How Do We Make Our Music Economy Richer? Treat Music Like Sports

In the Faroe Islands, a remote nation of 50,000 people in the north Atlantic, every village and settlement has a football pitch. The pitches are pristine, regardless of the size of settlement, whether it is a suburb of the capital, Torshavn, or a village of 200 people. While having professional infrastructure to train supports wider player development, it does not guarantee that more players who take to the field will succeed professionally. In 2021, there were 14 Faroese nationals playing professionally. In another assessment, less than 1% of players, on average, will ever be remunerated for playing. But that return on investment, where better infrastructure leads to more players, is not the sole justification for having these pitches everywhere. Access to the best facilities possible is about more than developing profitable talent. A simple right to play and a desire to provide the best facilities to do so take precedent.

The Faroe Islands also boasts a world class music school in the capital, Torshavn. At the same time kids are kicking balls into nets, many are also experimenting with singing, playing an instrument or dancing. But unlike sport, students have to get to the music school from across the Faroe’s islands. There are no other branches in the country.

Sport and music share many similarities. Superstars are lauded, treated as icons and role models and celebrated for where they from and where they are going. Competitive football matches and large music concerts are sought after and bring together a diversity of people to share a single experience, be it supporting a particular team or appreciating an artist. Winning a championship or seeing one’s favourite artist can provide equal euphoria. Attending a Derby, or going to Glastonbury, can be a pilgrimage for the diehards.

Playing in an ensemble is much like being on a sports team. It requires playing one’s part, following specifically agreed rules, listening to teammates and reacting to what is around you. Music, like sports, is accessible to anyone who wishes to engage. There are few barriers to entry at its most basic level. Yet, access to sport is built into how we think about and develop people and places. Schools prioritise STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) over STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths, without the arts), including physical activity, due to its agreed benefits, is never questioned. There is an acceptance that sporting facilities are a necessity for everyone, regardless of how often or rarely they are used.

Cities, places and neighbourhoods are designed, planned and constructed to accommodate sport. Playgrounds, football pitches or other sporting grounds are built close to residential developments to encourage play. On the professional end, massive facilities are built to house teams that may only use the site a dozen times a year, such as with American football which plays 8 home games per season not including the playoffs should the home team make it that far. Most schools have a sporting ground of some sort. Physical education, which involves trialling numerous sports as one matures is part of most curricula. Equipment is provided, from basketball hoops to footballs to facilitate engagement. And while a miniscule number of those who engage with sports ever pursue it professionally, that does not matter. What matters is the opportunity given to play and access to facilities to do so.

In contrast to sport, music is bolted on, rather than built into communities. Homes are often built acoustically without recognition of the neighbours, and in many cases, as with higher density apartments in town centres, the neighbour can be a music venue or bar and such close proximity leads to noise, annoyance and conflict. Engaging in live music, be it as a performer or fan, often requires travel. We centralise music and other forms of culture into districts in one particular part of town rather than spread it across the wider urban development. Music in schools is often restricted to what instrument is available or the genres being taught or the ability to pay for private lessons. Like sport, very few that engage with music will ever succeed professionally. But unlike access to sport where great success is also unlikely, this reality is often presented as a reason to not invest in music, as if every one who picks up an instrument must pursue it professionally and provide a ‘return on investment’.

The U.K. does not have a national music strategy outside of in school music education. One was initiated before the pandemic but was stopped when staffers at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) were reassigned to administer relief programs. Neither does the Faroe Islands. Both countries have robust sport strategies, funding packages and in the UK, a lottery to fund access to sport. Some music education in the U.K funding has been cut by 50% over the last year, while sport funding continues to increase. For every football superstar, there are tens of thousands of kids who play grow up with a passion for the sport, but never pursue it professionally. For every Harry Styles, there are a similar number of people who see music the same way, incorporating it into their lives with the understanding that there will never be any professional aspirations fulfilled. But the amount of resources dedicated to finding and developing the next Marcus Rashford is far greater than finding and developing the next Ed Sheeran.

Like Marcus Rashford, Ed Sheeran started on a pitch; in his case, it was a busking pitch. However, these pitches, despite their value to our economic and social development, are few and far between. Changing this, treating music like we do sport, is sound investment. The plan is there, demonstrated through every football pitch, in every community. Just look at the Faroes for inspiration.

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