Co-ops and choirs – what they have in common

If you believe the TV talent shows, then music, especially singing, is about ‘following your dream’, making it, and, above all, competing with other singers to be the best. Actually, I haven’t watched any of those shows for a while, but even when I did, singing wasn’t about joy and it wasn’t about co-operation. Glee, an American TV show portraying a group of singers, also highlights the competitive aspect of singing; the group are perpetually competing against other show choirs, while one of the main characters constantly fears another, better singer stealing her position as soloist and grabbing the limelight.

Making singing so competitive is a relatively recent development – giving how long humans have been doing it – and reflects our society’s growing obsession with individualism and competition.  But in moving towards such an individualistic focus, it is moving away from the one thing that singing can be very good at: bringing people together.

I’ve been singing for almost as long as I could talk. At school I was in a choir. It was highly competitive and our choir leader was obsessed with us winning prizes and being the best. As far as she was concerned, if we weren’t the best, it wasn’t worth our while. Yet, despite this, what we got out of being a part of the choir wasn’t always about winning. It was also about fun, about the joy of singing, about expressing ourselves and it was about community. No matter that we may not all have been friends, or even all got on with each other. When we sang together something special happened.

For the past 14 years I’ve been singing in a weekly group that does not perform. We just learn new songs (by ear – no ‘notes’ allowed), and sing for the joy of it. Last year, I took part in a mass sing in London where over 800 singers sang together in harmony, raising money for Water Aid.  It was a heartening, emotional and enjoyable experience and highlighted some of the key values of singing together that should be valued higher throughout society: co-operation, community and listening to one another. No harmony singing choir can sound good if each part is trying to out-do the other; it’s important to listen to the other parts and to sing with them, not against them.

Numerous studies show that singing is physically good for you. But singing together has more benefits than just the physical. It promotes a sense of community and belonging that singing alone just cannot do. I remember once hearing that communities who sang together have higher voting turnouts. I can’t find the reference for it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true. In places of worship, picket lines and football terraces, people enhance their feelings of togetherness by singing together. They don’t have to be auditioned first. Producing a feeling of solidarity, singing as a group also highlights something else extremely important: we have much more of an impact collectively than we do as individuals.

As in music, so it can be in business too. Co-operatives are businesses which are democratically owned – not by distant shareholders, or rich individuals – but by their members, whether those members are the customers, the community or the people who work there. This means that those members get to decide what happens to the money that their business makes. It can be re-invested, shared, donated to good causes or all three of these. Like a choir, a co-operative (especially a workers’ co-op) values the contribution of individuals to produce something collectively.

When you mention a co-operative most people think of the food and banking retailer. But the co-operative movement is much more than just these (successful) businesses. Some co-ops have just a few members. Others are huge – with thousands of members all around the country. From bicycle shops, toy shops, and bookshops, to telecom companiesfootball clubs & web designers, the co-operative model works whatever sector you’re in. In fact, despite their long history, rather than being an outdated model of operating, co-operative businesses are thriving in the UK right now. All over the country, people are sharing resources, valuing everyone’s contribution and working out that working together works. Perhaps it’s time that TV and popular culture caught up.


About Ruth Rosselson

I am a writer, researcher and consultant with over 14 years experience of writing about ethical and environmental issues. I specialise in writing copy for NGOs, charities, social enterprises and the co-operative movement.
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