The toff takeover of British pop – it has to stop.

by James Mills

The great delta bluesman, Bo Diddley, in response to a plummy-voiced English interviewer who asked him why he, a poor uneducated man, had had the audacity to make his own electric guitar and amp, replied: “the man who invented the wheel didn’t have a PhD in engineering”.

Today, many of the graduates who make the music in our country could probably qualify to do a PHD. Or as a recent survey by Word magazine found, 60 percent of current pop acts went to private schools compared to just one percent 20 years ago. This sometimes becomes unmistakable, for example around half of the 2009 Mercury music prize nominees were privately educated. Something which is very different to the 1990s Brit pop I grew up listening to, or the provincial working class sounds of bands like the Smiths.

Over three years ago, the previous Labour government launched the Music Manifesto, in which £332m of investment went into funding choirs, orchestras, new instruments and free music lessons for school kids. But last week, there were reports that cuts to education risk music lessons becoming the preserve of the rich, which could make the next generation of pop acts even more privileged. This, coupled with the scrapping of EMA, means that those from deprived backgrounds who wish to pursue music through education are now going to find it even harder.

Obviously, there has always been a stranglehold on the arts and the music industry by the most expensively schooled, and these cuts will make their grip even stronger. However, I find it hard to believe that more music lessons alone will be the panacea to the problem, as there is a plethora of talented musicians from yesteryear in this country, who like Bo Diddley in 1940s USA,  never benefited from a free music education (the Who, the Kinks, the Jam, the Specials, to name but a few).

Yet the modern music industry, saturated with acts due to technological development and lower-priced equipment, has become more reliant than ever on “who you know”. The main reason so many of the more socio-economically privileged prosper at the expense of the poor is simple: nepotism.

One just has to look at the top pop acts around, described as having come via the “MySpace route”. The likes of Adele, Lilly Allen, Kate Nash, Mark Ronson, all come from either rather privileged educational backgrounds (three of those mentioned went to the same school) or musically connected families (Ronson, Allen et al). At the heart of the so called “MySpace route” (whereby an act is supposedly brought to fame via social media) is that very social network, which name itself lays bare how their social networks defines their success. If anything, social media actually helps those from privileged and well connected backgrounds.

There is no obvious solution to this problem. What is clear is that something has to be done, to get back to the more socially equal standards of the Brit pop generation and its predecessors. These days, acts like the Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian appear to be the exception and not the rule, which is sad. The current gentrification of music has led to a long line of musicians from privileged backgrounds trying to talk the talk, never having walked the walk of less privileged artists.

It would be a sad world in which the popular music, in the words of one former state school educated musician, “the music they constantly play/ says nothing to me about my life”.

James Mills works in Parliament.

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7 Responses to “The toff takeover of British pop – it has to stop.”

  1. Let’s leave aside the somewhat puzzling notion that a private school education qualifies you to do a PhD.

    Is this really that new? You mention Britpop as a point of comparison, but whilst Oasis were working class, Blur is the sound of the Essex middle class. Not privately educated, but it’s a difference of scale rather than type.

    Pop’s always had its middle/upper-class acts, even under punk – see also Strummer, Joe.

  2. william says:

    Mr.Mills,you have a chip on your shoulder.

  3. James Mills says:

    @William interesting, when someone points out a social divide emerging they have a chip on their shoulder. So what do you call someone who ignores it?

    @Edward (1.) yes lets leave that aside as that’s clearly not what I was saying and was an attempt at humour. Please re-read. (2.) Yes, according to that survey it is new, as 20 years ago the privately educated (7% of population) only made up 1% and now 60% of pop music. As for Brit pop, I wouldn’t exclude Blur, but Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene, the Verve, Pulp. I could go on, hell even only one of the Spice girls was Posh… (that’s a joke btw). Seriously, all I am raising is a point about access, and equality of opportunity, I’m not exactly raising the red flag. You are right that there has always been a middle/upper class acts and I like many of tehm, I am a big Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd fan, but there was always a balance with Kinks, Beatles, Cream. Yes the Clash had Joe Strummer from a private school but the other members were not exactly an old Eatonians are they? Plus the point I am making is not that there should not be music from people due to their background, just that there should be a balance, and if there is not one right now it cant be because there is not a plethora of talented you working class bands like there always has been.

    When you examine what I am saying it is not that radical, just practical.

  4. Hazel says:

    I understand what you’re saying, but I can’t help feel that you are taking this a little too seriously. The music I listen to doesn’t really reflect my background. What about rappers/rnb etc? They’re hardly middle class, but you seemed to have ignored them. And The Smiths are my favourite band, though I went to private school. Apparently David Cameron likes them too…?

  5. Kevin Meagher says:

    James – great post. As usual it comes back to social mobility and the lack thereof.

    “A middle class hero is something to be?”

    Doesn’t quite work does it?

  6. Steve says:

    Is this article a joke? Anyone who is serious about their music doesn’t take the charts and pop music in general seriously!!! Its like using what is played on the radio as a barometer for the music scene. We gave up on the years ago!

    Clearly the radio waves and charts have been privatised hence the results which you have pointed out. But for every rich kid with a tune there are about a thousand unknowns going about their craft. I would imagine many music scenes would hardly give any of these chart artists the time of day.

  7. Dear Mr. Bigot says:

    Miles Davis and Bob Dylan both came from privileged backgrounds.

    Both changed music for all sorts of people.

    Just sayin’

    P.S. Kasabian are terrible, and the Arctic Monkeys are mediocre. Stop being a blind bigot.

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