A music charity for the digital age

Music for Youth chief executive Judith Webster on how her organisation is embracing change and giving more young musicians a voice.

I’m in my 50s, so I remember well my first experience of buying a mobile phone, and of using a computer at work. So too, my first experience of a fax machine – which I thought was truly incredible! I remember a boyfriend telling me in the early ‘90s that one day we would all have our own phone numbers which would travel with us and we wouldn’t use landlines anymore. At the time he had a mobile phone the size of a brick, with an aerial. I thought he was mad.

I run Music for Youth – a music education charity, an arts organisation, a youth music organisation, depending on who I’m talking to. Whichever, our focus is young people and music. So, many years after those conversations about mobile phones and faxes, I constantly find myself trying to imagine what it must be like to be a digital native – to not feel the need to have a large CD collection.

I find it fascinating to observe the way technology has transformed our lives, not only in how we communicate and what we share about ourselves, but in our patterns of behaviour, in our new desires and distractions, in the way our thumbs are evolving to be more flexible on account of the way we now use them. We are living in the future. Sci-fi is our reality.

It is true that the speed of change can be scary, and the advances in technology are at the same time both awe-inspiring and anxiety-provoking. We are only just beginning to realise the impact of our addiction to mobile phones on our well-being. We are thinking differently about the skills young people need for future jobs as technology takes over more of the tasks we are used to doing ourselves.

Music for Youth will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2020 – a milestone and an opportunity to both celebrate the achievements of the past while looking to the future. With this in mind, I have never been more conscious of the need to keep abreast of the changes in our fast-moving world. We simply cannot stand still. To do so is to be left behind. But what does keeping ahead mean in reality?

For Music for Youth, this means developing our methods through a greater understanding of how technology has dramatically changed the way young people access music, how they actively engage with it, how and what they consume.

While the number of young people studying music in school is falling, they have never been more ‘plugged in’ to music – quite literally. They have an unparalleled choice in what they listen to and as Youth Music’s Sound of the Next Generation report found, “genre definitions are becoming redundant as their choice of music is increasingly driven by their mood and state of mind…Context is the new genre.” Young people use technology to create, perform and consume music. They do this independently of organisations and formal education structures. They can, to a degree, direct their own learning and access guidance online as and when they need it.

So, for a charity like Music for Youth, we have to ask fundamental questions about what this means for our work. If we continue to make the same assumptions about what young people want from a live music experience and continue to organise our events in the established model which has served us for nearly 50 years, then we will be missing out on the energy and enthusiasms of the next generation.

For nearly 50 years, Music for Youth has delivered an annual season of events, including regional and national music festivals which showcase young people’s music making. Until a few years ago, we reached the 40,000 young people who take part annually through their teachers While our network is vast, and our relationships with teachers and music providers are warm, we were not fully accessing the voice of the young people themselves.

So in 2014 we developed a new series of events named Frequencies, with a focus on ‘contemporary music’ (urban, electronic, pop, grime etc.) and pathways into the music industry. We changed our systems so that young people could get involved independently of organisations. We spoke to young people through the different channels they use, like promoting registration through social media rather than recruit through teachers. Young people could sign up themselves, submitting tracks online, leading to them having a voice at the events through their music and having open opportunities to collaborate with other young artists and professional musicians. We cut out the middle man and changed the balance of power.

The result is fascinating. When comparing our more traditional festivals to the Frequencies model, we attract a much wider demographic of young people to Frequencies. They are entrepreneurial in spirit, working independently and creating their own music. They have something to say and want it to be heard. Interestingly, rock and pop bands taking part in our established festivals via teachers are much more likely to be playing covers – while the Frequencies cohort are by and large performing original music and using it to talk about issues pertinent to their lives. It is their voice. It is authentic.

There is, of course, a place for both. Music education providers do an essential job in facilitating young people’s music-making across the country. They provide crucial local access, and Music Education Hubs have a responsibility to reach all young people as part of the National Plan for Music Education. However, as a national charity, Music for Youth sits outside of the quagmire of local politics and has a real opportunity to straddle both the worlds with our regular festivals, and Frequencies events. As a national organisation, it is crucial for us to represent the range of music-making that young people are undertaking – whatever and wherever that might be. We offer opportunities for young people to own the stage and have their say. It is no longer enough to think we know what young people want without asking them. Technology gives everyone a voice.

Whatever the priority of a charity, in my view authenticity, relevance and adaptability are crucial to success. If you’re not convinced that your offer is the best it can be, then how can you convince anyone else? To be relevant to your intended ‘audience’ involves talking to them, understanding their mindset, asking questions and really listening to what they say.

As we approach our 50th birthday at Music for Youth, we will be announcing some completely new ventures and launching programmes which offer a different approach to partnership working. We have a large and loyal following, and I know that these changes will be exciting for some, and possibly a shock for others, but we need to engage as many young people as possible. We will continue to deliver some of our best-loved initiatives, which have served our sector so well for so long. But the emphasis must change. We must open new doors so that we can attract those young people for whom our traditional offer is not relevant to their lives. As Somerset Maugham said, “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”

Change is inevitable. We can’t survive without it.