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25 Years of Youth Music

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a child plays with musical instruments
Photo credit: The Spark Arts for Children

By Youth Music CEO, Matt Griffiths

I vividly remember the setting up of Youth Music in 1999. The UK was in a good place. Two years in, the Labour government were working to achieve their powerful commitments to education, health, inequality, social cohesion and child poverty. They recognised the central role music and creativity played in young people’s lives. Yet they knew that too many didn’t get the opportunity to take part. In response, the wonderful Chris Smith, Culture Secretary at the time, and the late, great Gerry Robinson, then Chair of Arts Council England, were the driving force in setting up Youth Music.

Designating us as a delegated distributor of National Lottery funds, a role which has continued ever since. Without the support of the National Lottery, celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year, and Arts Council England, Youth Music wouldn’t exist. A huge thanks to them for their steadfast and loyal support.

Changing with the times

Since 1999, young people’s tastes, trends, challenges and environments have changed significantly. Our job has been to change with them. Never a steady state ‘doing what we’ve always done’. Instead, adapting and innovating to support young people’ diverse lives, making, learning or earning in music and wider creativity. Meanwhile, remaining consistently committed to backing young people facing barriers, and the grassroots workforce working with them.

Over those 25 years, we’ve backed more than three million children and young people from early childhood to young adulthood.

  • We’ve invested in thousands of projects, creating a national network of grassroots music organisations targeting those that would be excluded from music
  • We’ve invested directly in more than 200 emerging young creatives.
  • We’ve expanded to support young people into Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
a young man performs on stage at the youth music awards 2023
J4 performs at the Youth Music Awards 2023 / Photo credit: Livy Dukes


Support equals impact

Every day, we are inspired by young people and projects to think bigger and better. Never exemplified more than in the annual Youth Music Awards, which recognises trailblazing artists, entrepreneurs, grassroots projects and young leaders from across the country.

Like Young Leader David Coke from Heart n Soul, who states: “I’d like to carry on making my impact by encouraging youngsters to never give up, to keep on striving to reach their goals really. And I’ll be there to help them every step of the way.”

And the Outstanding Project team at AutismAble, who told us: “It’s so rewarding for us, but also for them. As an actual autistic person myself it’s so important to see other young people getting the opportunity to explore and to share their voices in a safe place; a place where they feel encouraged to share their voices in a safe space, in a place where they feel encouraged, and in a place where they feel a hundred percent confident in doing so.”

And Inspirational Music Leader Elizabeth J Birch, who discovered that she could have a career in music while taking part in a Youth Music project as a teenager. Now, she’s a talented instrumentalist, music technician, vocalist, community musician and disability advocate. “It [has] showed me that there are other people who also have challenges, [and] that they need to have the opportunity to speak, they need that opportunity to voice what they want and their feelings.”

elizabeth birch accepts an award on stage
Elizabeth J. Birch at the Youth Music Awards 2023 / Photo credit: Nic Serpell-Rand

And those using music to support their wellbeing, like Lyricist TL from Rap Club CIC. He said: “I feel like it's a way to escape. 'Cus other people, when people suffer from things, they need to find ways to express themselves. Some people may dance, some people may [use] spoken word, and I feel like, I feel like lyricism, for me, is a way to show people how I feel."

We wish we could support even more projects, so that more young people can benefit from music. However, the economic downturn and cost-of-living crisis is taking its toll on the sustainability of the grassroots organisations nationwide. Less than one in five applicants last year successfully secured funding. Demand across the sector has reached an all-time high, sending success rates to a historic low. Today, organisations can’t rely on Youth Music funding like they did in the past. We’re working really hard to secure more investment from commercial partners and other funders, and offering support through our Exchanging Notes programme. But applicants do need to have contingency plans in place when they apply to us.

Looking ahead

So for now, with less money to go around, we must be even more targeted and equitable, prioritising the people and places that have historically missed out. Later this year we’ll be launching a dedicated Early Years fund. For too long, babies and toddlers have been deprioritized when it comes to arts and creativity funding. To address the power imbalance in the funding system, this year we’ll continue to open up our decision-making working with our new team of advisors as well as young people from funded partners.

Young people today are born into a world of cultural diversity. Like us, they want to live in a more equal society and on a healthier planet. They see technology as a tool, not a hindrance. It’s critical that as a young people’s charity, we amplify and align with their views. For example, our Generation AI research  found that around 63% of 16-24 years old are using artificial intelligence to help them with their artistic endeavours. Whilst older generations are concerned with its long-term impact on the music industries, young people see how it is breaking down barriers to accessing the scene.

Young people are the leaders, changemakers and influencers of the future. We can’t wait to hear about their current views and experiences in music, in our Sounds of the Next Generation (SONG) Report 2024, launching later this year. This will help shape our plans and guide our future thinking.

matt griffiths and yolanda brown at the youth music awards 2023
Youth Music CEO Matt Griffiths (L) and Youth Music Chair YolanDa Brown (R) at the Youth Music Awards 2023 / Photo credit: Nic Serpell-Rand

Before that, we will say goodbye to our much-loved Chair, YolanDa Brown. It’s been wonderful working with YolanDa, and I’m so proud of what we have achieved together. We’ve all hugely benefited from YolanDa’s expertise, energy and trusting friendship to achieve our significant growth and development at Youth Music. YolanDa leaves the board more inclusive, more diverse and more energised than ever.

As we have for the past 25 years, we will remain focused on equalising young people’s access to music, whatever their background or goal. Guided by their voices and views. And continuing to raise awareness of the transformative power of music.

This is all made possible by a fantastic grassroots community of music leaders, educators, producers, administrators, trustees, donors and partners across the UK. A powerful movement dedicated to building communities and addressing the many barriers young people face in their lives. This is for me what makes Youth Music possible – a truly collaborative and trusting ethos requiring humility, modesty and selflessness. Greater than the sum of our individual parts by working together.

Massive thanks to you all, the fantastic team and board at Youth Music and to young people themselves, without whom we’d have nothing to say. You’re all inspirational and the reason why we do what we do.