The twin calamities of covid and Brexit are hollowing out much of our once-thriving live music industry. The situation for non-classical genres of music is well publicised. The biggest names in UK popular music are currently lobbying, noisily, for rescue measures to be negotiated with what was until 1 January our huge ‘home’ market of over 400 million people within the single market of the EU.
The music industry needs rescuing from the impacts of covid and Brexit
Rescue isn’t too strong a word, either. Touring plans for bands that aren’t mega-stars, across the EU, are now likely to mean they are loss-making ventures, at best, and for so many early-career musicians, impossible. The barriers are multiple – visas, haulage and cabotage restrictions, carnets for equipment and instruments, VAT declarations in and out, special certificates for rare or animal-based materials, proof of contracts, health, repatriation and vehicle insurance, and so on.
All of this haunts our industry as we try, falteringly, to recover from the damage covid has done, and, with last-minute extensions to lockdown restrictions, the nightmare of already-planned summer concerts, festivals and shows now facing total shutdown. It is doubly galling that these extended restrictions were avoidable if the government had not, for purely political reasons, kept India off the red list for 22 days after the Delta variant had been identified as a new threat.
Decimating the UK’s creative industries
However, the once-lucrative touring pop sector is only one side of the coin. On the other are thousands of highly skilled professional players and singers you won’t have heard of, who until January plied their trade working across borders, often at short notice, on longer-term contracts, in theatres, classical concert halls, dance venues, TV stations, recording studios and opera houses.
The UK alone doesn’t provide enough work for this large, bustling sector, and the single market’s freedom of movement meant that our musicians, actors, dancers, singers, players, designers, specialist audio and video technicians were amongst the busiest, most sought after, most flexible, most hired of all Europe’s nations. Tens of thousands of livings were made this way. Families housed, children raised, taxes paid and communities enriched. That work has disappeared overnight.
It turns out unelected bureaucrat (oh, the irony) Lord Frost left the entire creative sector (our second biggest export industry after financial services) out of his lengthy, detailed negotiations on the trade and cooperation agreement. Promises that this glaring, deeply irresponsible omission would be rectified retrospectively as a government priority seem to have been as meaningless and as delusional as their assurances on protecting care homes from the pandemic, providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for nurses, or on farming and fisheries getting a better deal outside the EU than in it.
Losing our place as musical world leaders
Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam will be the new musical hubs for this vast internal European market, once dominated by London. Anyone who has been watching Netflix or BBC Four in the past few years will have noticed the Europeanisation of TV content and co-production. We used to be part of that easy, fruitful, red-tape-free, collaborative enterprise with our neighbours. Performers of all disciplines flowed to and fro freely across Europe’s internal borders and everyone benefited. Not for us, any more.
Whatever temporary sticking-plaster fixes may or may not be cobbled together to enable some cross-channel touring to re-start post-covid, or to make it slightly easier for classical musicians with instruments to travel and give concerts in different locations, or to be able to undertake contractual work over weeks or months rather than the odd day, the truth is the wrecking ball has done its damage and our industry will inevitably shrink and struggle. Thousands of skilled jobs will be lost, livelihoods choked off by the ill-thought-through experiment of Brexit. That there will be a talent drain, when international travel resumes, is a certainty.
Will we restore relations with the EU in future?
In the short and medium term, this will be our lot. Looking further ahead, though, it is likely that a younger generation will seek to reverse Brexit, perhaps within 15 or so years, and any remotely sane prime minister would rejoin the customs union even sooner. So it is imperative that in the fallow years to come we as a sector keep cultural exchange alive between the UK and its closest neighbours and allies in a holding pattern, not a retreat.
Such rapprochement is not going to come from government, but on behalf of the next generation of Britons it is, I believe, our duty to keep the door as open as possible and to keep alive some form of positive, alternative relations with EU member states. To counteract the poisonous anti-European bile trotted out at Downing Street’s behest by their client press headline writers, if nothing else.
The power of music to win hearts and minds
Whilst our Brexit struggle, in the creative sector, is portrayed primarily as an economic one – on account of the sector’s huge contribution to export value and its employing (pre-covid) over two million people in the UK and providing equal economic underpinning of the wider tourism industry – there is a bigger issue at stake that is not simply economic.
It is the winning of hearts and minds so that we are not cut off from our neighbours, families and friends in the EU, so that younger Britons in particular are not left, trapped, in a pariah state, until such time as they can remove the clique that forced it upon them from office. This drunken, bleary-eyed Brexit government will sooner or later implode and its support wither, as a mighty hangover of broken promises engulfs it. Maybe not this year or next but falter it will.
We can be heroes
Until that time, the arts can demonstrate to our European neighbours that we are not the same as our government. That we seek friendship and collaboration, and cultural exchange, even if the Brexit mandarins do not.
Most of all we can help prepare for a very different future led by a younger generation. A generation that is profoundly less xenophobic, less nationalistic, less convinced that trading with regions tens of thousands of miles away makes environmental sense, less enamoured of oligarchs and far more at ease with diversity and cultural openness than the crooks and charlatans that brought us to this divided, unhappy place.
So let us find whatever ways we can to make music for and with our neighbours across the Brexit wall, which one day, like Berlin’s, will be razed to the ground, to the loud and joyful accompaniment of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Bowie’s Heroes.
Howard Goodall is an EMMY, BRIT and BAFTA award-winning composer of choral music, stage musicals, film and TV scores. He is a distinguished music historian and broadcaster.
In recent years, he has been England’s first ever national ambassador for singing, the Classical Brit Composer of the Year and was Classic FM’s composer-in-residence for six years. In the 2011 New Year Honours, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to music education.