And Finally Artist News Beef Of The Week

CMU Beef Of The Week #240: James Blunt v Chris Bryant

By | Published on Friday 23 January 2015

Chris Bryant MP is a “classist gimp”, while singer-songwriter James Blunt is a bit “precious” about his position in the music industry. These are the things we learned this week. Or at least they are the things the two men said about each other.

James Blunt (large)

Last week, newly appointed shadow culture minister Bryant gave an interview to The Guardian, outlining what he’d do if Labour got back into power at the next election. High up his list of priorities, he said, was ensuring that those working in the arts came from a diverse range of backgrounds. And that included addressing the worry that there’s a growing imbalance at the top of the creative industries between those who come from wealthy backgrounds and those who do not.

“The truth is that people who subsidise the arts most are artists themselves”, said Bryant. “That of course makes it much more difficult if you come from a background where you can’t afford to do that”.

He raised questions about the way in which the BBC recruits new talent, and said: “I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk”.

It was a casual reference to Blunt, which gave no comment on him as a person, his talent, or anything much really. It merely used him as an example of a specific (if generalised) type of person to illustrate a point. Though perhaps the word “ilk” made it seem more pointed. It certainly riled the musician.

“You classist gimp”, wrote Blunt in response. “I happened to go to a boarding school. No one helped me at boarding school to get into the music business. I bought my first guitar with money I saved from holiday jobs (sandwich packing!). I was taught the only four chords I know by a friend. No one at school had ANY knowledge or contacts in the music business, and I was expected to become a soldier or a lawyer or perhaps a stockbroker. So alien was it, that people laughed at the idea of me going into the music business, and certainly no one was of any use”.

Blunt’s response infers quite a lot from Bryant’s aside, the assumption being that Bryant believes the singer got all kinds of unfair advantages as a result of his background. When, in fact, “the only head-start my school gave me in the music business, where the VAST majority of people are NOT from boarding school, is to tell me that I should aim high”.

He added that, if anything, his overt poshness hindered his entry to the music business – ultimately meaning that he had to go to the US to sign a record deal, where his accent was less of an issue. Though it should probably be noted that he did manage to secure management and sign a major publishing deal in the UK prior to all that just fine.

Still, this is a reasonable point for Blunt to make. I similarly remember a band of Oxford graduates I used to know being told that they should give up, because they’d never get anywhere with those accents. But the issue raised by Bryant isn’t really about the difficulty of getting through the door, it was more the route to that door in the first place.

For Blunt to suggest that his background was of no use whatsoever is so short sighted as to verge on parody. But, says Blunt, what Bryant is doing is “telling working class people that posh people like me don’t deserve it”. Which is not how I read the Bryant interview, but maybe that’s because my state school education didn’t teach me to read properly.

The issue isn’t whether or not it was hard for James Blunt to become a successful musician. It’s hard for anyone to become a successful musician. There are many, many barriers to it happening. For everyone, rich or poor. However, some of the more basic barriers to entry are more prevalent for the latter group than if you are ‘James Blunt’, in a generic rather than specific sense.

Right at the very start, if you show an interest in music, instruments cost money and lessons cost money. You might be able to circumvent those if you’re at a school with good resources, but schools with good resources quite often cost money. Sure, a kid can get a holiday job packing sandwiches, but if packing sandwiches was the only thing standing in the way of talented young people and the wherewithal to make it as a musician then we’d have more sandwiches than we’d know what to do with.

Moving things along, Bryant then wrote a response to Blunt’s response, opening with these genuine words: “Stop being so blooming precious. I’m not knocking your success. I even contributed to it by buying one of your albums. I’m not knocking Eddie Redmayne, either. He was the best Richard II I have ever seen”.

He might as well just have written “some of my best friends are posh people”. Luckily, after that false start he moved on to reiterating his original point, that a lack of funding in the arts and other support for those keen to pursue their talent means that some sort of financial buffer is required.

Those at starting out in the creative industries, he pointed out, are the ones who are expected to work for nothing, whether that be unpaid internships or as musicians asked to play ‘for the exposure’. Blunt’s right that determination and learning to “aim high” will help, but by saying that he seems to suggest that anyone who doesn’t just suck up a few years of having no income isn’t trying hard enough.

“I’m delighted you’ve done well for yourself”, Bryant wrote. “But it is really tough forging a career in the arts if you can’t afford the enormous fees for drama school, if you don’t know anybody who can give you a leg up, if your parents can’t subsidise you for a few years whilst you make your name and if you can’t afford to take on an unpaid internship”.

The point isn’t that James Blunt doesn’t deserve what he has, it’s that the hurdles early on are set closer together for people with less money available to them. Of course, if someone makes it through childhood having had the support they need to develop a talent, there are still plenty of hurdles beyond that. Real life gets in the way for most people. It takes a certain amount of stubborn dedication to pursue something past the point of it being financially unviable.

Many do, and some become successful because of it. But if you come from a position of wealth to begin with, then you can’t claim not to have had any advantage at all. To an extent, that’s life. But if funding to the arts is cut and government policies squeeze the finances of poorer families, then you risk that advantage becoming more pronounced.