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‘The music industry has embraced our work’: Attitude is Everything CEO Suzanne Bull on campaigning for better accessibility at gigs

We spoke to Attitude is Everything CEO Suzanne Bull about campaigning for better access for deaf and disabled people at music venues and festivals and its plans for 2018...

It started with a letter addressed to the general music press in 2001, raising the issue of accessibility at gigs. From this small call to arms more than 15 years ago, Suzanne Bull has built a charity that has helped hundreds of bands, promoters and music venues create gigs and events that are more inclusive and accessible for all. Initially starting as a one-year pilot project exploring the ways in which the music industry could better work for deaf and disabled music fans, Attitude is Everything (AiE)’s Charter of Best Practice, encouraging event producers to go beyond the legalities of the Equality Act, has now been adopted by 130 music venues and festivals.

The charity’s projects and initiatives are often very simple: to allow deaf and disabled people to be as independent as they want to be at live music events. The recent Access Starts Online campaign to get venues clearly displaying accessibility information on their website has been dubbed “really achievable” by the Music Venue Trust. The music industry has “embraced the charity’s work”, says Bull, as “it takes the guess work out of what they need to do. PSNEurope spoke to CEO Suzanne Bull MBE to find out more about the charity and what it’s got lined up for 2018…

Why did you decide to launch the charity?

I wrote a letter that appeared in the music press about the state of access in UK live music venues and festivals in 2001. An officer from Arts Council England saw the letter, got my phone number from someone, phoned me up and asked if I’d like to do a project. From there, we built a steering group, which was initially meant to be a one-year pilot project. It was exploring how disabled music fans and the music industry can come together and resolve accessibility issues, and that’s when we created our Charter of Best Practice.

How did the charity grow from a pilot project to where it is today?

I don’t know, to tell you the truth! I used to run out of money every year and go to a different Arts Council department until we got more success. With more and more audiences going to see live music, things were dramatically increasing. And venues were also coming to us more, so the demand was growing. Then, the Arts Council realised that they had a really important project here that was also fulfilling their goals of getting more disabled people into the arts. In 2008, that was the first time we got our regular funding from the Arts Council. By then, there was a team of three of us – now we’ve got around 11 – but the team grows all the time. There’s also our mystery shopper volunteers, who attend live music events and report back to us.

What have some of the highlights been for the charity, since it began and more recently?

If you look at the figures from last year, now 165,000 disabled people attend venues that are signed up to the charter, and we have 130 music venues and festivals actively working to improve accessibility. We’ve also trained around 5,000 event staff over the past 17 years.

The other big success is that earlier on this year we secured funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation for a new programme called Breaking the Sound Barriers. That programme will go back to focus on grassroots music venues, because they need a lot of help and support [to provide better access], but they don’t necessarily have a lot of money.

Tell us about some of your published reports.

The State of Access reports have a history of affecting change. We’ve released three so far at two-year intervals, giving a snapshot of the industry at the time of publication. The first State of Access report looked at the Charter of Best Practice being an event standard for access to live music, something which in May last year was endorsed by UK Music’s Live Music group.

The 2014 State of Access report looked at accessible ticketing. We worked out that the music industry was missing out on £66m of ticket sales by not having accessible options when booking tickets. Our suggestion was that more options needed to be available that weren’t just booking on the phone, for example, and that ticketing businesses could create a universal proof of disability, where people didn’t have to keep repeating their access requirements or paying for expensive letters from their GP to prove their disability.

In 2016, our report focused on the fact that two out of three deaf and disabled people don’t go to gigs because they can’t find the access information they need online. In response to this, we started a campaign called Access Starts Online, which we launched at Independent Venue Week with the Association of Independent Festivals. So far, more than 40 venues and festivals have signed up to it. We’re aiming to launch the next State of Access report in 2018, so watch this space!

What have been some of the biggest challenges?

Always, as you grow, there is an issue of funding. It’s a challenge because you always want to do so much more. You don’t want the funding situation to hold back ambition, which it hasn’t in our case, but it’s still important. Aside from that, the music industry and disabled people have really embraced our work, and have really taken on board the things we’ve said. The music industry is quite keen – they’re like, This is really helpful, it takes out the guess work of what we need to do, and there’s someone here that we can talk things over with. They’ve been really supportive.

What have you got planned for 2018?

In November 2017, we launched the DIY access guide, which is aimed at grassroots music venues, artists and promoters that are putting on their own gigs and don’t have any money to [implement access].

We’re now looking to expand our diversity among our mystery shoppers. We’re not just looking at people who’ve got a physical impairment, we’re looking at a wide range of people to be able to better advise the music industry. It’s also going to be important for us to expand our resources and information regionally in the months to come. Watch this space!