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> > > > Attitude is Everything: the rise of access for disabled music lovers and musicians

12 November 2014

​In 2000 Suzanne Bull MBE set up Attitude is Everything (AiE) to challenge the UK music industry to improve access for Deaf and disabled customers. Fourteen years on the organisation has had a lot of success in persuading venues and festivals that there are advantages to be found in raising their game when it comes to access provision. Colin Hambrook recently talked to Suzanne about AiE’s beginnings and where the organisation is heading.

a group of attitude is everything staff and board members posing in front of the camera

The Attitude is Everything Team Board of Trustees and Staff at the State of Access Report 2014 at The Roundhouse

In 2013/14 alone, AiE have assisted over 362 organisations to improve their access. Currently 93 venues and festivals throughout the UK have signed up to the AiE Charter of Best Practice.

Much of this success is down to Suzanne’s infectious warmth and general positivity and the committed, talented team she has gathered around her.

When I began at Attitude is Everything, alone in a small office with a desk, a computer and a phone, I knocked on a lot of music industry doors and it took a lot of convincing that there was a new customer base out there.  I’d been a customer at Reading Festival for a very long time and the core team there knew me quite well. Melvyn Ben suggested I start a stewarding project and information tent in the accessible camping site. Then when Festival Republic moved on to doing operations for Glastonbury Festival, Melvyn took our relationship with him to Glastonbury.

Within a few years, there were some demonstrable successes with a leap in numbers of disabled customers attending Glastonbury and Reading, and suddenly the music industry started contacting us – I say “us”, as Attitude is Everything had quickly become a team.  There was a notable difference in attitude - now the music industry expected Deaf and disabled people to be part of the audience, and they wanted our help in meeting their customers’ access requirements.

I’m also delighted to say that expectations in accessibility are rising, and the Deaf and disabled community are rightly, expecting higher standards across the board.

photo of a young wheelchair-user in a hi-viz jacket smiling at the camera next to an attitude is everything stall

Naomi McCadam at Reading Festival 2012’s AIE information tent

Forging partnerships
You have to understand how the music industry works. And the reality is that it works on how much money the promoters are going to make at the end of the day. With a general ethos to work positively and to come up with solutions we’ve managed to forge partnerships between deaf and disabled people and the industry. And that’s been the key to our success.

It’s about being supportive and when things go wrong, talking through ways of resolving things, rather than assaulting people with complaints. Aside from the fact that people just close their minds and there are a lot of fragile egos in the business, if they see you are being supportive and that there is a way they can get help, in the end, they do follow best practice.

On festivals sites people are often working 15 hours a day and although no-one sets out to deliberately discriminate, site staff get worried when things go wrong. They often don’t know who to ask, or even what questions to ask and get embarrassed. Our approach has been to say that there is no such thing as a silly question and to think realistically about the budgets that venues and festivals are working with.

The Charter of Best Practice
Giving a structure and a defined method of problem-solving, i.e. the Charter, has really helped. Overall it has been a great tool to use to show the music industry how easily access can be implemented and it’s not just been about physical access; our guidance covers a variety of impairments, argues the case for creative access support e.g. from Vocaleyes or Stagetext.  It’s given disabled people a network of venues and festivals that they can trust.  And it has put our organisation and access to live music on the agenda.

Proving the business case to the music industry has been a very important key to getting organisations to sign up to the Charter. The State of Access Report 2014 showed that there is a strong business case for improving access, and the customer base of Deaf and disabled people is growing year-on-year.  

For example, over the past five years, Festival Republic has made significant improvements in order to make Reading Festival more accessible. They’ve introduced additional viewing platforms, placing wheelchair-charging points on the viewing platforms themselves and they’ve facilitated disabled people being able to enjoy the festival with all of their friends by introducing interchangeable Personal Assistant lanyards. 

These changes have been part of a trend which has seen Reading Festival enjoy a 286% increase in accessible tickets sold over a five year period – selling £115,000 worth of tickets in 2013, up from £40,000 in 2009. Once you take into account food and drink expenditure, the total economic impact of making Reading Festival more accessible leapt from £70,000 in 2009, to £187,000 last year.

This proves that there is a demand, and that if the right facilities, policies and information are in place, live music is opened up to the 11 million disabled people living in the UK.

photo of three members of the band Spaceships are Cool playing live wearing orange jumpsuits

'Spaceships Are Cool' playing live at the State of Access Report 2011 launch at the House of Commons

Access to the industry for disabled musicians
The Silver criteria of the Charter of Best Practice highlights access provision backstage and to performance areas. By successfully putting access on the agenda we’ve changed things for disabled musicians. By hosting Club Attitude, we’ve brought all sorts of artists together on one bill and have brought a lot of artists to the industry’s attention. 

Of all the bands who’ve come out of Club Attitude, Mystery Jets have probably been the most successful. However, we’ve also supported Carousel with PKN / Zombie Crash tour.  At Club Attitude, we also invite a guest list of bookers, artist management, etc from the industry so we take disabled artists to them.  

Many artists have backed having their lyrics interpreted by Sign Language Interpreters and have gone on to use the interpreters in videos and at other events.

I think #MusicWithoutBarriers was a big boost to disabled musicians when they saw all sorts of artists backing the campaign; the biggest and probably the most influential message was from Stevie Wonder who said the responsibility belongs to all of us to change the status quo.

Disabled musicians have also found it easier to speak out about their experiences; Blaine Harrison (Mystery Jets) and Rob Maddison (Spaceships are Cool) have both written in the mainstream press about being physically impaired and the challenges that brings. Notably, Maddison talked to the Huffington Post and Harrison to The Metro about the importance of Attitude Is Everything. 

I would also say that UK and international artists have been heavily promoted – Amadou and Mariam, Staff Benda Bilili have become very well-known. Thanks to technology, artists can self-release and not worry about all that ‘image’ stuff now!  They have a more direct relationship with their fan base. In addition these changes have had a knock-on effect of encouraging organisations to think more clearly about their access provision.

The Way Forward
I think generally disabled people are much less invisible now than they were years ago. Our challenge for the future is to put more time and energy working with excluded young people. 

Our aim is to find ways of supporting young disabled people to gain confidence and skills to engage with their local music scene. As part of that process we are also looking at what we can do to make music education hubs more inclusive and accessible.

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