In 2012, I embarked on a study of the classical music profession in the UK and Germany. I was interested in learning what it is like to work as a musician, the ups and downs of the profession, and how musicians deal with the often precarious nature of their work. Another issue that I wanted to shed light on was the lack of diversity in the classical music industry. When attending concerts, I often asked myself: where are the female conductors or section leaders? When am I going to listen to music composed by a woman? And, why are members of orchestras overwhelmingly white, even in a diverse city such as London?

As part of my research, I conducted over 60 in-depth interviews with early-career female musicians in Berlin and London. I spoke to a range of instrumentalists, singers, composers, and conductors. During our conversations, we covered topics ranging from education and training to the growing sense that musicians are increasingly expected to become entrepreneurial and plan their artistic careers as if they were businesses.

In discussing these issues, I also asked the participants about inequalities in the classical music profession. However, I frequently sensed that they felt uncomfortable discussing topics that related to the under-representation of ethnic minorities, women, and people from a working-class background. When I asked questions about these issues, the atmosphere in the room seemed to grow tense. Sometimes they looked away, or there was a longer, uncomfortable silence. I repeatedly felt like I had crossed a boundary by inquiring about inequalities. This surprised me, as the interviews covered other matters that could be perceived as much more personal, such as the research participants’ financial struggles. However, the issue of inequalities seemed to make them feel most uneasy.

Specifically, they felt uncomfortable discussing how these issues related to their own professional lives. Instead of sharing stories about the ways in which their ethnic or class backgrounds or genders had affected their careers, the research participants emphasized that they had never experienced any form of discrimination. Many felt that it did not matter whether you were male or female, from a minority ethnic background or white, or more or less privileged socio-economically. Does this mean, then, that inequalities do not exist in classical music?

Sadly, statistics show that the classical music profession is marked by a range of inequalities relating to female, ethnic-minority, and working-class musicians being under-represented; horizontal and vertical segregation; and the sexualization of female players. I wrote a detailed report on these issues called “Equality and Diversity in the classical music profession” for King’s College in London and will not reiterate all the facts here. But I want to provide some figures from the UK:

  • Children from middle-class backgrounds are over-represented in classical music education.
  • This is not just an issue of affordability as is often claimed. Research on class and youth music education in England has shown that middle-class people fit in more comfortably to the world of classical music because of the social scene and the continuity between home and school culture, in addition to the type of long-term financial investment required to learn classical music.
  • Though women currently make up around half of the student population, they remain under-represented in the profession. The gender profile of the artistic staff across the Arts Council England’s 2012-2015 National Portfolio Organisations is 38.5 percent female and 61.5 percent male in music. In comparison to other sectors, music has the lowest representation of women, with the grand total of all sectors being 53.1 percent men and 46.9 percent women.
  • Women are particularly under-represented in composition and conducting. The female membership of the Performing Rights Society For Music was 14 percent in 2014. Women in Music has surveyed women’s participation in the BBC Proms, arguably the world’s most prominent classical music festival. According to this survey, 1 out of 103 composers were female in 1992; in 2014, the number of female composers had increased to 8 out of 124. With regards to conducting, the same report showed that 1 out of 50 conductors was a woman at the 1992 BBC Proms; in 2014, 4 out of 62 were female. In our survey of British orchestras in 2014, women only made up 1.4 percent of conductors and 2.9 percent of artistic or musical directors. And while women represented 43.2 percent of players in orchestras in 2014, only 26.8 percent were principals.
  • In our study of the membership of British orchestras, it was possible to collect data on the ethnic backgrounds of the members of 17 orchestras. Of 629 orchestra players, only 11 (1.7 percent) could be identified to be from a black or minority ethnic background, which suggests that the number of black and minority ethnic background musicians across this industry is low.
  • Our research shows that the representation of black and minority ethnic staff is also low at conservatoires. Out of 1787 staff, we could identify the ethnic background of 1345. 28 staff, or around 2 percent, were from a black and minority ethnic background.

In light of these statistics, I was intrigued to find that many research participants felt that gender inequalities were not an issue: Daniella (all names are pseudonyms) told me she had never thought that “I am in a bad position because I am a woman or something. I never felt that.” Equally, Julianna stated, “In my career, I never had any bad feelings about being a woman. Only good.” Astrid echoed these sentiments by saying that “she has never had a problem” as a woman and Angela said: “I have never had the feeling, or I don’t know that it played a role that I’m a woman…I have not noticed it.” In a similar vein, Carolyn claimed that being female “is not actually something I’ve ever been bothered about. I don’t really think it’s important in any way. I don’t think it makes my career stronger or weaker. It doesn’t seem to impact [it].”

Participants also said that their racial backgrounds did not impact their working lives. Hope told me, “There are few Asians and Indians and others working professionally. I don’t think—I don’t think I’ve ever felt I’ve not got work—particularly with orchestras—because I am different. I have never felt that there is any sort of racism issue.”

Faith said, “If we were to talk about equality or anything like that, I would say I wouldn’t have—even if it has had an effect on me, I haven’t realized. I haven’t actually had a conscious realization that being Asian, small, or female has had any supposedly negative impact on me.”

How can we make sense of the persistence of inequalities on the one hand, and the research participants’ claims that they have not been affected on the other? Had most of them been lucky enough to never experience any form of discrimination? Or were they too early in their careers (usually within the first five years after graduation) to have noticed? I don’t think that any of these possibilities quite explains the situation, because research participants shared instances that could be described as sexism or racism at different stages in the interviews. Crucially, these experiences were not framed in terms of inequalities. Instead, they were often portrayed as “simply” being a part of working in the profession. For example, 10 out of 64 research participants shared stories of sexual harassment. When telling me about one such instance involving her teacher at conservatory, Gesche said, “It wasn’t a big deal, but it just went too far. He sent me text messages at night and then I went to the director and yes, this is how it sorted itself out. And now I’m a bit careful, but…I mean I think that this happens to everybody.”

Gesche presents sexual harassment as something that “wasn’t a big deal” and is almost normal. She does not look at sexual harassment as an instance of on-going gender inequalities where, for example, many conservatory teachers are male (around 70 percent in the UK currently) and therefore more likely to be in a position of power. Instead, she gives it a gender-neutral gloss by saying that it “happens to everybody.” As Gesche’s quote illustrates, the research participants shared personal experiences of inequalities, but they were not discussed as symptomatic of larger structural issues.

In a recent paper, Rosalind Gill has talked about the ways in which inequalities in the cultural sector have become increasingly “unspeakable.” They are present, and yet often remain unacknowledged or obscured. This has to do with a wider cultural phenomenon where success and failure tend to be attributed to individuals alone, with little open discussion of social forces that shape artists’ working lives and careers. Indeed, success is often said to derive from self-application, talent, and merit, unrelated to privilege and status. Failure is also often blamed on individuals, rather than seen in the wider context in which we all operate; a context that, as I have shown above, continues to be shaped by systematic inequalities.

Why does it matter whether musicians openly talk about inequalities or not? First, unspeakability makes it more difficult to detect, contest, and challenge them, further contributing to their perpetuation. Insistence that inequalities do not have an effect on one’s working life makes it more difficult to contest them. Second, we live in a society that puts great emphasis on individual achievement. The emphasis on the individual leaves out social forces such as these wider inequalities. Gender, ethnic, and class background do affect musicians’ ability to access the sector and to succeed.

To be sure, there are individual success stories, and musicians’ backgrounds alone do not determine the success of their careers. But the evidence shows that there are wider patterns related to the under-representation of musicians from working-class or black and minority-ethnic backgrounds, and the lack of women in positions of authority and prestige. When these patterns remain unspeakable, challenges stemming from them are often regarded as individual problems, adding to the emotional difficulties that many musicians experience.

Alongside other measures, such as data collection and blind auditions, we have to speak up about these inequalities, making them visible by documenting them and tracing how they affect individual working lives. They are not trivial issues; the makers of culture shape how we understand ourselves as a society. If certain groups are under-represented, their views and perspectives may not be seen, heard, or shared. This also means that classical music may only appeal to the segment of society that reflects its creators, impeding further growth, particularly when it comes to recruiting future audiences and retaining a skilled workforce. There are many good reasons to talk about inequalities. Let’s get started. ¶