Diversity in the Music Industry

If you do a quick google search (2021) for the word diversity, you will find it can be explained as “the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.”

According to Bachtrack (2020), the largest classical events finder online, only eight of the top 100 busiest conductors in the world in 2019 were female. Looking into these eight conductors, we find a very homogenous group of seven white women from Europe, North America and Australia, and one Chinese conductor. We have gotten used to talking about gender inequality in the music industry. Diversity, however, encompasses far more than just gender balance and equal rights. Diversity is about creating space for different expressions and values and aims to create an inclusive culture for all (Musicians Union, 2021). 

Diversity concerns everyone and conductors are guaranteed to encounter various issues related to the subject during their career. Take, for example, the act of programming in an orchestra. There are many reasons to play it safe when choosing a program, the most obvious being that a conventional and well-known program usually draws a larger audience. “Conventional repertoire” in classical music unfortunately still often translates to “written by an old or dead European”. Those who focus on more diverse programming usually aim for a higher proportion of contemporary music. Unfortunately, less attention is paid to other aspects of diversity in this selection process. How many pieces are, for example, written by composers of colour or a minority group? How many composers with Asian or African backgrounds are included? Supporting diversity could be done simply through mindful programming, like varying the music we choose so that we’re not only conducting music written by white male composers from two of the seven continents.

A Collective Responsibility

Aiming for diversity and treating people fairly regardless of race, gender, age, religion, sexuality or disability is a collective responsibility. To achieve these aims we need to address the root causes and impacts of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination (Musicians Union, 2021). Giving everyone equal opportunities to succeed sometimes means that we have to treat people differently. A youth orchestra, for example, will likely consist of a variety of children from different socio-economic backgrounds. Supporting diversity in such a group can be offering free rentals of musical instruments for those who need it, or making sure the orchestra and rehearsal space is welcoming and accessible to those with disabilities.

Illustration © ConductIT

Working with people from different backgrounds and with different experiences can be highly beneficial. What is done on the stage is also visible to the audience. If we want the music industry to be inclusive for all audiences, we first have to open up to diversity internally. Perhaps audiences will only become truly diverse when the performers on our stages are diverse?

To be able to foster structural changes that facilitate diversity in the music industry, we must identify barriers that may prevent some from participating. One way to approach this topic is by using a norm-critical or norm-conscious method (The Art of Balance (Balansekunst), 2020). We must examine the norms that shape society and the ways in which we think: what is perceived as normal and abnormal, and why is it so? People with identities that are labelled as abnormal or different are more vulnerable to discrimination and exclusion, both in the music industry and in society in general. Therefore, we have to identify and challenge the norms.

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