Vinyl for sale at a record fair. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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In music today, it’s all or nothing – rich at the top or languishing forlornly at the bottom

Would I want my children to go into music? I do have to wonder, just as my parents wondered.

When he was little, our youngest asked me one day, “Mum, how much do you have to pay to be a fireman?” He was astonished to discover that it was the other way round – that when you’re a grown-up, people would pay you to do things like drive around on a bright-red fire engine, all flashing lights and clanging alarm bells.

Even after he’d grasped the basic principle, he would still check up on it from time to time, referring to different jobs. “Do they pay you to do THAT, as well? ...And that?” Adulthood seemed to him some brilliant dreamworld where you spent all day in a uniform being allowed to do fun things and then were given money for sweets.

I worry, of course, that the real world will disappoint him horribly, not only because most jobs aren’t as much fun as he thought but because by the time he comes to do one, his original assumption – that you have to pay to work – will be true. According to a recent article in the Guardian, “On average, people completed seven placements before getting a job”; another feature described existing internships in the US that do actually cost money. In the world of creative work, it has almost become the norm to be asked to work for nothing. Or, sorry, not for nothing, but for profile, the idea being that you will appear here, or write this, or sing that for nothing, on a path to some mythical destination where your work once again has monetary value.

It’s commonplace to state that in the music business no one can earn a living any more because of piracy, Spotify and cheap digital downloads. However many cheerful pieces we read about the vinyl revival, it seems unlikely that it’s going to make anyone rich any time soon. These complaints must puzzle those who note the continuing presence of pop stars who seem to be doing very nicely, thank you – the Kanyes and the Coldplays, the Sheerans and the Adeles, who all seem to sell plenty and earn plenty. To anyone on a minimum-wage or zero-hours contract, it must grate to keep hearing pop celebs bemoaning their income stream.

The point is that while music is as lucrative as ever for those at the top, what’s diminished, as in so many jobs, is the comfortable middle, where once upon a time musicians who never quite hit the big time could nonetheless make their living: not super-rich, but doing fine and enjoying a certain stability. In essence, the middle class, with long careers, funded by record companies to make numerous albums even if none were million-sellers. What we are left with now is a kind of all or nothing, in which you either scale the dizzy heights or languish forlornly at the bottom.

So when people ask me, “Do you want your children to go into music?” I do have to wonder, just as my own parents wondered. I’d been the first ever in our family to go to university and when instead of heading for a respectable job in teaching or journalism I formed a band, they were understandably anxious. It looked like I was throwing away the kind of security they could only have dreamed of and passing up opportunities that seemed golden to those who had left school at 15 with not much in the way of qualifications or prospects.

It turned out better than OK and so Ben and I will at least be able to help our kids while they find their own way. We’ll encourage them whatever they choose and discourage too rose-tinted a view of creative work. For Take Your Kids To Work Day, so far we’ve arranged for them a stint at Ben’s Buzzin’ Fly Records offices, putting CDs in Jiffy bags and taking 12-inch dance records down to the post office, a spell behind the counter at a Rough Trade shop and a morning learning how to mike up a drum kit.

But who knows where they’ll end up? One has already veered off into science, doing a week’s work experience in a lab, as thrilled and inspired by test tubes as I was at her age by seven-inch singles. What we wish most for them, like all parents, is to find something they would pay to do and then be fortunate enough to be paid for it.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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