Amid all the euphoria surrounding the revival of live music to clubs and venues around the country, there are still some who — understandably — feel nervous at the prospect of returning to the stage.
A recent survey from Attitude Is Everything found that nearly half of disabled artists are still not totally confident about returning to the action.
There is no disputing that the pandemic had a sudden and substantial impact on arts and culture sectors worldwide, and its impact is still being felt. But for many disabled artists, it also threatens to undo years of vital progress made in improving accessibility in the music industry. Speaking to Attitude is Everything founder Suzanne Bull, it’s clear that any backsliding would be devastating. ‘We were in a good place as an industry before the pandemic,’ she explains, ‘We were working with different labels and promoters and having good conversations around booking disabled artists because they are good, not just because they should. And we were trying to bring up those issues that disabled artists who weren’t visible were frightened to disclose.’
‘Now I’m proud that we’re not just helping audiences, but we’ve proved that disabled people can be anything they want to be.’
It’s a far cry from Suzanne’s early days as a disabled gig-goer. ‘All those years ago, there wasn’t any ‘access’ at gigs. When little bits were been provided, I might have been the only one using [the facilities],’ she remembers, ‘and I could certainly name everybody else in the Southeast and London that did use them.’
With Attitude Is Everything quickly proving that there was a market — and indeed a clear economic impact — to improving accessibility at gigs, the intervening years brought a host of key landmark moments. From organising disabled volunteer projects at Glastonbury to running their own club nights and partnering with booking agents, AIE have worked tirelessly to increase the visibility of disabled artists across the board. ‘Now I’m proud that we’re not just helping audiences, but we’ve proved that disabled people can be anything they want to be,’ Suzanne says before explaining the impact of last year’s Beyond The Music initiative — a three-year scheme designed to improve career prospects for Deaf and disabled people in music. ‘If [people with disabilities] want a career in music, they can get support. I think that’s really important,’ she tells me.
‘The gaps and disparities that might have existed before have gotten even wider during the pandemic,’
But with the multiple nation-wide lockdowns hitting hard, a lot of that hard work risks being undone. ‘I was one of those people that had to shield,’ Suzanne divulges. ‘I haven’t stayed in since I was about 13-years-old, I’ve always been gigging or playing in bands. I just couldn’t believe I was being told to stay at home. I’m sure we all wondered at one point, ‘Will we ever be able to do our jobs again?’ she says, ‘Let alone support disabled people who are trying to be artists or work in the industry, or even just literally trying to return to attending live events.’
But thankfully, live events have returned, but the worries remain. ‘The gaps and disparities that might have existed before have gotten even wider during the pandemic,’ Suzanne states. ‘Disabled people were lumped in with vulnerable people and the only solution offered was literally just to stay at home. That’s if we were mentioned at all.’ But with organisations like #WeShallNotBeRemoved starting up, pressure was applied to make sure that all were accounted for. ‘We were always saying that once the industry opens, it needs to open for everyone,’ says Suzanne simply, leading on to the results of The Next Stage survey where, although the vast majority are looking forward to returning to live action, 43 percent of respondents admit a lack of confidence in the re-opening processes. ‘A lot are scared about measures not being in place, and venues not being Covid-safe,’ explains Suzanne. ‘There’s no provision for people that are still shielding, all the government support on that has just stopped, so you’re left on your own to make your own decisions.’ How safe can venues really be when guidance is exactly that? Non-legally binding advice. ‘It’s about enabling artists to open a discussion with venues and ask, ‘What is it going to be like?’ That’s really important,’ Suzanne suggests. ‘Having a dialogue that opens up what access requirements are provided in the venue, about being able to disclose personal matters. It’s not just about whether the stage and toilets are accessible, it’s down to whether the venue is open and welcoming for audiences, artists and for employees.’
‘If somebody on stage is visibly disabled, then honestly, I don’t think people care. Maybe the gate-keepers care, but the audiences just want good music.’
After twenty-one years in the business, Suzanne is adamant that there is little room for excuse for anyone in the industry not to know who to contact with any questions or queries. She gives a warm, positive shoutout to venues like Clapham Grand and Village Underground for how they helped ease and others ease back into live action. ‘I definitely had an open dialogue with those venues about coming and being worried, asking how they could help me,’ she remembers, ‘and they did everything they could, for me and for other disabled people at the same time.’
That openness and transparency is something she recommends in other areas too, with 96 percent of the people surveyed saying that they wanted other artists to speak out about their experiences. ‘They feel alone,’ she says simply, ‘like they’re the only person going through this. But they have to realise that there must be all sorts of people going through this.’ That need for visibility, for role models both on and off-stage is huge she explains, citing people like Blaine Harrison of Mystery Jets — a patron of Attitude Is Everything — as a massively influential and positive example. ‘If somebody on stage is visibly disabled, then honestly, I don’t think people care. Maybe the gate-keepers care, but the audiences just want good music,’ she says.
Though many artists found themselves able to gig more when live music was restricted to streams, there’s a sense that visibility (in every sense) will be key to the industry building back stronger. ‘You can’t just be a recording artist forever, and you can’t just do online gigs forever. I know that some people in the industry might think that disabled artists should,’ she says gravely, alluding to some wider feelings in the community that attitudes towards them have regressed. ‘They won’t have to change the venues if they play online. It shouldn’t really be an either/or option.’
‘The emphasis from us now is that we rebuild, and that we rebuild better.’
Taking the findings from The Next Stage and continuing to build a more inclusive community is key for Suzanne right now. With venues re-opening, the focus is on making sure those stages play host to more disabled artists and that the previously unresolved issues are addressed. Already in conversation with the team behind Independent Venue Week, plans are afoot to really make big strides in this area. ‘We’re so excited about this, we really feel that this is a big breakthrough,’ she grins. After being asked to pick one key action for the industry to follow, she answers instantly. ‘Take active action, listen to us and then implement it,’ she nods. ‘With everything that is going on with other diversities, people are actively looking for disabled people now. And they’ll call you out. People are actually saying to festivals now, ‘If we take all the male artists out of the festival, it will be empty. If you take all the non-disabled people out, well… it would be just as empty. Or maybe you just have Mystery Jets.’ Pointing out grimly that these are issues raised by Ian Dury decades ago, she continues, ‘One journalist once said to Mat Fraser that he’d ‘never get anywhere with arms like that, [Mat has thalidomide-induced phocomelia] well he’s still one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen and in 2012, he was playing alongside Coldplay.’
While that might not be a realistic prospect for most, what is key is that the opportunity is there for all. Understanding that the live music industry won’t truly be back until it’s back for everybody, charities like Attitude Is Everything will continue battling on behalf of Deaf and disabled artists everywhere. ‘It’s got to be better this time than it was before,’ Suzanne says bluntly and definitively. ‘The emphasis from us now is that we rebuild, and that we rebuild better.’