Diminuendo

FOR the men of Rhostyllen, there were once three pillars of life: coal, God and the organ. On Saturdays they would pile into one of five pubs in this village near Wrexham for pints and a singsong. The next morning they reprised the chorus in its two chapels. Mark Pritchard used to walk past the Old Black Horse to hear his father and his colliery friends in full flow. The pits are long gone and the Old Black Horse has made way for houses, but Mr Pritchard can still remember the sound its organ used to make. “I love music,” he says. “I’m a Welshman.”

Yet on February 21st Mr Pritchard, now the leader of Wrexham borough council, voted with his fellow councillors to cut the budget for its music service, which gives free lessons to children who want to learn an instrument, by 72%. He says they had little choice. The council has already made £52m ($72m) of savings since 2008, by chopping the number of managers, merging departments and charging for car parks. In the next two years it must save another £13m. Council tax will rise by 3.9% this year but more services, including music, will have to be pruned.

Music is more than a pastime in Britain. The country’s music industry is worth £4.4bn a year and projects soft power around the world. Three of the five biggest-selling artists in 2016 were British (David Bowie, Coldplay and Adele). More than a sixth of the 200 most-streamed songs of all time on Spotify are by Britons, second only to the number recorded by Americans. But the industry faces an “existential crisis”, in the words of Michael Dugher, head of UK Music, an industry lobby group. Even in the world’s poorest slums, people make music. But children need formal tuition to “hone their talent”, he argues, and in Britain that tuition is becoming rarer.

Most schools give at least some of their pupils all-class music lessons, but from the 1950s until the 1990s most councils also paid for peripatetic staff to travel around schools, giving one-to-one or small-group instrumental tuition. They also organised bands, choirs and county concerts.

That system is unravelling. According to the Welsh Authorities’ Music Education Association, no more than seven of the 22 Welsh councils still pay for a service that employs musicians on the kind of permanent contracts usually enjoyed by teachers. In Powys, the music service was abolished in the 1990s and schools can now choose whether or not to provide instrumental tuition, for which they charge parents. From next year Wrexham will set aside £50,000 to cover lessons for the poorest children, but everybody else will have to pay. Many will give up, fears David Thomas, the head of the council’s music service.

The Educational Institute of Scotland, a teachers’ union, claims that 22 of 32 Scottish councils charge pupils to learn an instrument. In England, most children used to be entitled to free instrumental lessons, according to Music Mark, an educational association, but provision now varies widely. The Arts Council, a government body which administers a £75m annual fund for English music services, is unable to say which councils offer free tuition and which do not.

The “English Baccalaureate”, which the government introduced in 2010, judges schools on the proportion of pupils who get good grades in English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language—but not the arts. It has contributed to a steep decline in the number of pupils studying music at school, though the shift began before the measure was introduced. Of those students taking GCSE maths (a rough measure of the overall pupil population), the share who also sat the music GCSE rose every year this century until 2007, since when it has fallen in most years, from 8% in 2008 to 5.5% last year. Meanwhile, fewer pupils are studying music at A-level.

Music could increasingly become the preserve of the rich. Poor children are already less likely to become musicians. The Sutton Trust, a charity, found that 19% of the people named “best solo artist” at the Brit Awards between 1977 and 2016 went to private schools, compared with 7% of the overall population. So far this century the proportion has been higher than in the 1990s. Only 44% of undergraduates at the Royal Academy of Music in 2016 came from state schools, lower than the proportion at any university. Music colleges fear that council cuts will exacerbate the problem. A parent would have to find £200 for a basic cornet; a top-of-the-range tuba might cost £8,000.

In 1975, 16 of the 25 young musicians in the Tredegar Town Band, a renowned troupe in south Wales, lived within 250 yards of the band room. Now only 10% of the band’s membership is local, says Iwan Fox, its vice-president. Some come from as far away as Birmingham, partly because of the band’s reputation but also because there are no longer enough talented locals to fill the spaces. These days the only instrument many children are taught to play in school is the ukulele. “Everyone strums away to ‘Wonderwall’,” says Mr Fox. “It’s a production line of nothingness.”