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What it’s like to pursue a career in the music industry when you’re Disabled

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person wearing a white shirt and black waist coat, holding a saxaphone, standing in front of a glass door with houses and a street behind them.
Photo of Laura

Written by Laura Moulding as part of Youth Music Next Gen.

When I was a young girl, my Dad taught me how to play the electric organ, and I was fortunate enough to pick up the alto saxophone when I was 12. I think my family were shocked I wanted to play such a loud instrument - practicing in our terraced house was a real treat for everyone!

I never really considered myself to have disabilities. I grew up understanding you could see some disabilities and mine you couldn’t. However, as I grew I understood more, and although I use the word Disabled rarely, I still do have this long list of disabilities.

I have mental ill health (severe depression with psychotic symptoms, anxiety, panic attacks, trauma), Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), vertigo and migraines, and although it’s mainly controlled, I have asthma too. I am also dyslexic. I think this is majority if not all of what I live with – fun right? But why am I sharing this with you?

Back around May 2020, I submitted my music university assignment for a module called Industry Ready. It was to create a presentation and essay portfolio of what I was doing to help myself get into the music industry and any issues I may face. Having a disability was one of these issues.

According to an Attitude is Everything report (2019), over 70% of music professionals would not disclose details of any health condition or concerns due to the fear of it affecting their relationships in the industry, as well as concerns that it would cause problems. 96% of these respondents mentioned that they agreed that the music industry could be more inclusive for musicians and artist with access requirements.

This is something that was emphasised in Reshape Music, Youth Music’s recent report exploring Disabled musician’s experiences of music education and beyond. Matt Griffiths, Youth Music’s CEO said, “Reshape Music illustrates in very stark terms that the views, lived experience and expertise of Disabled people are still absent in the planning and delivery of music education and music-making. As a result, policies, programmes and infrastructure are often developed in a way that excludes their involvement and participation…”

The report was shocking, but it didn’t surprise me.

I didn’t think I faced too many barriers due to my disabilities until I was diagnosed with ME in January this year. Although my doctors now consider me to have had this for many years, it had gotten worse in January. I now live a life where I am sometimes struggling to butter four Jacob’s crackers. I have no energy to get up and go on my Mac mini to compose music, and I spend a lot of time stuck in bed as I can’t move elsewhere very well. I don’t have the resources to create music from bed.

During the progress of my diagnosis in January, I was in and out of hospital for three weeks. Unfortunately due to this, I was removed from my initial role.

I was still taking part as best I could, but I felt like I had to justify myself and my newly-diagnosed disability. Even then, the response I got was ‘well tough!’. Everything I was working on was taken from me, and when I was finally able to return physically, I kept asking for work, but it was like I was pushed aside. I had the same comments again, “If you cared, you’d show up.”

a crowd of people standing at a festival, watching a band perform on stage
Photo from Immerse! Festival, Richard Ashcroft set. Credit Paolo Ricci.

I managed to take part in the end project - a music festival which went well. However, I felt my marks could’ve been higher. I believe that the only reason certain areas were marked down was due to attendance caused by my disability.

After this experience, my fear that my disability would get in the way of any future projects or endeavors was difficult to cope with. I was once told that if I cared about music, then I would do whatever I could to get there. I would need to push myself and work constantly to show my dedication to it. I see my musical friends releasing albums, gigging and attending networking events throughout this current pandemic. I could probably do that, but I would need so much more time. What takes someone else a week to do would take me over a month. To me, it highlights how much my disability is a barrier to a career in the music industry. People will think I’m ‘not trying hard enough.’ But what if I am?

Outside of music, I am a mental health advocate for many organisations and charities including Time to Change Wales - an organisation that challenges mental health stigma and discrimination. I share my experiences with others in the hope to make change, increase understanding and awareness. I can see a correlation in the stigma I have faced for my mental health, and the barrier I face having a disability.

I have had many opportunities to try and develop myself. I am lucky to have studied music in college and university and am soon to start a Masters in songwriting and production. I was able to run a successful music festival. I was fortunate to have been a Freelance Advisor for Youth Music’s Incubator Fund this year, and now I have been given the opportunity to write this piece.

Yet because of my disabilities, I’ve missed out on so many opportunities too. And it doesn’t have to be that way.There is still a huge amount of the music industry that needs to change to consider every person’s needs, Disabled or not. During this pandemic, the music industry is having to undergo some big changes, and it’s very important to me that Disabled people don’t get left out.

And hey, we can achieve anything we set our minds to! Just two months ago, a 29-year-old released her debut album after spending two years recording it whilst bedbound. I am about to start a songwriting and production Masters, and I will find a way to do this - disability or not. Whatever happens, I’ll keep trying to make sure our voices are heard.

Read the report and join the conversation at #ReshapeMusic

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Reshape Music report

Our report sets out the significant barriers faced by Disabled musicians to access music education and music-making.