- Words Darcy Culverhouse
To mark this year's Youth Music Awards in association with Hal Leonard Europe, we sit down with its founder Cristina Barone to discuss celebrating young talent and independent music.
While the music industry is slowly making steps towards change, a significant portion of young people still face missed opportunities to work within it – both as artists, and creatives. Youth Music is the UK’s biggest young people’s music charity dedicated to empowering and championing youth in all aspects of their work. As part of their mission, they host the Youth Music Awards, an event that recognises and applauds the most innovative projects as well as trailblazers within the scene. The brainchild of this annual event is Cristina Barone, a seasoned professional with 12 years of experience in the charity sector, serving as Youth Music’s Events and Corporate manager.
Determined to leave a significant mark with each endeavour she undertakes, Cristina’s motivation behind creating the annual awards ceremony was driven by the noblest of intentions: to honour the talent of young people. Designing the Youth Music Awards four years ago, she has transformed the event into an indispensable fixture in the industry, solidifying its status as a vital occasion that illuminates remarkable talent.
As a key component of the awards, Cristina enlists the support of creatives aged 18 to 25 to assist in organising the event, as part of the charity’s NextGen community; a much-needed initiative that further enhances accessibility to the saturated industry for the younger generation.
This year, the Youth Music Awards is working in association with Hal Leonard Europe to further amplify the event’s reach. Before it blows, we sit down with Cristina to discuss celebrating young talent, independent music and her dedication to making an impact.
Please can you introduce yourself and what you do?
Hi! My name is Cristina, and I am the Events & Corporate Manger at Youth Music.
As an events and partnerships manager, what does your role look like day-to-day?
I project manage the Youth Music Awards and oversee other events that may take place during the year, like our NextGen Community Events. In addition, I speak with corporate partners and research new, meaningful partnership opportunities with companies that share the same values as Youth Music. I also manage three people, so you might also find me in a 1-1.
Before working in the industry, did you know you wanted to work in the charity sector? Or was it more of a process of exploration?
It was definitely a process of exploration! Immediately after university, I started looking for work experience in journalism and PR, mainly because that’s what I thought I should be doing with my degree.
However, it wasn’t until I started doing PR and events work experience with an amazing social justice and women empowerment charity, Mayamiko Trust, that I realised that I wanted to be in this sector. As a tiny team, we would organise events that would incorporate ethical fashion catwalks, music, and dance to raise money for an amazing cause. That was the first time I really understood the impact and difference that charities can make, and the meaningful change they can create for the people they help.
Can you walk us through your path to what you do now, from graduating school to taking your first jobs?
My career path, and thought process behind it, has been pretty chaotic! I originally wanted to study to become a social worker, then a make-up artist for film, then a psychologist, then a criminologist… but finally decided on English Literature and Journalism.
While studying, I worked at Marks & Spencer’s to fund my work experience in film PR, events and at different charities. I also joined a creative collective as their creative writer, which gave me invaluable experience of working with a group of talented people to create concept projects through collective works.
My first proper job was as Fundraising Coordinator, then Fundraising Manager, at the Essex & Herts Air Ambulance Trust. In 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis, I saw the news about Aylan Kurdi, a two-year-old boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after trying to find safety in Greece. I was so moved by the events and angered at the media’s hostile response, that I decided to take time off to volunteer. I went to Greece, the centre of the refugee crisis at that time, and helped emergency aid efforts in Lesbos with a charity called RefugEase. We would help to bring refugee boats safely to land, provide them dry clothes, cook food in bulk and hand out food packages at Mytilini Port.
When I returned to the UK, I quit my job in order to volunteer in Greece. I spent four months travelling through the country, visiting and volunteering at camps. The first was called Eko, an unofficial camp set up in a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. While I was there, I noticed how important music was to the people in the camp. I could see the positive impact it made to people when they learnt music, practiced it, and shared it with each other. I continued to see this across different camps and community centres I worked at, and this really left an impression on me.
My experience in Greece absolutely influenced my decision to apply for the role at Youth Music. It made me realise that I need to be 100% behind the cause that I work for, and that the role itself needs to be fun, rewarding, and impactful.
What’s your advice to anyone navigating that path now?
I would say that it’s totally fine not to know what you want to do or be. The pressure of thinking I had to have my life planned out, made me feel terrible when I was younger because I wanted to be everything, and no one told me that it was fine to just explore. Some people are very clear about what they want to be and know what that journey looks like, but it’s also okay if you don’t.
Start by thinking about what your interests are and explore them. Get as much paid work experience as you can, so you can figure out what you like and what you dislike. But make sure it’s paid because your time is valuable. Collect experience from people along the way. I have had so many unknowing mentors at all the places I have worked, and their guidance and knowledge has been invaluable to me on my career journey.
You’ve been working with Youth Music since 2017 – what attracted you to working with the charity?
I have always loved music from as long as I can remember. I spend a lot of my time listening to music, looking at lyrics and researching artists, but I never really understood the kind of impact that it had on a personal and social level, until I volunteered with refugees in Greece.
Music was such an important part of the day, and you would always hear it. Whether you heard Backstreet Boys coming out of someone’s tent, people jamming on drums together, children going to guitar lessons, or people performing in front of their friends; it was always present and it always felt like an important distraction.
When I came to back to England, I focused so hard on getting this role, because I was fully invested in Youth Music’s mission and wanted to be a part of it.
In 2019 you founded the Youth Music Awards, which has grown from strength to strength over the past four years. Taking us back to 2019, what was your thought process for setting up the awards?
Originally, the Youth Music Awards was going to be an online event, but from the beginning I knew that it could only be a successful and impactful one if it was celebrated in person.
I had three main objectives for the awards: to increase brand value/grow awareness of Youth Music beyond sector circles, to bring in sponsorship/cultivate new partners, and to help close the gap between learning and earning.
When developing the idea and bringing it to life, what was your guiding ethos?
The event had to be meaningful and it had to create impact – even if that impact was small – with young people at its heart. I wanted to make sure that young people were celebrated, because there is such amazing talent out there, and it’s so important to nurture it.
Since then, what’s been your proudest moment working on the Youth Music Awards?
My proudest moment continues to be when I see nominees, winners and the NextGen team progress in their careers. Like our 2022 Rising Star Award (Artist) winners, English Teacher, who were signed to Island Records this year. Or our 2022 awards host Nieema Hasssan, who secured a role as Assistant Producer at BBC Radio 1Xtra.
It makes me so proud that the Youth Music Awards has provided approximately 90 creatives with crucial paid experience to help progress their careers. We even stepped it up this year with the help ofLCCM sponsorship, and organised paid industry training for all of our NextGen team.
Is there an artist you now love that you discovered in the process of working on the event this year?
StudioWyzz has been on repeat since his video for ‘Sip’ was nominated for the Music Video Award. He is doing so well on Spotify too, with nearly 150,000 monthly listeners!
As part of Youth Music NextGen, the charity is committed to hiring 18-25 yr-olds to help execute the event. Can you tell us a little more about the NextGen venture, and Youth Music’s commitment to creating opportunities for young people?
Young people are front and centre at the Youth Music Awards – both on stage and behind it. Each year, we hire 18–25 year old creatives to help execute the event, involving them in every aspect possible. From hosting and presenting to PR, video editing, production support, photography, and social media.
The initiative is part of our Youth Music NextGen Community for young creatives who aspire to build and work in the music industries of the future by making them more accessible, more diverse, and more creative. We offer paid opportunities, funding, intros to industry connections and more for those who face barriers to earning in music.
You’ve worked with the likes of TikTok, YouTube, Spotify and Dr. Martens in the process – when looking to work with new partners, what do you look for to ensure your visions are aligned?
Brands want to partner with charities, especially when it comes to music and the next generation of talent. While this is obviously amazing, it is important to make sure that the partnership is mutually beneficial, and that it’s coming from a genuine place. I always want to make sure that our partnerships are sincere, meaningful and impactful.
We partner with companies that have a similar long-term vision, and who we believe can help us to bring about real change.
Why is actively supporting and spotlighting independent music – from artists to grassroots projects and entrepreneurs – so important in the current music landscape?
I think it’s really important to support and platform people from grassroots music, because that’s where you find more diversity and creativity. Ultimately, we all want to build a more inclusive music landscape, and we’ll only achieve that by looking in new places.
With over 12 years’ experience working in the charity sector, what changes have you seen in the industry over that time, and how have you adapted?
Fundraising is increasingly challenging for charities and cultural organisations, especially in our sector, as belts have tightened due to the economy and the cost-of-living crisis. The cost of living is impacting people’s ability to donate, and corporates are often having to review their CSR partnerships in light of changing economic environments. At the same time, charities rents, costs and staff salaries are all going up. It’s a vicious circle. We wrote about the impact it’s having on grassroots projects here.
We continue to adapt and evolve and it’s important for us to be as creative as possible through for example our partnerships, and better showing the impact to our corporate partners.
What change do you hope to see in the music industry?
I hope to see the industry prioritise equality, diversity, and inclusivity. I believe that diversifying senior leadership in the industry is key to bring about positive change.
The industry also needs to build a more sustainable and connected ecosystem for the good of the future workforce. So, I’d hope to see better collaboration between music education and the music industries, so they can better support young people to transition between the two.
Thinking about your own future career, where do you hope to be in five years?
I continue to be chaotic with no set five-year plan! But I do know that I will always want to work somewhere where I feel like real impact is being made.
Watch the Youth Music Awards live on Youth Music’s Instagram stories this Wednesday 19 October.