Autism, ADHD the music business and me: Andy Edwards on neurodiversity and industry inclusion

This article first appeared in Music Week.

Andy Edwards is a music business executive, director of research for UK Music and an artist advisor and consultant, clients include HMUK and two-time Grammy award winning producer, mixer and engineer Cameron Craig. 

Here, he writes about his experience of autism and ADHD, and calls on the music industry to be more inclusive and supportive of neurodiverse talent…

During the summer of 2019, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which, together with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), dyslexia, dyscalculia and a number of other conditions, falls under the umbrella of neurodiversity. The term refers to the variation in cognitive functioning that can lead to differences in how individuals think and act.

Shortly after my diagnosis, Universal Music launched its Creative Differences handbook to help companies in the creative industries better understand neurodiversity and how to attract, retain and promote neurodiverse talent. I went public with my own ADHD experience. Almost two years on, it is worth reflecting on what happened next.

The initial reaction was incredible. Many people reached out to me directly to tell their own stories. A young woman still at university and only recently diagnosed wrote, “now I know I can have a career in the music business”. I choked up when I read that.

At least five people have since told me they sought their own ADHD diagnosis as a result of hearing my story. Some are open about their newly discovered condition, others, understandably, are not. A few of us have begun an informal chat group, we get together every so often over Zoom to share experiences and explore where this might go. More people are welcome to join.

There is a part 2 to my story. In December 2020, I was diagnosed with ASD or, to be more precise, High Functioning Autism (HFA), which is similar to what was previously known as Asperger’s Syndrome. Some people still refer to Asperger’s Syndrome even though it is no longer an official diagnostic term. The name thing is evolving and I find it a little confusing. What do I tell people? Do I have Asperger’s or am I autistic? Currently, I am flipping between the two. What is the difference, anyway?  

Classic autism can be very debilitating, often involving severe cognitive and verbal communication impairment. HFA/Asperger’s is a form of autism, under the autism spectrum. The symptoms are broadly the same as classic autism except that cognitive and communication skills are normal, meaning that someone with Asperger’s can think and speak as well as the next person. For this reason, many autistic people, particularly women, go undiagnosed.

Social skills can be a challenge, regardless of where someone sits on the spectrum. Misreading social cues such as facial expressions or sarcasm, avoiding eye contact or unintentionally interrupting someone are examples.

Repetitive behaviours are common. When it comes to clothes, I buy the same Diesel jeans and John Smedley roll neck sweaters over and over again. I had a thing for roll necks long before Steve Jobs made them cool. 

Another autistic trait is absorbing oneself in subjects that hold a strong interest and then sharing that interest in expansive detail with others. You have to remember that not everyone has the same level of interest or attention to detail. The screengrab on my iPhone reads “Less Is More”.

The overarching experience for anyone with autism is that engaging with the world around you is a challenge and many people may not get you in the way that you intend. With classic autism the symptoms are more obvious, but with Asperger’s, where the symptoms are more subtle and easy to mask, very often you are just branded as “weird”. 

For an environment such as the music business, admitting to being autistic carries a lot of risk. This is a world that places a premium on social charm and personal image; to be street smart, cool and popular. Autistic people can be all of these things, but in their own distinctive way, which may not be the norm.

My reason for writing this article was a growing realisation that autism is highly prevalent in music, that it carries significant stigma and is massively misunderstood when it need not be. Like other forms of neurodiversity, autism can be an enriching experience both for people with the condition and those around them. It takes an equal amount of understanding and appreciation on both sides to achieve that enriching experience. Saying things like “everyone is on the spectrum,” is not helpful, mostly because it is wrong. It also diminishes the lived experiences of those who meet the diagnostic criteria.

A common misconception is that people with autism are more likely to be good at science and maths rather than creative disciplines. Elon Musk declared he has Asperger’s on Saturday Night Live (SNL) and while it is a positive thing for a billionaire tech entrepreneur to say this, it did reinforce the “mad scientist” stereotype. The reality is that autism works just as well with a creative mind.

Dan Aykroyd is autistic and so is David Byrne, both of whom appeared on SNL long before Elon Musk. Many creative people including Daryl Hannah, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sara Gibbs, Ladyhawke, Courtney Love and Example are all autistic. Broadcaster Melanie Sykes has revealed her own late-in-life autism diagnosis with a story very similar to my own.

Creativity and autism can be a great match. Getting into a routine and delving deep into a subject that inspires you can help create great work. With an inquisitive mind, you keep pushing the boundaries whether that is writing a novel, directing a movie or making a record.

Autism can give you a rawness, a directness and an authenticity that can help you cut through. You say what other people might only dare think. I once told an iconic rock act, renowned for their perfectionist approach to production and mixing and who had categorically refused to release official bootlegs of their live shows, that “fans just want the recording straight from the mixing desk, warts and all.” 

After the meeting, my colleague joked about the band’s facial contortions as I made my point. Some years later at the press conference announcing their next stadium tour, one of the band told assembled journalists that for the first time every show on the tour would have a live bootleg recording, “straight from the mixing desk, warts and all”. Result.

Getting diagnosed has enabled me to make meaningful improvements to my working life in the music business. There are two take-outs to share about this: the first is improving your own self-awareness, the second is ensuring the world around you adjusts to meet your needs. 

Both of these things must happen because autistic people cannot do this on their own. If the music business is serious about being inclusive then it must do the work too. That is why initiatives such as Universal Music UK’s Creative Differences are so important.

“Creativity and autism can be a great match”

Andy Edwards

Self-awareness enables you to take more control of your own life. Your condition(s) do not define you; your values and purpose do that. Your condition(s) will, invariably, dictate how you do things but you can learn to understand and manage your own process and work with others in a way that flows with that. 

I decided against taking medication for my ADHD (usually Ritalin/ amphetamine type substances), but for many people medication is very helpful. Find what works for you. In my case, a combination of mindfulness, therapy, good diet and regular exercise produced a better version of me. Mindfulness and therapy have been essential ingredients in managing my autism and, crucially, how my autism and ADHD interact. I am more creative and impactful as a result.

Engaging with the world around me has meant being open about who I am and more explicit about what I need from those around me. The individual needs of neurodiverse people vary considerably, so that places more onus on the music industry being more flexible so that we can all do better. This includes challenging preconceptions.

The idea that autistic people are not sociable is simply not true. It just means those of us with autism may have a different process to socialising, which is more cognitive and less intuitive than a neurotypical person. That can mean, for example, consciously remembering not to interrupt someone else while they are talking. It also means neurotypical people appreciating that an autistic person can be incredibly anxious about being misunderstood – because that often happens – so listen and keep an open mind.

I have lived my whole life not knowing I had autism or ADHD and I had to learn through trial and error. Neither condition stopped me from speaking in public, moderating panels and managing a variety of relationships with artists, songwriters, producers and industry executives. An early diagnosis would have helped enormously, but that said my recent diagnoses have made a world of difference. 

Challenge your own preconceptions of what autism is and what autistic people can do. An autistic person can do anything a neurotypical person can do, they just have a different way of going about things. 

As an industry, we must accept each other for who we are and be more flexible and creative in our approach to working together. That means doing things a little differently and sometimes being accountable for mistakes made, but we are strength in numbers and we can all play a part.

Diversity In Cycling – Launch Event

To mark the launch of the DIVERSITY IN CYCLING report, we held an event at Look Mum No Hands! which brought to life the themes in the report.  On a hot, sticky summer’s evening, LMNH was packed with over 100 cyclists, male and female, from all backgrounds and all walks of life.  With nine speakers together with audience questions we massively over-ran, but despite this and the hot and crowded venue, people stayed for the duration of the talk and many stayed.

Special guest, former professional and cycling legend, Maurice Burton together with his friend Joe Clovis told of their experiences of racism in cycling during the 1970s and their pathway through through the sport culminating with Maurice acquiring De Ver Cycles and forming Team De Ver C.C.

Following an audience Q&A, the evening was brought to a close with the impassioned words of Yewande Adesida of SES Racing who, having earlier described her own pathway into the sport, encouraged others to take up the mantle. 

Hopefully this is just the beginning of what is a long overdue conversation within the cycling community.

Photographs by Calvin Cheung www.ccheungphotography.com

Diversity In Cycling – The Report

This project started as a conversation, centred around an observation: more people from Black, Asian And Minority Ethnic backgrounds seem to be taking up cycling as a sport, but not necessarily joining cycling clubs.  Overall, the sport of cycling looks very white.  

That conversation led to more conversations which snowballed into my writing “DIVERSITY IN CYCLING”.  Originally the aim was to produce a brief discussion paper for my own club, Kingston Wheelers, but very quickly the report gained momentum, attracting over 60 contributions from riders of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, including a number of Muslim riders, and securing the support of British Cycling, thanks to Comms Executive Chidi Onuoha, who mobilised the support of our governing body, including securing a Foreword from its CEO Julie Harrington.

You can read more about British Cycling’s involvement here and read the report itself here.

Fundamentally, cycling is a sport anyone can enjoy and it is actually more accessible than many people perceive.  The report details challenges, but there is lots of positivity too.  Key themes revolved around representation and visibility, if cycling is seen to be diverse it will attract a more diverse pool of riders.  Telling more than one story is important.  The media often seen obsessed with the narrative that cycling is a hobby for middle class middle age white guys when the reality is that cycling is so much more and the “MAMIL” phenomenon is actually quite recent.  Key recommendations in the report include:

PROMOTE VISIBILITY (BUT BE AUTHENTIC)

If your club has members from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, with their permission, include those members in any visual representation of club membership. This helps make participation visible to others; consider deploying ambassadors as a point of contact.

If you do not have many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic members or none at all, do not try to be something that you are not, but do promote your values: if you are open to all newcomers regardless of race and gender say so. We all have to start somewhere, but let’s make a start.

PROMOTE ACCESSIBILITY

Many larger clubs have different rides across the week with different start times. Not everyone can make 9am on a Sunday morning. Promote a range of options.  Provide context to cycling club culture, what it means to be in a club, to ride in a group and general dos and don’ts. 

BE INCLUSIVE

Inclusion is essential to diversity. It is not just about having Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic riders present but ensuring riders of all backgrounds feel included and visible. Work with others both within your club and the broader community to share knowledge and promote pathways. 

TELL MORE THAN ONE STORY

Challenge stereotypes that cycling is the preserve of middle-aged middle class men in Lycra.  It is not. Cycling in the UK and Europe has been traditionally a rural and working class sport that has grown so much its appeal is universal. Cycling is for everyone.

RAISE YOUR OWN RACIAL AWARENESS

Many white people are uncomfortable talking about race. That is because most of us are not equipped to have the conversation. Read, listen and learn. If one person stands out in a group, be aware they may feel an extra level of intimidation than any other newcomer.

MONITOR PROGRESS

Quantify your membership through capturing ethnicity data on joining/ renewal forms.  Monitor progress over time. Larger clubs and organisations should certainly do this.

Diversity in the Music Industry and the 30 Under 30 List

Andy Edwards poses some questions to consider in the wake of the 30 Under 30 diversity discussion

This article first appeared in the Record of the Day weekly magazine, but can also be viewed online here.

If it’s not the Oscars it’s the BRITS, if it’s not the Billboard Power 100 it’s Music Week’s 30 Under 30, the question of diversity within the music industry has boiled to the surface this year. In 2016 this is deeply troubling.

Music Week’s front cover featuring 30 people under 30, initially nominated by readers, and then finally selected by MW, was the latest lightning rod for this topic. If the next generation of executives cannot be truly diverse, what hope is there?

One criticism leveled at Music Week is that editorial judgment should have been exercised and a broader list of names proactively sought. Instead, Music Week reported on the candidates whose names had been put forward. Judging by the list of 108 names that did not make the final 30, the total list put forward was overwhelmingly white.

30under30

Perhaps any attempt to disproportionately select candidates of colour would have masked the real story and a much broader underlying problem? Music Week did report the facts whether we like those facts or not.

The counter list on Nation of Billions put forth by DJ Semtex is incredibly powerful. One person came up with 30 alternative names in a matter of hours, a list that was overwhelming colourful and brimming with talent. A further list from Complex made a similar point.

What interests me most of all right now is to understand what is going on and why. In very broad terms, it strikes me the Music Week list is made up largely of what we would consider to be the “traditional” music business, whether that is corporates or established PR and management companies.

In contrast, Semtex’s list – while containing quite a few major label people – skewed much more heavily to the self-starters, the entrepreneurs, those with portfolio careers and the emerging music businesses – the blogs, the YouTube channels, the club nights, and so on. The same was broadly true of the Complex list.

Compilers of such lists have to consider a much broader range of job roles than ever before and a much broader range of organizations and career paths. What constitutes the “music industry” itself can be debated at length.

If the music industry is to reflect the wider world, what is that wider world? The last UK census in 2011 revealed that 13% of the UK population is non-white, but in London that percentage rises to 40%. Undeniably the industry is still overwhelmingly London-centric, which places even more emphasis on diversity within our industry. **

And what of the challenges of a London-centric industry? Moving to London was part of the attraction of being in the music industry, but with rents and property prices at an all-time high, does that also stifle diversity of a different kind? Factor in ever increasing levels of student debt and the problem multiplies. Some have said only the posh Home Counties middle class need apply – probably a blog post in itself!

So we as an industry need to ask ourselves some questions.

The Who and What Questions:

  • Who does the industry employ? What are the numbers by ethnicity?
  • What is the break down across sectors of the industry?
  • What are the emerging sectors that should form part of the music industry?
  • What are the ethnicity numbers by job role? Creative vs Business roles?
  • Does music genre play a role in determining the spread of diversity?
  • What are the conventions and processes that are restraining diversity?

The Why Questions:

  • Why do some jobs attract a more diverse range of applicants than others?
  • Why do people from certain backgrounds want to work in music?
  • Why do people from certain backgrounds not want to work in music?
  • Is the music industry attracting the right mix of people? What is the right mix?
  • Why do employers recruit in the way that they do?

There is a lot of soul searching to be done. Perhaps we all have to ask questions about our own journeys, experiences and motivations in order to make those connections with others. We should constantly question and challenge ourselves.

I grew up in a small town in the north of England. I remember a kid in the playground calling me “Jew Boy” because I had curly hair, a big nose and my Dad worked for a bank. I didn’t know any Jewish people at the time, but I did know what it felt like to be different and I have always been appreciative and inquisitive of people’s differences.

Working in the music business was an opportunity to do something different. I like being around crazy people, but really I’m the commercially focused sensible one. At Sony Music in the ‘90s, I was a Marketing Analyst. No one knew what I did and I always had to explain. So a part of me jumped for joy that the first name on the Music Week 30 under 30 list was an Analyst from Sony Music.

As an indie kid from up north, Sony was also an opportunity to expand my knowledge of black music. With colleagues such as Semtex, Matthew Ross, Adam Sieff and others I filled up on hip hop, soul and jazz. I was clueless but I learned.

Moving around the industry, one learns about the differing professions and tribes. You listen, learn and absorb. As the industry grows more complex a broader range of skills are required. It also means opening one’s eyes and ears to those with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.

But this runs counter to the way in which the industry has traditionally organized itself. The “its who you know” mantra is self-selecting. A female colleague describing an iconic label she worked at recalled, “there was a certain type of person and you either fitted in or you didn’t”. Like attracts like.

On another occasion, when interviewing for an assistant role for a colleague, one candidate spoke enthusiastically about some work they had done for their local church. Afterwards, my colleague remarked “we don’t want her, she’s a bible basher”, completely misunderstanding the background and culture of the candidate.  Her comment would have been wrong had the candidate been white, but the candidate was a young black woman.  Church going is viewed very differently within the black community and especially so amongst younger age groups who consider going to church just as cool as going to a club.  Forty eight percent of London’s church goers are black.  This point was completely lost on my colleague who ended up hiring someone with a similar background to herself.   **

Some organisations deploy more sophisticated recruitment techniques such as competency based interviews or algorithms yet many tech companies have diversity challenges also. These techniques can also be self-selecting and if candidates are not attracted to certain industry sectors or roles, one has to ask “why?

This is not an easy process, whether that is on a macro level or a mirco level. Relaying back to personal experience, the best and most productive working relationships have always been those where I have worked with someone who is the polar opposite to myself. That might not necessarily make for an easy experience but it is always exciting, challenging and most of all delivers exceptional results.

The music industry has to grapple with a much bigger picture on a macro level. It is not just music; other creative sectors such as film, TV and publishing are facing similar issues. It seems no one is handling this well.

This is a topic that is already being hotly debated at UK Music board level for some time. The senior figures within our industry are already deeply concerned and are seeking to understand the issues and challenges, including some of the questions I have raised above.

There will be outreach, through UK Music and its members: the BPI, AIM, MPA, PRS, MMF and so on are all intending on surveying their memberships. Ged Doherty and Keith Harris are looking at this issue specifically. I would ask anyone reading this article to engage and retweet and spread the word. There will be more announcements to come. Watch this space and get involved.

@andyedwardsster

** NOTE – I have amended this paragraph from the first “polite” draft that was originally published to what actually happened.  Its been bugging me for a while that I did not write this authentically in the first place, but I am learning. (Feb 2018).