is the music industry becoming a hobby for the upper classes?

After the argument between shadow culture secretary Chris Bryant and privately educated singer James Blunt, i-D investigates the decline in working class musicians.

by Matthew Whitehouse
16 February 2015, 5:25pm

In terms of musical beefs, last month's spat between privately educated singer James Blunt, and privately educated shadow culture secretary, Chris Bryant, was hardly 2Pac vs. Biggie Smalls.

"I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor]," Bryant told The Guardian in a wider point about whether people in the arts are too posh, "but we can't just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk."

Although he was mentioned only briefly, for Blunt, the implication was clear: his success was the undeserved result of privileges and favors unavailable to those from less socially advantageous positions.

"You classist gimp," he responded, in an open letter to the same newspaper (open letters, as opposed to opening fire, being the retaliation of choice in this particular argument). "I happened to go to a boarding school. No one helped me at boarding school to get into the music business. No one at school had ANY knowledge or contacts in the music business, and I was expected to become a soldier or a lawyer or perhaps a stockbroker."

However, Bryant never suggested that Blunt hadn't worked hard for his career. On the contrary, you don't sell 11 million copies of your debut album without an awful lot of hard work. If anything, he was confronting a more systemic point; one in which a disproportionate number of leading musicians come from the 7% of the population who are lucky enough to receive a private education.

For musicians, the means to pursue the thing that you love for longer without pay, can be make or break, the difference between success and failure. And for Labour's shadow culture secretary to point out that exceptions to this rule have become few and far between is hardly the politics of envy, it's just stating what we know to be true: that music has become increasingly dominated by those free from the pressure of having to work for a living.

And this isn't just affecting music. A report carried out on unpaid internships by Lindsey Macmillan of the Institute of Education found that in 1990, journalists came from families only 6% richer than average. Today, they are from families 42% better off. By excluding those whose parents cannot afford to rent them a house in London as they go from unpaid internship to unpaid internship, we are airbrushing an entire voice out of our media and, with that, dictating the types of stories that are written.

Take the music press's hounding of Tom Clarke, lead singer of Coventry's The Enemy. In September of last year, Clarke announced he was leaving Twitter following a series of increasingly personal attacks over his height and appearance. Not only did the attacks expose a lack of accountability within music journalism, they also demonstrated a fear of the working classes, one that deploys ridicule as a smokescreen for class hatred.

"Clarke has been walking on his hind legs since approximately 1991" taunted the Quietus. A "snivelling Cov street rat" offered the NME. "Like some poet laureate for people with learning difficulties," described Drowned In Sound, which in the same article suggested that Clarke may be making a return to working on a shop floor in the near future.

"These are 'The People' Tom Clarke represents," it continued. "The type who believe that owning a half-inched copy of Moseley Shoals coupled with a Toni & Guy coiffeured Beatles feather-cut gives them the right to purchase guitars, call themselves musicians and form bands."

Outraged because a guy from a working class background had the audacity to do something other than work on a shop floor, Clarke was routinely presented as either grotesque or cruelly caricatured. He could never simply walk into a room, he had to 'swagger'. He didn't sing, he 'snarled'. And while these preconceptions were all too often unchallenged by Clarke - he admits himself that he wishes he had been "just a bit more mature or just a bit more savvy and seen it for what it was" - the fact remains that a middle-class band would have suffered no where near the level of opprobrium (compare, for example, the media's response to the publicly educated Jamie T; a musician whose lyrics dealt with the same gritty depictions of urban life).

When you struggle to find anyone in music journalism from a background even remotely like Clarke's, then you inevitably place a marker on the sort of coverage that less privileged artists will receive. And with a marker on working class artists, who are we left with? Alt-J? The Vaccines? Mumford and Sons? All fine bands but none that exactly scream all-or-nothing, now-or-never hunger.

Bryant's point was not that he wants to take anything away from the wealthy. Instead, he wants to open up more opportunities for the rest, ensuring that pop music retains a wealth of voices, accents and reference points for years to come. That may sound like a cultural revolution too far for Blunt, but for the many musicians who are struggling to make their voices heard, it is one that is very much needed.


Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Elaine Constantine
[The i-Disco Issue, No. 294, December 2008]

James Blunt
Chris Bryant
class war
matthew whitehouse