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Research finds lack of diversity in new music commissioning

Dave Roberts discusses BASCA’s research project, Equality & Diversity in New Music Commissioning, which you can download here.

New and exclusive research undertaken by BASCA has revealed the extent of the problems surrounding diversity and equality in regard to gender and ethnicity within the realms of composition commissions and classical music education.

Errollyn Wallen

Errollyn Wallen (photo: Martin Godwin)

The research, conducted by Natalie Bleicher (BASCA’s Classical Co-ordinator), involved analysing data on commissioned works that were submitted to the 2015 British Composer Awards. That was a total of 299 compositions, from orchestral works to brass band pieces. (There is no information on how many commissioned works there are in total in the UK on an annual basis, but those submitted to the BCAs represent a significant percentage, and, of course, include many of the most high profile compositions of the year.)

Alongside this analysis, BASCA surveyed seven universities and conservatoires and also collected data from Sound and Music on participants at their Summer School and applicants to their professional development schemes.

The results have thrown up a wealth of brand new data and a fresh insight into exactly who is studying composition, who is qualifying at the highest level, and who is going on to secure the most prestigious commissions. More importantly, BASCA hopes, it has created a foundation on which a more diverse approach to commissioning and education can be built.

Key findings in regard to ethnicity include:

  • 6% of commissioned composers are Black or Minority Ethnic (BAME), compared to 14% amongst the UK population
  • That figure is exacerbated by the fact that just over half the commissioned composers are based in London, which has a BAME population of 30%
  • Applicants to Sound and Music’s professional development schemes were 16% BAME, similar to the profile of the UK population, showing that the low proportion of BAME commissioned composers does not reflect the proportion of those aspiring to professional careers.
  • In the 50 plus range (an age group accounting for 38% of all commissioned works), less than 3% were BAME.

Table: comparison of BAME commissioned composers with the UK population

Comparison of BAME commissioned composers with the UK population


Key findings in regard to gender include:

  • 21% of commissioned composers are female, compared to 51% of the UK population and 36% of all composition students
  • The percentage of women decreases at each level of study – 39% of Bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women, whereas 14% of PhDs are awarded to women.

Table: proportion of male and female composers

Proportion of male and female composers


  • This is not a problem that will just ‘go away’ with the passing of time. The gender imbalance for work commissioned by composers in the 20-29 age group was actually higher than in the 50-59 and 60-69 age groups.

Table: age and gender of commissioned composers


The research arrives in the middle of a year in which the issue of diversity has already struck at the heart of the Oscars and BRITs. Criticisms were raised at the lack of etchnic diversity and this has prompted the respective organising bodies to re-examine their nomination and voting procedures. They have been prompted into doing something to try and ensure diversity, not just sit back and hope it emerges in the final shake-up. Because, surely, if diversity is lacking throughout the industries being judged, and amongst the gatekeepers doing that judging, then diversity, whilst perhaps not being actively, maliciously or even consciously stifled, will nevertheless still not just organically emerge.

Classical music has its own issues in regards to diversity of ethnicity and gender.

In 2003, for instance, the winners of all 13 categories at the British Composer Awards were male – and 12 were white. (In 2014 five were female, all were white; in 2015 two were female, all were white).

To some, this will not come as much of a surprise, since most of the core repertoire of classical music is by dead, white males. So the gender/ethnicity balance is set in stone, and it comes with an  acceptance that that’s okay, or at least that it’s difficult to change, that maybe there isn’t the will to change.

Raymond Yiu at the premiere of his work Symphony at the 2015 Proms (photography: Roger Thomas)

Raymond Yiu at the premiere of his work Symphony at the 2015 Proms
(photography: Roger Thomas)

The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA), however, believes that accepting the stasis is not the way forward – has nothing to do with the word ‘forward’, in fact – and its new research is simply part of an overarching goal of helping and encouraging the classical music sector and the composition commissioning process to better reflect the diversity of a modern Britain and of the mix of people who either are studying or want to study classical music and/or train to be a composer.

It is also part of a growing awareness of the issues and a willingness to campaign around them. Last year, for instance, a 17 year-old student, Jess McCabe, noticed that Edexcel’s A-level music syllabus featured 63 male composers and not one female.

Despite initial resistance from the exam board, she launched a Change.org petition that attracted over 4,000 signatures, and wrote to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan. This year, five female composers will be covered at A-level.

One of Edexcel’s initial arguments against McCabe’s suggestion was that “female composers were not prominent in the western classical tradition” and so “there are very few that could be included”.

This is a point examined in a new book called Sounds and Sweet Airs by Mary Beer, which looks at why female composers and their legacy are routinely written out of the history of classical music.

BASCA CEO Vick Bain explains that whilst this combination of direct action and cultural commentary does seem to be finally ramping up, her concerns have been building for a while: “It is something we have long suspected is an issue. I first conducted equality and diversity research into the music industry back in 2011, when most people were still in denial, and then, when Natalie conducted further research in this area in 2013, she found that most commissioners did not have an equality and diversity policy, which was a strong indication that this was not being monitored or taken seriously.”

That’s an accusation that might still carry some weight, but BASCA is determined to move the conversation on, starting by attempting, through this new research, to gauge the extent and nature of the problem.

To start at the beginning (of careers, at least), it is clear that there is a lack of ethnic diversity amongst students of composition – although you have to look a little closely to see the extent of the problem. Of the 282 qualifications awarded in 2004, 2009 and 2014, 80% were to white students and 20% to BAME students. But, 20% of the qualifications were to overseas students. When we look solely at qualifications attained by students where both ethnicity and home/overseas status is known, 92% are white.

Participants at the Sound and Music Summer School for 13-18 year olds, however, were actually more ethnically diverse than the overall UK population, with 80% white and 20% BAME, whilst applicants for their professional development programme showed 16% BAME – again, above the UK population percentage.

This is obviously encouraging, but also highlights that it is not a lack of desire or ambition amongst BAME students that can account for far lower percentages further up the educational ladder.

The numbers also touch on the crucial grassroots issue of classical music education in schools. It is well documented that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds and black and minority ethnic children are under-represented in music education for a variety of factors. Cost is one, of course, of instruments and tuition, but Anna Bull in her 2014 essay for DiscoverSociety.org, Reproducing Class? Classical Music Education and Inequality talked of “a congruence or ‘fit’ between ways of learning classical music and middle class culture”.

Back within the boundaries of BASCA’s research, it is clear that whilst women accounting for 36% of all graduates in composition would suggest there’s only a short journey to equality at this level of education, there is a striking drop-off when it came to the level of qualifications offered: 39% of undergraduates were female, 31% of postgraduates and only 14% of PhDs.

It is a similar, only worse, scenario in the professional environment. 21% of all commissioned works are by women, but they are far more likely to be asked to produce works of sonic art or for amateur, youth or community work than for orchestra works, jazz or works for wind or brass bands. 7% off all commissioned orchestral works were by women; precisely 0% of all wind or brass band words were by women.

Kirsty Devaney leading a composition workshop (photography: LAITO)

Kirsty Devaney leading
a composition workshop
(photography: LAITO)

Bain comments: “39% of BA composition students are female, but only 21% of commissions go to women; it is even lower for orchestral commissions – only 7%. And then 39% of our British Composer Award winners have PhDs, so there is a clear correlation between high achievement and excellence in composition and advanced education. With only 14% of PhD composition students being female, we need to find out why that is and support and encourage more women to continue their higher education.”

The research also throws considerable doubt on the assumption that this is a ‘generational’ issue, that the problem with gender equality is an historical one that will be swept away by a wave of right-thinking modernity.

In fact, looking at commissioned work in reference to both age and gender, the percentage of female composers in the 20-29 range was lower than in either the 50-59 and 60-69 ranges.

Again, the temptation to think that equality will ‘just happen’, or emerge as a by-product of society being more enlightened and more diverse is, in BASCA’s view, to be resisted. Instead, it is a process to be kick-started, pushed forward and championed, by research, discussion, education and campaigning.

And these things need to happen simultaneously. There is enough research to categorically state that there is a problem, but there is not enough research to properly and accurately map the problem. There needs to be more research involving more educational establishments, from schools to conservatoires, and an even wider spread of commissioners and commissioned works. That research should also cover areas such as social class and disability.

There also needs to be an examination of diversity amongst those doing the commissioning, and a look at the process of commissioning. This process might, in fact, be a big part of the problem. BASCA’s 2013 research into commissioning revealed that just 5% of commissions are the result of a competitive or tender process and 70% of commissioners have no equality or diversity policy. It means that personal contacts and informal network play a crucial part in winning commissions and this could be an inherent barrier to diversity. In her 2015 report for The Sociological Review, Christina Scharff states that a reliance on networking disadvantaged women as well as working-class and black or minority ethnic workers.

Commissioners need to be made aware that the current demographics of commissioned composers do not reflect the demographics of those with the talent and ambition to compose professionally.

Bain is keen for BASCA and the classical music community as a whole, especially in the area of commissioning, to continue to push the equality and diversity agenda: “The conversation is really just starting. We are planning a Diversity in Composition day with BBC Radio 3 in October, focussing on BAME composers and there will be more work with the Association of British Orchestras next year. We also need to gather more data in these and other areas –social class is a biggie as it’s intrinsically linked to education and culture, but is much more difficult to uncover. I’d love us to do more work in that area.”

Finally, in the spirit of leading by example, BASCA has already taken steps to encourage more diversity in the British Composer Awards. It has adjusted the demographics of the judging panel so that in 2015 50% were female and a significant percentage were from black or minority ethnic backgrounds. It also introduced an online entry system through which demographic data on the entrants can be gathered, the results of which are published in the research project. In 2016, for the first time composers will be able to nominate themselves rather than ask a peer to do it on their behalf, a process that is reliant on a mixture of networking and overt self-promotion that is at odds with a desire to garner the widest spread of entries. Also, for the first time, in most categories, the entrants will be judged anonymously, reducing the possibility of unconscious bias.

You can find the full report here