Ben Price of Harbourside Artist Management writes about the impact of a degenerative eye condition on his work as a tour manager, his reticence in being open about his situation and how he came to face fears of discrimination.
“Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection” Beethoven (1802)
Now, I am definitely not comparing myself to Beethoven, but more than 200 years later, I find myself in the same position of working in the music industry and struggling to admit a disability. You’d have thought things would have progressed a bit more in that time?
When I found out I was losing my sight a few years ago I was in the prime of my career. I had been a tour manager for a while and felt like it was where I belonged. My client roster had grown quickly, and my calendar was packed out for the foreseeable future.
My diagnosis was retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic condition that predominantly impacts my night vision. Unfortunately, this meant it affected me every day, at every show I worked. It was manageable to start with, but it quickly got to the point where it was a struggle to be in any dark environment. The diagnosis also meant I had to stop driving, which, as a tour manager, felt like a footballer losing his right foot.
As my disability was invisible, I made a conscious decision to be selective about who knew. I thought if I told my clients, I would simply lose work. That wasn’t a judgement on my clients’ empathy – I just knew how tight budgets were in touring, and asking artists to take both a tour manager and separate driver on the road would have been a big ask.
Some gigs I had to make my excuses and stand down from, knowing the budgets weren’t there to keep me on. Other gigs used tour buses or had the budget to pay for a separate driver, so I was able to stay on without opening up about my condition.
Hiding my disability in the dark backstage environments was another challenge altogether though. As my sight deteriorated over the years, more people started to notice there might be a problem. I’ve knocked over expensive guitars while packing down a stage, smashed my shins on more drum risers than I care to remember, and worst of all have dealt with assumptions I’ve been drinking on the job after tripping over or bumping into something.
When I look back on my decision not to disclose my disability, I do wish I’d had the confidence to be open and transparent about it sooner. Whilst I managed to struggle through a few more years of work, it had a real toll on me mentally, going into show days at venues I knew I would struggle in because of particularly bad lighting – my only alternative being to not work at all. Perhaps making people in the tour party aware of my condition would have allowed me to make the odd clumsy mistake without feeling so precious about it. I’m sure people would have given me some leeway if they’d known.
My story isn’t all bad though. Whilst working as a tour manager I chose to disclose my disability twice, and both times my experience was overwhelmingly positive; One promoter always made sure I was on jobs that didn’t need a driver, and on another tour, an artist made adaptations for me, asking the session musicians to share the driving instead.
These experiences probably should have given me the confidence to disclose fully to everyone I worked with, but they didn’t. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was programmed to have negative connotations around how disability is viewed. If you are a touring crew member, you often don’t know when your next gig is, so to put myself in a position where I thought I might not get the call up for the next tour was incomprehensible.
Since my diagnosis, I have worked to shift my career path away from touring and into music management, a transition accelerated when the pandemic hit last year, given there was no longer any live work to speak of anyway.
Considering my own condition, I felt my new management business was well placed to try something no other management company is doing – to work with artists with disabilities and help bridge the gap between the disability arts world and the mainstream music industry.
By coincidence, alongside my touring I was already managing Viktoria Modesta, known as the world’s first bionic pop artist and a performer at the Paralympics closing ceremony in 2012. At the end of last year, I was offered the opportunity to manage blind recording artist Lachi, who has been a great inspiration in building the ethos of the company through our shared advocacy.
The pandemic in a strange way actually gave me the time and space to find perspective and to accept what was happening with my eyes, to the point where I now feel comfortable to talk openly about it for the first time and reflect on why I didn’t feel I could disclose for so long.
As a result, I am writing about my experiences as part of an Arts Council England-funded project, investigating the future of disability in the music industry. I will soon be releasing results of a survey I conducted involving almost 150 music industry professionals with disabilities. Alongside those results I’ll be posting a second blog with my conclusions from the survey, but the fact 88% of those with non-visible disabilities I spoke to said that they only ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ disclose, tells you there is a lot to be said on the matter.
Disclosing is a very personal decision to take for anyone with a non-visible disability and will always depend on personal circumstances, so I don’t do so in such a public way necessarily to encourage others to do the same. I am doing this to speak to the industry as a whole in the hope that the more we talk about people with disabilities working in music, the more accessible the industry will become – and that would give people the confidence to know their disclosure will be a positive experience.