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INTERVIEW: How First Timers Festival is helping to make the UK music scene more diverse

Laura  Barnes
INTERVIEW: How First Timers Festival is helping to make the UK music scene more diverse

The UK has a history of producing fantastic bands that have become household names around the globe.

The Beatles, Oasis, Radiohead, Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Arctic Monkeys, The Who, The Smiths… While these bands are iconic, another similarity they share is that they all fall into the ‘white male’ category of bands.

While the UK music scene is vast and rich in terms of the shear variety of genres, underground scenes and ‘something-for-everyone’ gigs, concerts and club nights, I think we can all admit that there is a severe lack of diversity.

As a female musician myself, I have seen and experienced first hand the attitude that some have to seeing a woman get on stage and get behind an instrument instead of the microphone.
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I think most female musicians will have at least one story about how they were approached by someone after their set that said something along the lines of: “When I saw you were a girl I thought you’d be shit, but actually you were really good.”

I have heard from numerous other women, and from people of various minorities, about either feeling like they’re being judged for picking a certain instrument or playing a certain genre, and others have been discouraged by their family to even start playing an instrument in the first place as it didn’t suit their gender.

I’m not the only one to have noticed the lack of diversity in the UK music scene that runs through all levels – from small gigs in pubs to arenas. A new initiative called First Timers launched in 2013 to encourage more women, people of colour, those with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people to form bands and play gigs in London.

First Timers is back for its third festival on May 6th and 7th at DIY Space for London. It will have a season of workshops in the lead up to the event to help introduce people to new instruments and support those who are playing music for the first time, and will give newly formed bands a platform to perform their first gigs.

MI Pro caught up with one of this year’s organisers, Jaca Freer, to find out more about First Timers 2017 and what the industry should be doing to help young minorities:

Why did you decided to set up First Timers?

First Timers was started in 2013 by DIY punk musician and organiser Bryony Beynon in order to try and demystify music-making for people. There are so many people who would love to play but have been discouraged to because of an elitist atmosphere, uninspiring teachers or being discouraged to play music (especially rock/punk genres) by family and peers while growing up. So, First Timers' aim is to give those people an easy 'in' to learning an instrument and expressing themselves through music.

Music scenes can often be very white and male-centred, as well as rehearsal studios and venues being inaccessible for disabled people, further excluding much more of the population from realising their musical potential. First Timers is here for these people to make their dreams come true!

How has the event grown over the past few years?

First Timers took place again in 2016 but as Bryony moved to Australia at the end of 2016, a new team of volunteers came together to organise this year's season of gigs and workshops. Last year there were 24 bands who performed over the two-day festival in May, and this year we've had 48 band applications! Don't forget that these are all NEW bands with NEW musicians who are stepping into the music world for the first time!

There will also a zine made by first time zinesters and photographers, and a documentary made by new aspiring visual artists who are teaching themselves how to make films. We also want to strongly encourage people in different cities to start their own First Timers festivals, so please get in touch if you're interested! We want to start a national (or even international) movement!

What do you think the music industry should be doing to help young minority musicians?

The music industry could always be more supportive of initiatives and programmes that help bring music to local communities, especially poorer communities that already have less access to creative pursuits. Big brand names could also get behind and support organisations such as Attitude Is Everything that are doing lots of work into making live music events more accessible for disabled people, or LGBT Underground that champions LGBT urban musicians, especially people of colour.

These projects could be supported by donating money, providing music facilities, giving accessible and affordable workshops, and platforming young artists that come from these communities by putting them on support slots for bigger artists.

As much as tokenism and quota filling for LGBTQIA+, people of colour, disabled or female musicians performing at events isn't ideal, music businesses need to start somewhere and this can be by making sure that the voices and music of these communities are heard.

The approach that First Timers has taken is to specifically reach out to and centre these communities to make them feel more welcome and inspired to pick up an instrument, whilst also not being exclusive. [See our criteria for band applications: "One or more of us identify as one (or more!) of the following: disabled (visible or non-visible), trans, queer, non binary, LGBTQIA+, a person of colour, a woman."]

Do you think musical instrument advertising makes young women, people of colour, disabled and LGBTQ+ people feel that can’t or shouldn’t play those instruments?

I do think that advertising plays a big role in making people feel like they can access playing music or not. It's no news that women have been, and still are, underrepresented and under-encouraged in music, and never more obviously so than in the She Shreds vs Guitar World photo from a couple of years ago that so starkly juxtaposed the objectifying photo of a woman with a guitar (not playing) for the primarily male market of Guitar World magazine against the She Shreds cover photo. This kind of sexism in music instrument advertising has led to the rise of women and trans-centred magazines such as She Shreds for guitarists and bass players and Tom Tom Magazine for drummers.

Larger instrument advertising companies, as well as rehearsal and recording studios, record labels and events promoters could take a lead from these publications in not alienating over half their potential market. If you add disabled people, LGBTQIA+ and people of colour to that potential market, then you can only imagine the loss of revenue these companies are suffering, let alone the emotional harm they are causing to those individuals, by not accurately representing these communities on their magazine covers or in their advertising.  

For more information about First Timers 2017 visit

The first image is of Threat Level Midnight, who played at First Timers 2016. The second image (credited to Roman Manfredi) is of Big Joanie, who formed at First Timers 2013.

Tags: Interviews , women in music , diversity , First Timers 2017 , DIY space for london

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