Neurodiversity in Music: Universal's 'Creative Differences' Push - Rolling Stone
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Are Music Companies Hiring Enough People Who Think Differently?

Artists from Florence Welch to Billie Eilish have opened up about their neurodiversity. Now the industry is starting to respond

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Universal's new "Creative Differences" handbook, with a foreword by Florence Welch, shows how the music business can embrace neurodiversity.

Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

Florence Welch doesn’t find numbers easy. The Florence and the Machine star was diagnosed with both dyslexia and dyscalculia in her youth — two sets of “learning difficulties,” as she often heard them described, inaccurately, during her school years. 

As she describes in the foreword to “Creative Differences” — a new handbook on neurodiversity published by Universal and aimed at employers in the creative industries — Welch says that in her first paid job, as a barmaid, she felt a “sting of shame” when her manager exposed her inability to count change. Subsequently, she devised her own ingenious remedy for this shortcoming: learning the shape of each coin in her hand and applying a geometric value to it. In the end, she says, she became “a pretty good barmaid.”

Welch, of course, isn’t unique among arena-filling artists with conditions that fall under the broad term of neurodiversity, a word that covers a range of conditions including dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD, Autistic Spectrum Disorder (commonly known as autism), and Tourette’s syndrome. To name a few: Carly Simon, Noel Gallagher, Tony Bennett, and the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson have dyslexia; Solange Knowles, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, will.i.am, and Justin Timberlake have ADHD (doctors have even dubbed DRD-7R, a genetic strain often associated with the disorder, the “rock star gene”); and Billie Eilish has been candid about her diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome

None of this is a huge surprise: Looking back over the past 50 years of rock & roll, our creative icons haven’t always shown a natural aptitude for skills and/or behaviors traditionally considered obligatory for the school system, or the workplace. 

David Joseph, CEO and chairman of Universal Music U.K., has long appreciated this truism; his company’s artist roster includes Florence and the Machine, Eilish, and Brit act Loyle Carner, who has proudly discussed (and rapped about) his ADHD diagnosis. Yet in the past couple of years, Joseph and his team have joined the dots to pose a fresh, vital question for the music biz: If so many Universal artists display symptoms associated with neurodiverse conditions, what about Universal’s own staff — whose creativity these acts regularly rely upon?

Joseph says a personal epiphany hit him in 2018 when he received a text message from an artist he declines to name. Joseph confirms that this performer has “changed culture and lives” and penned lyrics that have “touched people in the most extraordinary way.” Yet, Joseph reveals, some of the words in this star’s text message were misspelled; others were plainly in the wrong order.

Soon afterward, in earnest, Joseph and Universal kicked off internal discussions, workshops, and research on neurodiversity. The company made connections with leading academics and interviewed multiple neurodiverse individuals about their experiences. The goal: to learn whether quotidian recruitment practices at major companies like Universal — not to mention staff-development techniques — were accommodating enough to ensure that neurodiverse individuals, as Joseph puts it, could “be the best version of themselves.”

The resulting recommendations are now printed within “Creative Differences.” Specific “reasonable adjustments” are suggested, like offering to interview certain candidates in quiet spaces; giving neurodiverse applicants additional time to prepare for interview questions; considering whether psychometric tests are strictly necessary; and thinking about whether audio or video submissions as a job application could work just as well as written ones.

Joseph is very clear on two essential aspects of Universal’s initiative: Just because brilliant and creative people can be neurodiverse, it doesn’t mean every neurodiverse person has a “superpower,” and that the music company hasn’t undertaken the Creative Differences project simply for corporate woke points.

Explains Joseph: “When you start to research this stuff, you find that an estimated 25 percent of CEOs are people with dyslexia — yet the first thing you’re expected to do to apply for any job is fill in a form. This isn’t about putting [neurodiverse] people ahead of anyone else; it isn’t about quotas, tokenistic employment, or ticked boxes; it’s about making sure no one [applying for jobs] feels any stigma or the need to hide who they are, because [that] might mean we miss out on 25 percent of future potential leaders of our labels.”

Matt Hancock, secretary of state for Health and Social Care — the U.K. equivalent of the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services — gave an address at the Creative Differences launch at Universal Music HQ in London on January 17th. The politician discussed his own diagnosis of dyslexia before, with one eye on the future, making a crucial point about neurodiverse inclusion.

Said Hancock: “Everything we do as the human race is increasingly going to become about making good decisions based on creativity and ingenuity, as machines [handle] the straight-line thinking. That means more and more industries will become like the music industry, where around 30 percent of people have a neurodiverse condition, and where we need to give [employees] confidence to use the extra skills that sometimes come with neurodiversity.” 

Hancock added, “We also must remember when we talk about [neurodiversity] that it isn’t always a blessing. The majority of people in prison have a neurodiverse condition; for some people neurodiversity leads to challenges that are incredibly difficult to overcome.”

This point is drilled home by professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge, who helped Universal compile its research. Baron-Cohen suggests that somewhere between 60 percent and 85 percent of autistic people in society are unemployed, a statistic he calls “shocking and unacceptable.”

He adds: “[Autistic people] have very special strengths, even talents, they can contribute, like logic, pattern repetition, attention to detail, memory for detail, [and the ability to] focus for hours on a particular topic. Bringing neurodiversity into the workforce isn’t just about having a more compassionate society, although that’s very important — it also makes good commercial sense.”

As Florence Welch argues in the “Creative Differences” handbook: “My thoughts are disordered, not especially logical, and not at all linear, but that’s OK — they take me to more interesting places.”

Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for “Rolling Stone.”

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