How music can still bring us together, in Birmingham and beyond

Since its inauguration in Paris on 21 June, 1982, World Music Day has been celebrated annually, spreading to 120 countries and literally millions of musicians.

Conceived by the French Ministry of Culture as a musical celebration in which people, communities and musicians would play and experience music in public places and spaces on the longest day of the year, at its core was the celebration of music’s role in bringing people together.

The University of Birmingham Brass Band

This year’s World Music Day, however, takes place against a very different backdrop. Enforced isolation has certainly affected music’s power to provide experiential soundtracks to our lives; only a few decades ago, silence would have reigned. Via the internet, though, most of us who play, sing or direct music have found outlets for our creativity, and, through it, musical collaborations literally around the world. Our University’s student musicians have shown energy and resilience in putting together performances expanding offerings already posted by professional performers denied the opportunity to perform in our series of concerts. Check them out here, on University Music’s YouTube channel:; and here on the Barber Concerts Twitter feed.

As elsewhere, though, the longer view here in Birmingham is that the music sector is facing a crisis. The twin attacks of Covid-19 and Brexit threaten arts organisations existentially: theatres, concert halls and many other venues are teetering on the edge of financial ruin. At the same time, on the other hand, #BlackLivesMatter is forcing the industry to recognise that major changes are needed throughout the sector to ensure that a more equitable and representative music industry emerges both front and back of stage.

In addressing the huge infrastructural issues the #BlackLivesMatter campaign has raised, it is clear to anyone with even a passing interest that what we consider to be ‘popular music’ is almost exclusively music of black origin and yet, as in other sections of society, this is rarely recognised, taught about or reflected in the organisational structures of the companies that continue to generate huge wealth from the music industry. As we contemplate the end of lockdown, World Music Day seems the right moment to urge that we begin a shift towards greater support of black artists and black-led music organisations. A great start is to follow and implement the Black Music Coalition’s five calls to action to the UK music industry: 

Covid-19 has devastated communities all over the world. Here in the UK, as restrictions are eased, the Creative and Cultural sector is facing a crisis that could result in huge losses in jobs, revenues and cultural activity. For the music sector, musicians, freelance music workers (sound engineers, roadies, riggers, PR, lighting, rehearsal studios and so on) are under threat, in addition to the venues that sustain them. The campaigning organisation Music Venue Trust has identified 400 venues that are at imminent risk of closing permanently, including a number in the West Midlands, with the Association of Independent Festivals affirming that independent festivals are on the brink of collapse.

Taken as a whole, it is estimated that the live music sector in the UK will lose up to £900m in revenue this year. Since live music has become more central to musicians’ revenues over the last few years as the market value of recordings has diminished with the shift to online sales, these deficits will be felt all the harder. Hence the loss of live music severely impacts musicians’ ability to make money, threatening their livelihoods to the point of forcing many to look elsewhere for work; an already precarious situation has suddenly become critical. So to mark World Music Day, please, everyone who enjoys music, of whatever stripe, search out local music makers and buy some locally produced music, whether this be via streaming events from local concert halls and other venues, from artists’ web pages or via resources like Bandcamp. Whatever support we can give will be hugely appreciated and could just help keep arts organisations afloat and the music playing.

Further challenges are posed by Brexit. Whilst the exact terms of the UK’s exit are still being negotiated, there are grave concerns about the effect it will have on the music sector. Touring in Europe will become more difficult as a result of the huge increase in paperwork and associated costs, a reduced pool of experienced workers, disruption of just-in-time supply chains and the lack of warehouse storage. Additional threats to the live music sector are posed by a reduction of music tourism, with international acts bypassing the UK as their gateway to Europe due to increased costs, paperwork and time in processing (or not) visa applications.

So on World Music Day, please take time to read the Birmingham Live Music & Brexit report, written by a team of researchers from universities in Birmingham and Newcastle on the Birmingham Live Music Project and get involved by adding research data to their Birmingham Live Music Map.

As we celebrate World Music Day, let us pause to reflect that the very thing we are celebrating and hold dear is also under threat. Whilst we might not be able to change the world, we can affect our local community. So this year, mark World Music Day by supporting the incredible local music culture here in Birmingham in whatever way you can.

by Jez Collins (Birmingham Music Archive) and Professor Andrew Kirkman (Department of Music)