the audition process.
HR departments could review staff recruitment strategies to welcome staff from diverse backgrounds. Vocational opportunities such as internships, scholarships, entry level and pathway opportunities are all needed now and these initiatives can be started in earnest. Black Lives in Music will be starting their national mentoring scheme and we would love to see orchestra musicians playing their part in this. This would help to break down barriers and also build relationships. We welcome UK orchestras to support us to support their own long-term existence – and it does come down to that! If orchestras do not modernise and address diversity successfully then they will see this reflected in their audiences and ultimately, somewhere down the line, funding – there, I’ve mentioned the F-word! The actions suggested do not need much imagination yet some of the world’s greatest orchestras and support staff, based here in the United Kingdom and capable of so much, cannot yet be moved to think along these lines.
I would like to see funding bodies build in, as part of their funding criteria, restricted funds in annual operating budgets for funded organisations to be dedicated to EDI training and initiatives. This is funding that cannot be spent in any other way and needs to be accounted for as part of the reporting process.
We ask that all UK conservatoires grab the nettle of honesty and make the changes that are necessary too. There are some amazing musicians who are Black or from ethnically diverse backgrounds who still do not get a sniff at the chance to teach tomorrow’s professionals in the conservatoire system, this has to change. Recruitment processes need to be more transparent and more representative of the community. Not just for professorial staff either. We need to see more diverse work forces, period in conservatoires – and at all levels and in all areas. Black Lives in Music wish to see widespread decolonisation of the conservatoire curriculum. This doesn’t mean destroying the canon but adding and enriching it with works by composers and creators both old and new who are currently not well known, unknown or forgotten in preference to others – very possible because of their gender, colour of their skin or both! Black Lives in Music wish to promote a more coherent working model in UK conservatoires to develop models of working to stimulate more involvement from underrepresented groups at grassroots level to support the need for a more diverse talent pipeline.
We need a more diverse talent pipeline starting at grass roots level if junior conservatoires can then play their role on the next step and then the senior conservatoires, theirs. Conservatoires need to develop a future proof relevance musically but also; they need to strengthen professional relationships so that there is a level playing field for all conservatoire students to bridge the gap and not just the connected and more wealthy few. Mentoring and championing of Black students at this level is crucial. We must listen to them, brave conservatoires like Trinity Laban and Leeds Conservatoire, who we are also partnered are beginning to do this – and they are learning much! This is the Black Lives in Music model for success, and we are pleased to be working with a number of esteemed organisations who are taking their first steps in supporting this vision which is one that embraces meaningful change.
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Long term goals should include:
A significant increase in rank and file musicians in orchestras that are from Black and ethnically diverse backgrounds.
An accepted infrastructure of diversity training embedded as a normal in annual professional development for orchestra musicians and administration staff
A revamped audition process such as EAAS that is sympathetic to the plight of talented Black and ethnically diverse classical musicians
Decolonisation of the ABRSM and Trinity music grade syllabi to embrace the excellence of all composers regardless of gender and the colour of their skin.
A decolonisation of UK music conservatoires and their curricula
Music hubs recruiting from a diverse talent pool and being representative of the national demographic, both in their delivery staff and their administrative staff
National Youth music ensembles taking clear and positive becoming truly diverse in their musicians and staff.
Stronger tie ups between music hubs, junior conservatoires, senior conservatoires and UK orchestras to unite and champion diversity in classical music
Programming of young and emerging talent, particularly those of colour by classical music promoters and festival organisers
Real diversity amongst classical music promoters and festival organisers themselves
Orchestras being brave enough not to work with conductors, soloists and most importantly their agents who may not have appropriate views on diversity in classical music
Better support for people of colour who are involved in the administrative aspect of classical music through support organisations like Diversity in Classical Music Network
Ceasing of the use of the cover all term, BAME in order to produce more accurate data on diversity
The problems have not changed, sadly nor have the arts organisations in their effectiveness in addressing their diversity problems. Black Lives in Music is an important part of the movement for change. Discouraging any young person from realising their aspirations should simply not be taking place in the 21st Century. We hope the BLiM survey and the important work taking place for the change that is now long overdue will galvanise, engage and inspire.