Gavin Higgins delivers passioned plea for arts funding: full speech transcript | Brass Bands England

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Gavin Higgins delivers passioned plea for arts funding: full speech transcript

Gavin has curley brown hair and dark glasses, he has his hands outstretched and raised, he is standing behind a lecturn with 'The Brass Band Conference' in bold white lettering on a purple background
Tuesday, 5 December, 2023

The role of brass bands in our musical society was recently highlighted in a passionate speech by award-winning composer Gavin Higgins, as he called upon Government politicians to support music and the arts.

The speech took place at this year’s Brass Band Conference, an annual event organised by Brass Bands England (BBE) to support and connect the hundreds of bands across England and the UK.

Drawing on his musical training in brass bands, Higgins delivered a keynote speech focusing on the urgent need for advocacy and financial support for artistic subjects both in and outside our education system.

“For the first time in decades, we have a loud and supportive group of MPs who are passionate about the arts.”

During the speech, Higgins shared several key points around the benefits of participation in arts and music at all levels:

“If we consider again just how much money the music sector brings into the economy each year, it’s remarkable our government would not want to invest generously in its future.”

He continued: “Many articles and books explain how music can help young people learn, how music therapy can help with mental health, and we now have scientific proof music can help people with Alzheimer’s and Dementia.”

MPs must take action

With this in mind, Higgins called upon specific MPs who have benefited from a musical education or showed enjoyment of the arts, including Sir Keir Starmer, Thangam Debbonaire, Barbara Keeley, Chris Bryant and Kevin Brennan, to share concrete plans for supporting arts opportunities.

“The learning, health, and economic benefits of the arts need to be laid out clearly, and organisations such as the Arts Council need to be fighting on our behalf … We can’t afford to be apathetic anymore, we have to start making some noise.”

Brass Bands have a role to play

On his own musical upbringing, Higgins commented: "I owe a debt of gratitude to the brass band movement for my training, without which I may never have become a musician."

He added: “You cannot begin to understand the wider world of British music without first understanding brass bands. They are still the biggest mass movement of working-class people making music in history and, I believe, Britain’s most alluring form of folk music.”

When arts subjects are being subjected to more and more Government cuts, brass bands continue to offer both training and inspiration for performers of all ages and social backgrounds and act as a vital conduit for our professional music sector:

“The brass band to orchestra pipeline goes back a long way here in the UK ... But I worry where the next generation will come from."

Youth music in the community

This is something that Brass Bands England’s (BBE’s) youth work, taking place through the BBE Brass Foundations programme, aims to address, offering opportunities for young people to hear and perform brass music, and connect with local bands. Advocacy programmes, including the #BrassBandsAtChristmas Crowdfunder and a national Brass Band Week, due to take place in July, are other BBE initiatives helping bands continue to support their community by connecting with new audiences.

Mike Kilroy, Chair of BBE, said: “Brass bands have never had a more vital role to play in our communities, bringing educational, social and musical opportunities to people of all ages and backgrounds, but many bands struggled to make it out of the pandemic intact. Like our music education system, bands and other amateur music groups need continued support in various ways, including financially. I’d like to thank Gavin for drawing attention to that, and I look forward to hearing from our MPs on how they plan to enable our cultural sector to continue to contribute to our society.”

How you can help

We can all play our part to advocate for the arts in our local communities, and we can “do it now”, urges Higgins. Share the full Gavin Higgins keynote speech with your MP to request support for arts education in your area and nationally, your local brass band, or a creative cause close to your heart.


Full speech transcript: Gavin Higgins – 7 October 2023, The Brass Band Conference

Good morning. Firstly, I’d like to thank Brass Band’s England for inviting me to give the keynote speech at this year’s conference, it’s a great honour. I’ll be honest, I feel rather under-qualified to be talking to you all about the brass band movement. You live and breathe this world every day, whereas I see myself, more these days, as an enthusiastic onlooker and keen supporter of this music.

Most of my work takes place outside of the brass band movement in the broader world of classical music.

I am currently the Composer in Association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and have worked with some of the country’s leading orchestras, opera houses, musicians, conductors and soloists.

Despite the main body of my work coming from the classical world, I have retained strong connections with the brass band movement, specifically with Ian Porthouse and the Tredegar Town Band with whom I have been a long-time collaborator. But also through my family who continue to play in their local band.

As such, I think that I am uniquely placed, with one foot firmly planted in the world of classical music, and another foot with its toe dipped in the world of brass bands, to offer some insight on what we are doing right, what we are doing wrong, and how we can secure a positive and successful future for brass bands in the UK.

I think it might be worth starting with my own background, how I became a musician, and why I feel passionately about brass bands.

I grew up in the Forest of Dean surrounded by a family of brass band musicians. Almost everyone in my family played in the local brass band; My mum, my sister, both grandads, aunties, uncles, great uncles, great grandads. Even my nan and dad, who never learnt to play, were given instruments and instructed to march with the band on the annual carnival day in the village to make up the numbers.

I don’t remember learning to play an instrument myself. I always tell people that I came out of my mum with a cornet already in my hand. This is not so far from the truth as I was given a cornet at the tender age of three and was taught to play by my grandad.

Music was not something I really thought about growing up, it was just something we did. It was so ingrained in our lives that going to band seemed no more extraordinary than going to the shopping.

But when I was around 7 or 8 I started to develop strange compulsive movements and invasive thoughts which I couldn’t stop or control. Teachers said I was showing off, doctors said I was attention seeking, but I knew something out of my control was taking place in my body. It was extremely exhausting and my parents were at their wit’s end.

Eventually we managed to get a referral to the Maudsley Hospital in London, and after some tests and interviews I was diagnosed with having Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD. To have the diagnosis was a huge weight off my shoulders – I wasn’t going mad, there was a medical explanation for what was happening to me. During one of the interviews the doctor asked if I played music. ‘Yes’ I replied. ‘and what happens to your tics when you play your instrument?’ the doctor asked, ‘nothing, they all stop’ I replied. It was like a lightbulb moment, I realised that music could really help me control this debilitating condition and as such I started to use music as a kind of self-therapy. I would practice my instrument at every opportunity, I began to be involved in more groups and play more concerts. Over time music became more than just a therapy, it became a career.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the brass band movement for my musical training, without which I may never have become a musician. Over the past decade, whenever the opportunity has arisen, I have tried to bring my love of brass bands to a wider audience. When I was composer in residence at the Rambert Dance Company I made a ballet about the mining industry and its connection to brass band music called Dark Arteries. It was the first time a brass band had been on stage with a ballet company and it was toured the length of the country. Last year I wrote my biggest piece to date, my Concerto Grosso for Brass Band and Orchestra which premiered at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. It was the first time in decades a brass band had appeared at the Proms and the first time ever one had appeared with an orchestra in this fashion. That piece went on to win a Royal Philharmonic Society Award and a Sky Arts South Bank award, so surely that’s evidence the wider cultural world do seem to be interested and engaged with what we are doing.

Despite no longer playing in brass bands, I do feel extremely passionate about them – the music, the pedagogical role bands play in our communities, the culture – this is a music that gets in your blood and doesn’t let go. There is something about the sound of a brass band that resonates, quite literally, in our bodies, that can make even the most stoic of audience members sit up and lean forward.

But there is also a shared cultural history which is inescapable; this is the music of protest, of the working-class, of struggle; It’s the music of coal, of industry; It’s proud music, it’s defiant music. You cannot begin to understand the wider world of British music without first understanding brass bands. Brass bands are still the biggest mass movement of working- class people making music in history and, I believe, Britain’s most alluring form of folk music.

We don’t have lots of time today and there is much I’d like to say. But I’ll do my best to address some the issues, as I see it, that we need to tackle for the brass band movement to thrive and regain its cultural relevance in the coming decade.

Some of what I say might feel controversial. It might ruffle some feathers, but in order to evolve and grow sometimes we need to speak the truth. I hope after today we can begin to have real and open conversations about the future of our movement and make the changes that are needed.

Brass bands do not exist in a vacuum, despite how ghettoised some aspects of banding have become. So in order to understand the issues and challenges we need to tackle, first we need to look at music making in the UK more broadly and where bands fit into that. But first the bad news.

1. Valuing the arts

The arts sector is in a terrible state. Probably the worst it’s ever been. And nowhere is that felt more keenly than in music. Not just classical music, the plight of which has been chronicled of late, but all music. This downward trend has been a long time coming. A tory government who do not value the arts; the ruthless dismantling of music education in our state schools; people no longer feeling they should even pay for music; low remuneration from streaming destroying artists income – It’s no wonder people are leaving the industry in droves. The past four years have felt like hammer blow after hammer blow.

The problems are now baked in and go back years. But let’s start with Brexit:

For musicians this has been a disaster. ISM’s chief executive Deborah Annetts said, “Musicians are facing higher costs, more paperwork and longer delays at borders. This is making it harder for them to tour and work in Europe, which is a major market for the UK music industry.”

Thanks to red tape, unnecessary bureaucracy, and extra costs involved with visas, carnets, and travel costs, many pop and rock groups are no longer able to tour Europe, and likewise many European groups are deciding against coming to the UK anymore. Our orchestras, whose annual European tours would bring tax money back into the UK whilst showcasing the best of British talent across the continent, are unable to do so, since after visiting just two cities they would have to return to the UK. These orchestras are now forced to tour further afield, in Asia, the middle East, and America to justify the costs.

As a result of Brexit British musicians have lost work. According to a recent survey by the Independent Society of Musicians a quarter of the British music industry have had no work in the EU since Brexit. The survey found 40% of musicians have had work cancelled, and 39% said they have had to turn work down. One of the groups surveyed said ‘My band simply can’t make any kind of living in the tiny UK market, so we basically have folded as a working band.’

Complexities around documentation and work visas have made it all but impossible for performers to work in the EU last minute. As a result many orchestras and opera companies have simply stopped booking British artists in favour European musicians. This back and forth between Europe and the UK made Britain an attractive place to live for working musicians, but now many have fled to take up residency in Europe, where there is more work. And even in the few countries where visas or work permits are not required, musicians are restricted to work for a maximum of 90 days over a 180-day period under the Schengen visa waiver scheme.

Another report from the ISM found that half of professional musicians in the UK are currently earning under £14,000 a year. In London that wouldn’t even cover your rent. As a result many musicians are having to find alternative jobs. And it’s not just musicians, it’s actors, dancers, and authors too. I have a friend who is a New York Times bestseller who is currently working in a bar to make ends-meet. I have friends who have completely left the industry. I too have considered my future as a composer on more than one occasion.

What’s so frustrating about all this is that the British music sector is one of our great success stories. For example, just last year the top 10 world‐selling pop songs were all from British artists. In terms of the money generated from our industry, in 2019 the UK music industries contribution to the economy was a whopping £5.8billion! According to the Governments own website the creative industries sector is growing five times faster than the national economy with the sector contributing more than £111 billion to the UK economy in 2018 – for perspective, that’s £13 million an hour! Why then is there such apparent contempt towards the arts? For a government so concerned with the economy why are they refusing to invest in such a fast growing sector?

Then of course we were hit with COVID, where theatres, concert halls, music venues, and cinemas were forced to close for months, many of which are still struggling to entice audiences back. We all lost work, many people left the business altogether. The government boasts of giving huge amounts in COVID grants through the Cultural Recovery Fund – from the £1.57 billion total, £830 million were given in grants and loans to the sector. Though by the spring of 2021 only half of that money had been paid out and many organisations had already folded. In comparison, the US government committed a total of $15 billion to help keep cultural venues afloat, whilst France contributed €8.3 billion.

And there was worse to come. The organisations that managed to keep their head above water during the lock downs, and were just starting to get back on their feet, faced the shock of the Arts Council Cuts. Forced through by an out of touch culture secretary, the ramifications of these cuts have been felt far and wide. It’s great that some organisations received more money, but it’s been at the expense of some of the country’s leading orchestras such as Britten Sinfonia and PSAPHA Ensemble who lost the entirety of their funding, leaving Manchester and the north without a contemporary music group – so much for levelling up! In London, probably the world’s most important cultural centre – £50m was removed and redistributed, whilst English National Opera were asked to move to Manchester. The irony is not lost on us that Manchester is a mere 40 minutes from Opera North, formally known as English National Opera North – an off-shoot of ENO specifically designed to serve the north of England.

I was heartened to see Brass Band England increase their arts council funding this year to a total of £405,000 per year – but the backdrop of various organisations losing their funding has not sweetened the pill. Just this week, Arts Council Wales cuts resulted in the complete funding loss for Mid Wales Opera, a company serving the length and breadth of Wales. Music critic for the Times, Neil Fisher said: ’Another beacon of performing arts in locations that no one else was reaching – snuffed out by the Arts Council.’
In Scotland too, Creative Scotland has just had a huge £6.6million budget cut re-imposed after a reversal just a few months ago. Creative Scotland CEO Ian Munro said: ‘re-imposing this cut, just two weeks before regularly funded organisations were due to receive their quarterly payments would amount to a 40% reduction…it will deepen the concern within the sector about support for culture. It’s an erosion of faith and trust.’

According the Musicians Union, funding for the arts is down 46% in real terms since 2005. In stark contrast the French Government have just committed a total of €4.2billion this year for cultural activities, a 7% increase from the previous year. According to the French ministry of culture, In 2019 the French state spent €17b on culture.

Then we were faced with devastating cuts to the BBC Orchestras. The BBC boasts five world class orchestras, the only professional choir in the country, and hosts the biggest classical music festival in the world at the Albert Hall – 8 weeks of daily concerts.

This is something we should all be proud of. But the government clearly sees classical music in the BBC as frivolous expense, not worth funding. These cuts amounted to the loss of 20% of all orchestral positions, forced one orchestra to up-sticks and move to another part of the country, and the scrapping of the UK’s only professional choir, The BBC Singers, most of whom only found out about the decision through public tweets and press releases.

There was a glimmer of light for the singers though. As a tidal-wave of worldwide condemnation landed at the feet of BBC executives, they embarrassingly reversed course and are now looking at alternative ways of funding the group. Don’t believe for a second however that the future of the singers or our orchestras is safe. There will undoubtedly be even more cuts to come. In the 2022-23 annual report the BBC expenditure on Sports was £99m, on Entertainment and Comedy £244m, Film and Drama £397m – and wallowing at the bottom was Arts and Music, the total expenditure a miserable £39m.

I could go on. There are countless examples of arts institutions, opera houses, orchestras, festivals, musicians facing cuts and closure. Much of this misery is a direct result of government policies: a government with no real interest in our creative industries. Labour MP, and shadow minister for Creative Industries, Chris Byrant, lambasted Lucy Frazer’s speech at the recent Tory conference, saying, ‘Our creative industries deserve better than that tedious, inaccurate and feeble speech…The number of Tories who bothered to show up shows how little they care about or understand the UK’s creative industries’.

It’s been a totally chaotic and frustrating few years for the arts in the UK. And though much of what I’ve spoken about so far directly affects professional institutions, amateur, youth, and community music making are bound up in that. Simply put, you cannot have a healthy and vibrant youth and amateur music sector without maintaining a healthy professional sector; and vice a versa. It goes without saying that brass bands have been responsible for channeling incredible brass players into our orchestras, many of which are full of brass band musicians. For example, three of the current principal brass seats at the LSO are held by brass banders – James Fountain, Pete Moore, and Ben Thomson – but you can find brass banders in all of our orchestras, and many more around the world. Don’t forget the first note on the Stars Wars theme tune, that first high C trumpet, was played by Maurice Murphy, the old principal cornet of the Black Dyke Mills Band. The brass band to orchestra pipeline goes back a long way here in the UK. And for good reason: Brass bands create excellent brass players – our technique, musicality, and stamina cannot be surpassed. Many professional brass players continue to maintain their links to the brass band world, both through playing concerts and educational activities. This aspirational model is incredibly important for young brass players – you need to be able to see yourself in these positions.

But I worry where the next generation will come from. Music is increasingly becoming the preserve of the most privileged. But this is where brass bands can play a vital role, training up the next generation of brass players from all social backgrounds. The work going on with Youth Bands is inspirational, but we need to step up this work and help support our young musicians at every stage of their education. Brass Band England’s increased funds could be used to facilitate this. But, my point stands, it’s no good having incredible young talent if they’ve nothing to aspire to and there’s no profession to move into. The more orchestras that fold, the more opera companies that close down, the less opportunity there will be for the incredible talent we nurture here in the UK.

The undermining of classical music institutions in the UK will ultimately end up having an effect on our amateur music making sector. We require long-term, strategic investment at all levels of the industry – from primary school right up to the profession. And on that note I’d like to briefly talk about the state of musical education in the UK.

2. Education

I am a passionate advocate for music education. Getting involved in music making, at any level, is simply good for you. In an interview on Classic FM, the Labour leader Kier Starmer said recently, ‘I feel passionately about music. Not just for the enjoyment of music, which is profound. But also because of the skills that learning music gives to children, young people’.

He goes on to say that, ‘music should in my view be in every school, not just some.’ But over the past 13 years music education has been slowly and systematically eroded from the state sector.

To add weight to this point, this is what artist Anish Kapoor said last year in the Art Newspaper: ’Britain, it seems, no longer sees any merit in what the humanities have to offer…the idea that arts and the humanities are education’.

He continues by saying, ‘this politically motivated idiocy does our society a criminal disservice. The arts have been removed from the core curriculum in schools...the true effect of this will mean the belittling of our young people to roles of servitude to those at the top of the economy – as if economics is the only measure of value.’

If we consider again just how much money the music sector brings into the economy each year, it’s remarkable our government would not want to invest generously in its future. But beyond the economics, politicians have lost sight of the benefits and value of music in education, choosing to narrowly focus on core subjects like maths and science instead. This is a big mistake. There are many articles and books explaining how music can help young people learn, how music therapy can help with mental health, and we now have scientific proof music can help people with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. And from my own experience I have seen first-hand the profound ways music has helped young people excel in other subjects. Music is not an isolated ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject, it can and should play a key role in a child’s broader education. Just this week it was reported in the Guardian that a school in Bradford that had increased their music lessons to 6 hours a week have seem dramatic improvements to their students grades in all other subjects.

A brief glance at the statistics is sobering reading. In a recent ISM report, ‘Music: a subject in peril’, it was reported that spending per pupil in state schools fell 9% from 2009 to 2019, the largest cuts in over 40 years. 61% of respondents said the music budget was insufficient – independent schools receiving 5 times as much as state schools. And many teachers reported very low per-pupil spending (in one case as low as £1 per pupil per annum), forcing teachers themselves to have to pay for musical instruments and repairs out of their own money.

Last month the Joint Council of Qualifications announced a decline of 12.5% in GCSE music entries since 2022. ISM’s chief executive Deborah Annetts said ‘a 12.4% drop in GCSE music entries in just one year is clearly of great concern and follows a pattern of decline spanning since 2010 when the English Baccalaureate was introduced.’ At A-level music uptake has fallen by 45% since in 2010. Whichever way you look at it, music education needs more support.

 But where the state school system (or rather the governments management of) has struggled, brass bands have excelled. It’s not government funded but bands have been training top quality brass players for decades here. Why don’t more people know about this?

One of the key reasons for this success is the fact that every child is given a free instrument for as long as they’re in the band. This simple act is probably one of the most valuable things we can do. You cannot make music without an instrument. Yet simply owning an instrument has become increasingly hard for many young people. If you come from a poor background your only chance is to hire the instrument from your school, and that’s only if your school has a music department, and that’s only if the department has any instruments to loan you. But even then there are barriers to learning:

If a child is loaned a trumpet at primary school, by the end of Year 6 they are asked to give the instrument back. If the secondary school they go to is lucky enough to have a brass teacher they might be given another trumpet, which will also be given back at the end of Year 12. If they go onto a college, the same thing will happen again. At every stage of a child’s education there is disruption; their instruments are being removed. It is, frankly, a miracle that anyone from working-class backgrounds find their way into the profession, and indeed the statistics paint a depressing story. According to the PRS’s UK Music Diversity Report only 37% of those surveyed identified as working-class, unrepresentative of the national demographic.

The next labour government have made it clear that they believe every child should have access to high-quality music education. Time will tell how committed they are to this pledge. But brass bands can and must play a key role here. Funding and support needs to be stepped up to help bands provide the quality education and outreach they’ve been doing for decades.

This talk of education is well and good, but we know brass bands are struggling to maintain a fresh intake of young players and bring in new audiences. There are many reasons for this - some outside of our control – but I’d like to take a look at some things we can, and need to, address from within the movement, that I think will elevate the standing of brass bands.

3. Repertoire and commissioning

It won’t surprise you to hear that, as a composer, I am particularly interested in the music bands play. I believe it is imperative that bands, orchestras, and all musical outfits should be regularly commissioning and performing new work by living composers. I am aware that later today at the conference there is a discussion around new music, where you are being asked: Should bands perform more contemporary music? The answer is a clear and resounding, YES!

We cannot risk becoming a museum that plays only old music, or new music written in an ‘old style’. If we want to regain some relevance we must embrace new music, new voices, and new composers. But we have a problem in the UK, we are scared of things that don’t quite fit the mould. If the music feels too risky, too dangerous, too modern, then it’s rejected outright.

There are of course plenty of fantastic pieces for brass band by great composers, but there has been a slow but steady shift over the past decade towards a different type of music, particularly when it comes to test pieces.

Of course personal views on repertoire can be subjective: What are the parameters we use to define ‘good’ music? Well, perhaps this is the wrong question and instead we should be asking: Who is choosing the repertoire? On what criteria is repertoire chosen? and why is it so difficult to convince some of the country’s leading composers to write for the medium?

The banding world, in fact, has a long tradition of commissioning new music and historically this has attracted serious composers from outside the movement: Elgar, Holst, Ireland, Howells. Elgar Howarth’s relationship with the Grimethorpe Colliery Band resulted in new works from Birtwistle, Henze, and Takemitsu, but over time fewer and fewer composers have been drawn to the medium bar rare exceptions, almost all male and infrequently performed. Most people writing for bands now come from within the movement itself and are writing almost exclusively for bands. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but without fresh perspectives we risk band repertoire becoming derivative, each piece indistinguishable from the last. So why are contemporary composers not inclined to write bands?

Firstly: We may have a long history of commissioning works in the UK, but we also have a habit of rejecting that music and creating a hostile environment for composer: the well documented backlash against composers like John McCabe or Judith Bingham for example. Some composers have shared their experiences publicly. Rory Boyle used his acceptance speech for winning a British Composer Award for his brass band work Muckle Flugga, to voice his discomfort for the way the banding movement treated him and his music. Even composers who have had success, such as Simon Dobson, are moving away from regularly writing for band. And if they’ve not given up entirely they make their living abroad. This should be a great source of shame to us here in the UK. We can’t expect to attract composers from outside the movement when we struggle to keep the ones we already have. And we desperately need their perspective.

I spend a lot of time encouraging composers from outside of the banding world to write music for bands – we NEED music from these composer’s, we need their insights and fresh approaches. But when I personally am told that my own music is ‘too contemporary’ and that ‘it will never be performed here’, I don’t see the point in asking these composers to spend their time and energy on something that won’t be respected.

Secondly: We seem to be less focussed on artistic excellence and commissioning and programming quality music, and more focused on choosing formulaic, filmic, programme music that relies on gimmicks, faster, higher, louder. If the piece doesn’t do this, or does too much of that; if it ends quietly, or is not ‘tonal’ enough, then it will not be chosen.

We are led to believe that these choices are made to appeal to a dwindling audience, but I think that by doing so we are both patronising our current audience and neglecting our future one. Remember the majority of people coming to hear to hear contests are from within the banding movement itself. If the movement is to grow we have to broaden our reach. Of course I understand the need for music which is technically challenging for the purposes of the contest, but should this be at the expense of quality?

For the movement to remain relevant we have to bring in new compositional voices. And if we want to encourage the writing of innovative new works for band, then we have to embrace the unfamiliar. Just because it’s new, doesn’t mean our audiences and players can’t get behind it.

I saw an example of this suffocating narrative in a recent composers competition for band that said it was essential the entries had, ‘mass brass band appeal’ and that entrants consider at least, ‘one of these elements of familiarity: 1. conventional use of tonality or tonal centre, 2. Rhythmically-driven music, 3. A programme or narrative’. What a way to stifle creativity. And what does that say about more broadly about brass bands here in the UK? I think there are three ways we can tackle this issue:

Firstly: we need to shift our focus from contests and invest more time and energy into creative artistic endeavours. I understand the importance of contests – both culturally and also the role they play in making us all better players. But I feel we’ve become over focused on contests at the expense of more art-led projects. The Tredegar Band appearing at the Proms last year felt like a once in a lifetime moment. But it shouldn’t be. Why can’t we have a band perform at the proms every year? Unfortunately the people who run these festivals have little or no connection to the brass band world. This is why we need to have that dialogue. We need to find more opportunities to showcase substantial and serious new work for brass band. The Festival of Brass in Manchester is one such event, we need more.

Secondly: Our music panels need diversity of thought. This means bringing in younger voices, people with new perspectives. And it means engaging people from outside of the movement who are invested in its future – conductors like Martyn Brabbins and John Wilson, or musicians like James Fountain, Philip Cobb, and Pete Moore, or composers such as Simon Dobson. Why not ensure that each competition has a rotational board of musicians that include conductors, players and composers? This panel needs to be mixed gender and mixed age with a focus on quality music and what that music’s legacy will be. Contest music shouldn’t just be for the contest platform.

And Thirdly: we need to invest money into commissioning new works. This means paying people a proper and fair amount for their time and an end to asking composers to work for free. And this means working closely with foreign co-commissioners to help raise the funds and secure more performances of these works. If you can afford to pay thousands for a conductor for just one contest, you can afford to pay a composer properly.

The problem of low fees is not restricted entirely to brass bands of course. I have been left in some tricky situations by extremely reputable organisations in receipt of huge sums of Arts Council money. But why can’t brass bands lead the way here? We have so much incredible young composing talent in the UK – some of whom are absolutely interested in writing for brass band – let’s make it more appealing for them to actually write music for us by allowing them full creative freedom over the work they write. With the increased Arts Council Funding to BBE, perhaps money could be set aside to commission a number of new works each year.

I’m aware that discussions around commissioning and repertoire might feel a little selfish coming from a composer. But the music we perform plays a huge role in the way people view the brass band movement. Our image is important, but people from outside the movement have a very specific and narrow view of what brass bands are.

4. Insularity and Archaic Attitudes

For too long now bands have existed on the fringe of British musical life. This was not always the case: back in the 70’s and 80’s bands were regularly featured on TV, contests such as Granada Band of Year were broadcast, it was not unusual to see a brass band on Top of the Pops, or at the Eurovision Song Contest, or on the Morecambe and Wise Show. There were documentaries about band contests, or collieries closing, or the conductor Andre Previn visiting bands in Yorkshire. The hit movie Brassed Off! brought the true story of Grimethorpe Colliery’s pit closure to a world-wide audience, and the Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller put brass bands front and centre in his piece The History of the World.

Bands were a defining symbol of British culture and a cornerstone of the British musical landscape. But there has been a steady decline in band numbers, in audiences, and in prestige. And as the wider musical world has grown more distant, bands have become increasingly insular, more interested in looking inwards and doing things the way we’ve always done them.

As such many people from outside the movement see brass bands as archaic and conservative. But there are understandable reasons why people might not view bands as progressive.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the Brighouse and Rastrick Band allowed females into the band for the first time; and in 2012 a player wore a golliwog outfit at a brass band competition. I’ve heard of conductors hurling anti-Semitic statements at Jewish players or introducing non- white members of their band to an audience with ffensive language. Even as recently as 2020 some prominent figures within the movement were voicing racist, homophobic and misogynistic views on line. These examples might be limited to a small minority of individuals, but it points to a culture that is uninviting and out of touch. This culture is thankfully being driven out – much work has been done over the past decade, and Brass Band England’s commitment to seeing the make-up of its members more accurately reflect the communities they represent by 2030 is encouraging – but there is still much to do. The brass band scene in England is still strikingly in-diverse. For brass bands to not only survive into the future but thrive we need to diversify and encourage people from all walks of life into banding. I believe bands should represent everyone and so a concerted effort must be made to rectify this.

But when it comes to being respected as a serious artistic and creative musical movement by the wider musical establishment, we are still some way from where we rightly need to be. I’ve already discussed the issue of repertoire, but we are also lacking bold representation at the very top of the movement.

In the 70’s Elgar Howarth played a key role in bringing bands out of the coal fields and into concert halls. A relative outsider to the banding movement, Howarth was able to bridge the gap between the classical music world and brass bands. Since Howarth I can think of very few figureheads who have come close to building on what he began. I have tried my best to showcase brass bands in my own work, and that has resulted in some high profile performances. But I am I just a lowly composer, and we need more people, with real influence, fighting for brass bands. The frustrating thing is there are plenty of people who could do this – a number of high profile orchestral conductors, musicians, and composers – but has the movement really engaged them in any meaningful dialogue? Who is making the case for brass bands? We need ambassadors.

There is still a lot of work to do in order to diversify banding and bring brass bands into the 21st Century. But looking to the future there are glimmers of hope.

5. The future

Much of this speech has been focused on the serious issues we face, both in the banding movement and in British cultural life more broadly. It’s important to be open and honest about these things in order to understand what needs to be addressed. The scale of the problem might feel overwhelming, but, despite the obstacles we need to overcome, there are a lot of good things going on.

The youth music sector is thriving – our youth bands and orchestras are melting pots for young talent, and we have no shortage of them, so many they are able to compete in youth band contests. Nowhere is the high level of music making more pronounced than in our national youth band and youth orchestra, the latter is featured at the Proms every year.

Next April the National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Brass Band will come together to play my Concerto Grosso in Liverpool and at the Royal Festival Hall. Tell people to come along, write to your MP’s, it’s important they experience the high quality music making youngsters are engaged in. We need to invest in them, and turning up to listen is the easiest way to do that. I hope to see you all there.

There is no shortage of creative ideas either, despite the war on our cultural institutions. I judge many composition competitions and I am continually bowled away by the quality of the music being submitted. And there is growing intrigue from composers now who are interested in writing for brass band. We have so much brilliant young talent in the UK – so much in fact that there’s not enough opportunities for them to be heard. Why can’t brass bands lead the way in commissioning and programming serious new works? It’s an incredibly brave thing to put pencil to paper and write music, let’s not hinder their creativity by creating a culture where only a certain type of music is deemed acceptable. Let’s welcome young composers with open arms, and encourage them to think outside the box, embracing whatever unusual, complex, challenging, exciting ideas the want to explore.

In terms of our image things are also starting to change. There seems to be burgeoning interest in bands once more – people are beginning to engage! Last year Tredegar Band were featured at the BBC Proms, twice. We’ve seen bands featured at the Aldeburgh Festival, Deal Festival, Newbury Festival, Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Grimethorpe Colliery has engaged a series of commissions from young composers with no links to banding, we hear bands on the radio a bit more now than in recent years. But you within the banding movement need to take up the baton and forge real and meaningful links with new conductors, festivals, concert halls and musicians. You can start with the conductors Martyn Brabbins and John Wilson who are strong advocates for the movement and I know they are keen to be involved.

Funding is always going to be an issue for arts organisations. We are consistently asked to justify our very existence for a depleting pool of cash. But we need to making the case for funding the arts properly – this is an investment that benefits everyone. For every penny spent much more is funnelled back into the economy in ways that are hard to define. When someone sees a show in London they are also spending money on travel, accommodation, food, and other cultural activities.

But more important than the economics is the simple fact that music, arts, and culture is good for us. It benefits our health, our education, and our happiness. Chris Smith, the culture secretary from 97-2001 said he believed his job was “about all the things that for ordinary people make life worth living.” ACE need to be thinking much more carefully about the kind of cultural landscape we want in the UK. Once things are gone they do not come back.

It’s great that Arts Council have awarded Brass Bands England more funding this year, but I would like you to think carefully about how this is being spent. The National Youth Band spend just 16% of their annual funding on staff and office costs, with £9,000 a year going towards commissions, and deliver on the ground music opportunities to young people. This is a good model of how organisations use limited resources to serve their causes. I would like to see more money being funnelled directly to music creators, performers, and festivals. Perhaps a commissioning fund can be set up to encourage bands to commission composers? Perhaps Brass Band England can lead the way in serving up a new festival of brass to feature this music? I would be very keen to discuss this further with you.

And finally back to politics. Over the past 13 years we’ve had 12 cultural secretaries. What does this say about the Government’s attitude to the arts? On the job of culture secretary, Rachel Cooke in the observer noted: ‘more and more, the office appears to be little more than a lily pad in the pond of political ambition. The frog MP jumps on to it, but only on his way to a bigger, better leaf.’

If the position itself is viewed as a professional stepping stone, how can we have any faith the next person will engage? We desperately need a culture secretary who is actually invested in the sector. One glimmer of hope is that the current shadow ministers for Art and Culture are invested in, and have experience working within, the creative industries.

Thangam Debbonaire – shadow secretary for Culture, Media and Sports – studied at Chetham’s School of music and played cello with the Halle Orchestra; Chris Bryant – shadow minister for Creative Industries – has been very vocal in his support for a strong sector; Kevin Brennan, who is part of a parliamentary rock group called MP4, has been a huge advocate for fair streaming rights; Barbara Keeley – shadow arts minister – is a regular attendee at concerts, gigs, opera, the Proms – it’s remarkable just how remarkable it is to hear of a minister attending cultural events. And Let’s not forget that Kier Starmer himself studied flute at Junior Guildhall and made it clear he believes every child should have the right to access a music education.

Music is clearly important to these ministers and we need to be in contact with them. Invite them to things, create a dialogue, and do it now. The learning, health, and economic benefits of the arts need to be laid out clearly and organisations such as the Arts Council need to be fighting on our behalf. This is the first time in decades that we have a loud and supportive group of MP’s who are passionate about the cause, let’s make the most of this opportunity. We can’t afford to be apathetic anymore, we have to start making some noise.

I love brass bands. I love the music, I love the culture, and I want to see bands thriving, back where they belong at the centre of British musical life. But we, within the movement, need to be much more proactive. We cannot take our musical institutions for granted anymore – we have to support them and fight for them. If the past few years have taught us anything it’s that the art sector is fragile, and brass bands are part of that ecosystem.

Much of these changes are structural, and will take time. But there are two things you can all do to help:

Firstly, if you care about the future of music in the UK do not vote Tory at the next election. They have neither the will nor interest to invest in our creative industries. They do not value the arts, or our institutions. This has been made abundantly clear over the past decade. Do not reward their incompetence with your vote.

Secondly, Introduce a new person to brass bands. The next concert you see by Tredegar, Foden’s, Brighouse, Black Dyke, or Cory, take someone new along. I can tell you from experience, they will leave as fans!