The whiter-than-white world of published British composers, and some wider thoughts

Following my last post on the British Composer Awards and race, I thought I would investigate figures for published British composers. For this I have drawn upon the catalogues of all but one of the major British publishers – Boosey & Hawkes, Faber Music, Music Sales, Peters Edition, United Music Publishers, Universal Edition and University of York Music Press. Reasons of time have meant I had to omit Schott Music for now, as their website does not separate out contemporary composers from everyone else from any era, whether composer or author, who has composed a work, authored an instrumental tutor, played a part in making an arrangement, and so on, producing a list with many hundreds of names through which to navigate. I have limited this study to living British composers – in the sense of being British-born or having adopted British nationality. I have also omitted composers who have only had the odd work published, the majority of their work being self-published. The following results emerge:

Boosey & Hawkes
10 living British composers, all white

Faber Music
There are five sub-categories:
House Composers: 14 living British composers, all white
Educational Composers: 16 living British composers, 15 white.
Film/TV Composers: 15 living British composers, 14 white.
Music for Now: 13 living British composers, all white
Rock & Pop Composers: 5 living British composers and two outfits, all white.

Music Sales
32 living British composers, 30 white.

Peters Edition
9 living British composers, 8 white.

United Music Publishers
9 living British composers, all white

Universal Edition
3 living British composers, all white (they have published some others in the past, who have now withdrawn their scores)

University of York Music Press
25 living British composers, 24 white.

Out of a total of 151 published living British composers, all but six are white. This constitutes a figure of 4%. Of those six, two are educational or film/TV composers. Only three British-born composers who are not of white origin are published. This constitutes a figure of 2%. According to the 2011 census, 12.9% of the British population do not belong to the ‘White’ category, so the ratio for published composers falls very significantly below that in the wider society.

I would not wish to single out publishers for particular censure, but would argue these figures are symptomatic of a deeper issue. From an informal survey to myself of published composers in other European countries, the situation is little different there, including in countries with significant ethnic minority populations. The world of contemporary composition (including, it would seem, more commercially-oriented composition) appears to be one of the ‘whitest’ fields around, certainly compared to some other artistic disciplines (compare published novelists, for example).

An argument I have already begun to hear since my last post is that which maintains that there is really little interest in contemporary composition outside of white communities (except perhaps amongst some East Asians) and so the current situation is merely reflecting the reality. But this is not so far from similar arguments relating to gender, based upon the fact that composition courses are frequently disproportionately male as well (certainly compared to courses in performance). That argument was the basis for complacency with respect to gender, and it is just as complacent with respect to race (and class, about which it is harder to come up with hard figures, but where I suspect the situation might be equally if not more problematic, and more so today than at a time when composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies or Brian Ferneyhough were able to make a career).

In university music departments at which I have taught or guest-taught, there can (sometimes) be an ethnic mix not so far removed from that in the wider society, and on many courses students are required to study at least some composition. It should at least be reason for concern and questioning that such a tiny number of these ever emerge into the professional composition world. In other fields, there might be concrete action involving educational programmes to try and persuade some young people from minority backgrounds that such fields should not be perceived as essentially for whites-only, just as there have been initiatives to encourage women composers.

Furthermore, the fact that commissioning and programming policies, and principles of public subsidy in general, vastly favour musical work clearly located within white European art music traditions (as witnessed in terms of musical style, instruments used, type of concert settings employed and associated rituals, and so on) also serve to lend music traditionally belonging to the white middle- or upper classes a level of state-sanctioned prestige which is not generally available to other traditions to anything like the same degree. Something of this issue informed the petitions and counter-petitions about the commissioning policies of the organisation Sound and Music which took place in early 2012 (see this link for the original petition (speaking disapprovingly of how SaM ‘has pledged to
continue promoting ‘Electronic and Improvised; Noise and Art Rock; Notated and Modern Composition; Sonic Art; Multimedia and Cross Art Form; Jazz, World and Folk; and Alternative Rock & Dance’’ and this for the counter-petition).

The very concept of ‘classical music’ (a tradition in which, of course, I am myself as a musician and academic deeply emerged, and would hate to see fade from public life), as distinct from other genres and traditions (the term as used in the West does not generally incorporate other non-Western forms of musical high culture, which are sometimes elsewhere called ‘classical’) needs to be re-considered, and the relationship of new composition to this tradition similarly questioned, at least in terms of aesthetic priorities. In many ways the product of a variety of late eighteenth-/nineteenth-century trends – including nationalism and consequent need to frame national musical traditions, responses towards (and frequently against) the growth of mass culture as a consequence of expanding cities and new lower middle classes, decline in feudal institutions such as had previously supported art music – the concept of the ‘classical’ in music has deep resonances both of class and of race.

For music belonging to or relating to this tradition to continue to be something worth supporting and defending in a modern multicultural world, and it not to decline into something irretrievably archaic, requires in my view that we begin to address seriously the ways in which it has been connected to other forms of social exclusion and discrimination. There is absolutely no reason why musical work considered to be ‘art’ (as opposed to entertainment, for all the problems inherent in this opposition), in terms of being exploratory, challenging, demanding, aesthetically refined or otherwise distinctive, and so on, should be any more associated with Western high cultural traditions than any others – and the frequent conflating of the classical/popular dichotomy onto that of art/entertainment only serves to feed misapprehensions in this respect. But with a widened concept of ‘art music’, inevitably that more traditionally considered ‘classical’ may have to share some subsidy and other resources with work from other traditions – and the targeting of large sums towards traditional concert halls and series, opera houses, and so on, for new commissions, may also have to be rethought. To some extent this may be happening to a small degree (including with organisations such as Sound and Music), and musical education has for a few decades gradually started to catch up with major curricular questions for the discipline in a multicultural environment. But a wholesale re-negotiation of policies concerning subsidy and institutions would likely meet with fierce resistance from defenders of traditional notions of classical music, and probably indeed also from many musicians who personally benefit from the preservations of those values and institutions. I would however personally welcome and urge reconsiderations in this respect.

Once again, it is possible that I may have made a few errors in my data, and would welcome any corrections. I hope at some point to add some figures from Schott to the list for the sake of greater completeness.

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8 Comments on “The whiter-than-white world of published British composers, and some wider thoughts”

  1. Once again, very many thanks for going to the considerable trouble to prepare and present all of this.

    I note that the link to the SAM response to which you draw attention seems no longer to function, so i’m not sure if anything can be done about that.

    You have highlighted a major issue here where the statistics that you have researched and present here speak all to eloquently – and uncomfortably – for themselves.

  2. sarich100 says:

    I’m not sure what your point is, other than to remind us that contemporary concert music is predominantly run by and for white middle classes. As such you would expect publishers’ catalogues to broadly follow in that direction. Much as you might expect a food manufacturer to focus on providing dishes for its main client base.

    Even then I’m not sure you have been very fair to the publishers, when you focus on just British composers. Instead you need to look across a full roster of writers to assess the racial mix of writer-support and investment. So for example I note that Boosey & Hawkes contemporary composers include Chinese, Koreans, Scandinavians, Irish, South-American and a variety of mixed-blood Americans,

    If you want to take this racial theme further, I suggest that a study of radio playlists, Proms programmes and Arts Council grants would provide more relevant data.

    • Ian Pace says:

      Other data sources will be considered. But I am unhappy that you are so dismissive of the near-total non-representation of ethnic minorities within the UK in terms of publishers. Such publishers depend in large measure upon a wider subsidised new music world from which they derive money, and the whole system needs looking at – if it is happy to continue such a ‘whites-only’ culture, then I think that very subsidy should come into question.

      • Agreed. If sarich100’s premise is to be taken at its face value, it surely presumes the need to ask WHY “contemporary concert music is predominantly run by and for white middle classes” and what causes it to be so (rather than merely accept that as some kind of inescapable fact) – and I imagine that it would, as I suggested above, be necessary first to look at education with a view to seeking answers to this.

  3. Mark says:

    How about an investigation into class? the British composer awards are always given to the same clique of people, mostly from the same priviledged background, irrelevant whether black, white or pink, men or women.

    • Ian Pace says:

      Absolutely, absolutely – I suspect (as I mentioned above) that class may be the biggest form of exclusion of all, and the situation may have got worse in this respect in recent decades. However, it is not easy to find a basis for measuring this which can claim a fair degree of objectivity. One factor which I believe is very significant is the number of composers who were privately educated (and thus represent just 7% of the population), but even here it is not easy to find reliable information on all composers’ education. But if this is relevant for the Cabinet, the legal professions, the civil service, and so on, then it is relevant for new music, as an essentially publicly subsidised field.

      • Mark says:

        Unfortunately, the perception that “it is not easy to find a basis for measuring this which can claim a fair degree of objectivity” is used as an excuse throughout academia to skirt on the issue of class. I also suspect this is due to the fact that while it is obvious to any onlooker if someone is black, female, or disabled, it is very hard to tell who is from a working class background; and to many if you can’t see a problem the problem isn’t there. The “private education” thing is a bit of a red herring: I know many a Oxbridge-educated child of very wealthy parents who claim to be from a “working class” background just because they attended a comprehensive school in the North. On the other hand, the profession (a very middle class concept) of the parents of many musicians is often known through their biographies, and is a much better indication of class.

        • Ian Pace says:

          I entirely agree with you about the ways in which class is skirted around – with respect to looking at musicians’ parents occupations, that can be ascertained with the better known ones (about whom more extended biographies have been written) but it is less easy with the wider range. But certainly something to try and investigate (if time-consuming).


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