Music industry professional Ben Price discusses his project exploring disability discrimination in the music industry

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Ben Price of Harbourside Artist Management recently wrote an article for DAO about his experiences of working in the music industry with a hidden disability and the challenges that brought. He continues with another piece that explains a larger project investigating the future of disability in the music industry, funded by Arts Council England.

photo of a white man sitting in an office

Ben Price of Harbourside Artists Management

I applied for the funding after I read that only 1.8% of the music industry’s workforce identifies as having a disability, compared to the national average of 18%. I wondered if this was an accurate statistic or if there were more people like me working in music without opening up about their disabilities.

I launched a survey targeting anyone with a disability working in the music industry. Being a one-man band and focusing on what I thought was a fairly niche audience, I set my sights on getting around 50 responses, so was surprised to end up with nearly 150! Of those, 71% had a non-visible disability or health condition. Maybe the audience wasn’t as niche as I thought?

Today I’ve released the survey results. This follow-up blog won’t go too heavy on the numbers (you can see the full results here) but will highlight some key issues unearthed by the survey, and my thoughts on how we can begin to tackle them. You can also see the press release for the findings here.

Focusing mainly on disclosure, my survey revealed that of those who identified as having a non-visible disability or health condition, 88% said they ‘never’, or only ‘sometimes’, disclose, with 61% of respondents revealing they worry they’d appear less capable of doing their job by doing so.

More shockingly, my survey revealed that 69% of those who admitted hiding their disability said that they had put their health and safety at risk in doing so – a startling statistic given our health should be the number one thing we look to protect.

These stats highlight there is still lots of work to be done to make people feel comfortable to disclose their disability or health condition, as did much of the anecdotal evidence I collected, such as:

“I have often found that disclosing has simply lost me a job.”

“I was seen as incapable and never received hours again.”

“Some organisations have been incredibly good at accommodating a space where one can thrive. Others have provided a kind of tokenism, which ticks all the right boxes but creates a work atmosphere that leaves you feeling drained.”

It’s important to also highlight the positive stories. As I said in my first blog, in the two instances I did disclose details of my disability during my time as a tour manager and I found my experience to be positive, similar to these respondents:

“When I let my previous boss at Channel 4 know I was struggling, she insisted I meet with Occupational Health and they decided I should work from home one day a week to give me a rest from commuting.”

“Everyone has been cool about me and have done their best to help.”

So, what factors could be contributing to the underrepresentation of people with disabilities working in music, and making those that do work in the industry reluctant to disclose?

One area my survey explored was the theory that a lack of visibly disabled role models could be a big reason – something that 90% of respondents to my survey ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with.

In the early days of lockdown, my artist Viktoria Modesta sat on a panel featuring women with disabilities in the music industry. One comment from another panel member, the artist Miss Jacqui, rang in my ears that night. She said, “I didn’t know I wanted to do this, because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me”.

Her comment made me realise something – if young disabled people don’t believe they can make it in the industry due to a lack of representation, then the disparity can’t be fixed overnight, and it may take generations to see significant changes. For things to shift, we need to change the message we are sending to young disabled people who might aspire to one day work in music.

In a similar vein I wanted my survey to explore media perceptions of disability. I’ve heard it said often that the media has a habit of focusing on the tragedy of disability, rather than emphasising empowerment and inclusion – something that 85% of my survey respondents either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with.

Every disabled artist I have worked with or spoken to during this process has given the same consistent message. They’re proud of their disabilities – not because they define them, but in fact, because they do not. Artists don’t want to have to talk about their disability more than their art.

Yet so often when I’ve arranged media interviews with my artists with disabilities, the journalist will want to focus on the hard-luck story. If the media can begin to focus on the person rather than their disability, that might go some way in changing the message young disabled people receive, and help them to aspire to one day work in music.

Another interesting finding from my results was an increase in non-disclosure amongst those who identified as having either a mental health condition or neurodiversity – 95% of that subset said they would ‘never’, or only ‘sometimes’ disclose, in comparison to 82% across all disabilities and health conditions combined.

I spoke to Owain Gwilym who is now the Digital Communications Officer at Arts Cymru. He has had a long career in the arts and the music industry and identifies as autistic. He told me working in music with a neurodiversity is difficult:

“There are definitely extra layers for someone with autism in the music industry as it’s so based on networking and relationships. People assume I am either rude or obnoxious based on social norms. It’s tough if you are dependent on people’s perceptions of you.”

It’s a perspective I imagine a lot of people haven’t considered before – I can admit I hadn’t. But it’s a reminder to always keep an open mind and remember that what might be easy for one person, may well not be for someone else.

So how can we begin to drive change? I personally get the feeling that the disabled community is being left behind a little at the moment. While there have been worthy and much-needed movements fighting for equality in gender and race, the disabled community hasn’t had its ‘moment’ just yet, even with the unbelievable statistics around disproportionate COVID-19 deaths amongst the disabled community during the pandemic.

I can’t speak for the overall big picture and what the solutions might be, but I believe the changes the music industry needs have to come right from the top. Promoters, agents, managers and artists need to come together to help change the picture.

There are calls from various organisations for access riders to be commonplace in touring. Imagine if every artist in the world took this on, regardless of whether they or anyone in their tour party had a disability. It seems like a small step, but if all managers, agents and promoters embraced and encouraged the idea in an industry-wide effort, it would do so much for true integration.

Blaine Harrison, frontman of the Mystery Jets is one of those campaigning for it. He told me:

“If it’s just mandatory that as part of the technical rider there is an accessibility rider and it’s as simple as ticking boxes and very confidentially providing information of everything you need, and in a completely easy and hassle-free way, if all these things have been thought of for you it just takes the anxiety out of touring. You shouldn’t have to worry about that as an artist – you should just have to worry about putting on the most electrifying performance.”

Hopefully an initiative like this would make anyone in a touring party more comfortable to disclose. Similar initiatives need to happen outside of the live setting though, if we are to make people feel comfortable in coming forward and asking for the changes they need.

In 2019, Channel 4 ran an internal drive to encourage their workforce to come forward if they wanted to share details of a disability. They wanted to make it clear they would ‘listen to staff concerns and deal with them head on’, and the results were astounding. Within 2 weeks, their disabled workforce had risen from 3% to 11.5%.

It’s a brave but brilliant approach. Some employers might be put off from asking what adjustments employees need with the assumption that those changes would be in areas like physical access, rather than working culture changes like the ability to work from home if someone needs to. Some adjustments might not be expensive at all, and in fact, would help increase productivity.

Perhaps if music industry leaders adopted an approach similar to Channel 4’s example, we might not only start to fix the issue of underrepresentation of disability in the industry, but also see more people with disabilities in senior roles, and more artists with disabilities within pop culture.

The initial changes we need aren’t huge – they are baby steps which in time can lead to giant leaps. We need to open up conversations and we need to have a unified approach from disabled and non-disabled communities in the music industry to achieve true integration.

This piece of work might not be hugely significant in changing all that, but it has been the birth of one more foot-soldier who will keep doing what he can to help drive positive change.