At 16, Richard Clegg left school, a wannabe DJ with a noticeable lack of GCSEs. A few years later, he was ‘living the dream’ on tour with Mercury Prize-nominated band Asian Dub Foundation and now writes university degree courses. To his school teachers, he wants to say: “I told you so”.
This isn’t a fluke, but the result of hard work and being around the right people, he says, which is an environment he’s trying to cultivate for future generations as CEO of youth organisation Community Music Sounds.
With its diverse programme of music courses, including music teacher training, DJing, music production, social media, videography, podcasting, music instrumentation, and live sounds, both online and at its base in East London, CM Sounds aims to ‘enrich the lives of young people and bring positive change’.
CMS has some impressive alumni but the focus of the courses and training is as much on the hobbyist as it is on the professional – some of the students don’t even want to show their music to anyone else.
Making music and building rapport with others is a ‘release’ for their emotions and life challenges. “It is a therapy for people,” says Richard.
“I want to help and support young people, whether that’s music or learning, or just transferable skills because we love young creatives, but we don’t expect them all to go on and work in the music industry. And our aim is to really ensure that they get some rounded skills and feel that they’re understood and supported. And then they can go on and make better decisions for themselves.”
He adds: “I do believe everybody’s got creativity. Everyone should have access to software or equipment, to make things and create.”
Jane Mackey’s 2021 report for Arts Council England on the arts digital divide stressed challenges for the creative industries.
Tackling them is vital, says Richard, who believes that people should pursue their passions because “they can take people on fantastic journeys”, and that music makes people “feel human”. In her introduction, Mackey argues everyone may “have the right to lead a culturally rich life”, but ensuring that everyone can access such enriching arts and cultural experiences, many of which are now accessed online, is no mean feat. According to a 2020 survey by Lloyds Bank, 11.7 million people in the UK do not have “essential digital skills for life”. Ofcom estimates that 2.6 million people in the UK are offline and 1.5 million households do not have internet access.
Part of the solution is recognising that modern music is much more than acoustic instruments played in a linear fashion, which some classical stalwarts haven’t grasped. The sector has yet to fully embrace technology and digital devices, and accept that drum pads and sampling are as integral as timpani and four-part harmony.
Richard says technology is a way to engage more young people in music. His own entry to the scene was via DJing; rather than traditional methods which he found “boring”.
“Obviously, instrumentation and music theory are huge parts of being that well-rounded musician or music producer, and CMS very much encourages that. But at the same time, with young people, you’re building that interest. And sometimes going hard with one topic might be too far ahead, especially if it’s delivered in a really tedious way, but if it’s done in an exciting way, it kind of ignites a flame.”
He adds: “We’ve managed to grow our TikTok channel to nearly 12,000 followers and we get a lot of duets and I’ll ask them “Where you from?”, and they’re from Mozambique, or Detroit, or something, which is absolutely crazy.”
For all technology’s perks, Richard is a firm supporter of blended learning.
“I still feel there needs to be the face-to-face element – mingling with other people and making the trek together is important.” He thinks that schools and organisations could offer “so much more” in the way of edtech and that more training should be provided for teachers to make sure they are fully in touch, even if the latest technology isn’t used in the classroom.
One solution Richard is cooking up is high street pop-up studios where people can come and use equipment that already exists – rather than collecting funds for individual home devices – which would foster small communities. CMS also wants to branch out beyond London to other parts of the country – and beyond even that with the metaverse – which would further facilitate remote collaboration for young people. Community isn’t just a part of the organisation’s name, it’s the basis for business.
Female music producers are still rare in the industry, so it’s a welcome surprise that CMS has many women taking its courses. Bringing in alumnus Nia Archives (BandLab NME Best Producer 2022) to do training days for women is part of CMS’s conscious effort to open up opportunities for women. “We’re very much about encouraging people from all walks of life, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” Richard says. “We’re trying to bring everyone together.”
He elaborates: “Coming to an organisation like ours broadens your social awareness, but also your musical awareness and your creativity because you meet people from all sorts of musical backgrounds. It really helps because you can get very fixed in a style of music that you make, and other people and life experiences are important in expanding that.”
It’s clear that CMS is the kind of community space Richard would have wanted when he was younger. What would he say to his younger self if he could? “Just that everything’s gonna be okay. Work hard and learn and be humble. And, you know, see what life brings. If you can have the humility to keep learning, I think that’s really important.”