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Let’s Talk About the Class Ceiling

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Words by Sam Williams

From Paul McCartney and David Bowie to Adele and Stormzy, the UK has a proud history of working-class voices at the forefront of music. But the creative industries in the UK have a problem with working-class representation.

Despite some notable names having success, the proportion of working-class creatives in the UK has gone down by half since the 1970s.

Our report, A Blueprint for the Future, found that social class was the biggest barrier to young people being able to earn money through music. Unpaid work is prevalent within the industry, which impacts those from low-income backgrounds more as they have no safety net to fall on. This is a barrier that will only get worse at the cost of living rises, meaning more working-class people will leave the industry.

The sector also has a history of being about “who you know”, with our research again finding this to disproportionately impact those from lower income backgrounds.

These findings begin to show the picture of a class divided music industry in the UK.

Is it scone or scone?

While a lack of finances and industry connections are often behind the low working-class representation in the music industries, there are other ways that class bias manifests.

One is accent bias. Research by the Sutton Trust found that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to be mocked or criticised for their accent in the workplace.

They found an accent hierarchy to be present in the UK, with Received Pronunciation (also known as the ‘Queen’s English’) ranked highly, whereas accents associated with industrial cities (like Manchester, Liverpool, or Birmingham) and the Global Majority are the lowest ranked. Stereotypes about these latter accents place people from a working-class, regional and/or Global Majority background at a disadvantage.

Conscious of this, it leads many from these backgrounds to code-switch. This is when you adjust your behaviour, language, accent and/or syntax to better fit in with the dominant group.

With the music industries dominated by those from higher socio-economic backgrounds, this is yet another barrier working-class people must face to progress.

“I wanna live like common people”

Code-switching can sometimes have the reverse effect in music, with people from wealthier backgrounds appropriating behaviour to seem more working-class, relatable, and authentic to the general population.

An example of this is often referred to as ‘mockney’ (a combination of ‘mock’ and ‘cockney’), which refers to a fake cockney accent. Lily Allen is often brandished with the ‘mockney’ label, due to the accent she has in her songs and the differences heard when she’s interviewed.

Family friend of Allen’s and lead singer of The Clash, Joe Strummer, had a similar accusation levelled at him. Punk rock was born out of the working-class experience, with Strummer’s attendance at boarding school and middle-class upbringing deviating from this.

It’s not just about changes in accent. The punk inspired artist YUNGBLUD received online backlash about profiting from a working-class persona, despite coming from a middle-class background.

Punk rock isn’t alone in its working-class origins, with many genres across the years coming from these communities. However, there is often a risk when genres become mainstream of a disconnect developing. As spoken about earlier, the pathways for people from working-class backgrounds aren’t there, meaning the space can be taken by those that are more well-off.

Despite often being the leaders of innovation, working-class people rarely get to see the benefits of it.

The un-protected characteristic

The absence of legal protection for working-class people in the workplace helps to incubate this lack of representation.

In the UK, it is against the law to discriminate against a person based on the following:

  • Age
  • Gender reassignment
  • Being married or in a civil partnership
  • Being pregnant or on maternity leave
  • Disability
  • Race
  • Religion/belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

These are referred to as ‘protected characteristics’. Notably, social class is not on this list.

It is currently legal to treat someone differently based on their social class, meaning you could be denied opportunities at work, in education or even when using public services because of your socio-economic background. Though legal, we would say this is unfair and wrong. So why is it the case?

Part of the reason is because social class can be hard to define. This is shown by the many ways it is measured, such as asking what someone does for a job, what type of school did they attend, what qualifications do their parent’s have, whether they had free school meals and so on.

Social mobility also plays a factor. This is when somebody’s social class changes, either during their lifetime or between generations. For example, someone could now be living a middle-class lifestyle but come from a working-class background. Is this person no longer facing a class barrier? Or are the barriers they’d faced earlier in their life still going to be impacting them?

Then there’s the terminology, itself. We often think of it in a three-tiered system of upper, middle and working class, but does this still work in a 21st century society? This system developed from the clearer divisions of aristocracy, business owners and workers in the 18th century, which don’t exist today.

What can you do?

To help us understand more, we’ve made the decision to explore social class in our IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access) Working Group’s language series, to better understand how we talk about it.

These are all-staff spaces where we come together with the aim to stimulate, inform and platform good IDEA practice and policies. Our language series centres around the language we use in modern society and through discussion, enables us to reflect best practice within our own working environment.

We believe it is important for organisations to have these conversations and think about how their practices can be welcoming to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

While many organisations collect workforce and applicant data around protected characteristics, social class is sometimes left out of this. We would encourage everyone to collect this data as it is vital to improving class representation in the sector. There are many ways to collect this data, but the method is up to you; the important thing is that you do it. Here are some ways to consider:

We also signpost you to Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries if you want to further explore the experiences of working-class people in the creative industries.

Read more about Youth Music’s approach to language and diversity data collection. Youth Music is also a Living Wage employer and funder, committed to paying people a fair wage for their work. Paying people the real Living Wage is an active way to bridge the class divide.

Taking these steps can begin to help build a music industry that better reflects our society.