The conversation about disabled representation in the music industry is a broad one, and there are many events diving deep into it today to mark International Day of Persons with Disability. Despite these positive steps forward, there is still work to be on the most fundamental of issues - artists with disabilities are still being held back by access barriers in music venues.
I recently ran a consultation in the form of a survey with nearly 150 music industry professionals identifying as having a disability or long-term health condition. The vast majority of my survey respondents were artists, and 67 percent said they had experienced access barriers in music venues.
In terms of disclosure of disability, 71 percent of respondents identified as having a non-visible disability and only 12 percent of those said they would always disclose details of their disability or long-term health condition in a work situation. It’s a startling statistic, and there are many talking points to be taken from it.
‘The only thing as disabling as stigma and discrimination is the fear of stigma and discrimination.’
Firstly, if only a small amount of artists are disclosing details of their disability or long-term health condition and putting forward access requirements, can we really expect music venues to be making the progress we want to see in making venues fully accessible? By opening up and talking about our access requirements, we can possibly help move these conversations along quicker.
It’s a two-way street and the other side of that is being listened to. In my previous life as a tour manager, I once had a venue manager complain to me about an access request, saying they ‘haven’t got the time to make extra arrangements.’ The attitude that someone’s access needs are ‘extra’ to that person’s job is exactly the reason some artists don’t feel comfortable disclosing.
We need to create ways for these conversations to happen easily and without fear of judgement. For example, I am a big advocate for disability riders to be commonplace, so that every artist rider submitted to a music venue includes a section for access requirements. Even if none are required, this will help educate music venues that fulfilling access requests isn’t an extra job, but part of a normal show advance.
Of course, disclosure is a very personal thing, and each artist will have their own feelings as to whether they want to disclose. But disability riders would hopefully mean that artists or touring crew member only needs to let their tour manager know what they need, and their access requests will be sent to every venue on a tour in advance to be actioned — eliminating the daily toll of having to explain what they need and why.
Some more statistics unveiled by my survey in relation to access barriers in music venues include:
- 67 percent of artists who responded have experienced access barriers at music venues
- The most common problem was access to stage, with 66 percent of respondents having experienced this issue
- 35 percent of respondents have arrived for a show and not been able to fulfil their commitment due to an access barrier
- 41 percent have rejected a booking knowing that a specific venue is not accessible to them
- Only 40 percent would ask again if an access requirement submitted in advance was not fulfilled upon arrival
- 71 percent of those who said they did not always disclose, admitted that decision had put their health and safety at risk in the past.
The fact that access to stage was the most common problem encountered by respondents was a surprise to me. Some buildings will be structurally inaccessible by nature, but the fact that some venues don’t even have ramps to stage in 2021 is staggering and shows there is still so much work to be done.
'We need to encourage promoters, agents and venues to listen to artists and musicians with disabilities and to make sure people feel confident in asking for the reasonable adjustments they may need.'
It’s not just artists that are impacted by access barriers at music venues. I recently blogged about my own experiences of working in the music industry as a tour manager with an undisclosed eye condition. I won’t cover too much old ground, but you can read about it here. My eye condition ultimately means my vision is poor in dark environments, so you can imagine how that manifested backstage in music venues.
I worried if I disclosed my eye condition I would lose work and ultimately lose my livelihood. I avoided telling the artists and promoters I worked with, mainly because I worried they would think I was unable to do my job properly.
Since disclosing in public this year, I now realise that hiding my condition was the wrong approach. I have had nothing but positivity since I’ve spoken about it, and I do believe that had I had the courage to tell the people I worked with at the time, we would have been able to talk about and implement reasonable adjustments to help me carry out my work in the environments I needed.
On the very limited occasions I did choose to disclose details to those I worked with, I had nothing but positive experiences. Accommodations were made to make sure I was still able to do my job. It’s an important point to make, and I know I am not the only one reporting positive experiences. But as it turns out the only thing as disabling as stigma and discrimination is the fear of stigma and discrimination.
My consultation was carried out mid-pandemic when the music industry was operating mainly online. Livestreams became a regular part of our lives and artists and musicians played along but in general feared for their future.
However, when I asked my survey respondents if they were ‘more’ or ‘less’ optimistic about their future in music should the industry continue to operate more online in the future, the results were interesting. Some people felt unsure, but more of the respondents said they felt more optimistic (39 percent) than less optimistic (17 percent).
This statistic says a lot about how this period was a bit of a levelling of the playing field for people with disabilities, in music and most likely beyond. I spoke to people who told me they could suddenly attend every meeting, that travel and access barriers were no longer an issue, and actually that performing online meant they were more relaxed in their own environments and able to communicate better with their audience.
That statistic, taken in a time of such fear for our industry, is one that I think highlights the importance of creating the right environments to help people with disabilities thrive. We need to encourage promoters, agents and venues to listen to artists and musicians with disabilities and to make sure people feel confident in asking for the reasonable adjustments they may need, so everyone is able to work to their full potential in live music.
Ben Price is the owner of Harbourside Artist Management, a music management company working extensively in disability arts. He also sits on the BPI Equality and Justice Advisory Group, an independent board of music industry professionals who advocate for equality agenda across the sector.