One of the more immediate and life-changing consequences of Brexit was its impact on the arts sector. Musicians were particularly affected. Used to travelling easily to perform anywhere in the EU and for any length of stay, suddenly they were faced with severe restrictions on work-related travel, casting doubt on their ability to earn whatever part of their income came from touring.
But not only were there going to be difficulties in getting themselves into the EU to work; when it came to transporting their instruments and equipment, it became clear that the hurdles were going to be extraordinarily high.
Visa-free travel: a disgraceful fib
The government was criticised for failing to negotiate a visa waiver agreement with the EU. So when the government website announced – first in August and updated on 11 October – that visa-free, short-term, work-related travel to the majority EU countries would now be available, it may have looked like a major step forward.
Sadly, not. It’s been described by the Incorporated Society of Musicians as “misleading”, by opera star Dame Sarah Connolly as “a disgraceful fib”, and by Yannis Philippakis, lead singer of rock band Foals, as “a poisoned chalice … presented … like a glass of champagne”.
Because fundamentally, nothing has changed. What’s more, the ‘update’ between August and October was just the addition of a 20th country to the original list of 19 that have some kind of limited ‘visa-free’ arrangement. Even that was only because Ian Smith of the Carry On Touring campaign had informed the government that Romania had one of these.
The new normal for touring musicians
From positions at the sharp end of the changes, speakers at the latest EU∣UK Forum online event on 20 October, entitled Building Cultural Bridges after Brexit and chaired by freelance composer Nigel Clarke, painted a depressing picture of the new normal.
The government spin on ‘visa-free travel’ is misleading, firstly because, as speaker Mark Pemberton, director of the Association of British Orchestras, pointed out, ‘short-term’ can mean anything from seven days to 90 days.
It can also be extremely costly to obtain still necessary documentation – for example, the price recently quoted for an orchestra (generally around 100 players) to travel to Spain was £188.55 per person. The rule that restricts residence in the EU to 90 days out of 180 also causes problems, particularly for opera singers (who need to be in situ for lengthy periods of rehearsal and performance).
Transport of instruments and equipment requires a special permit (a ‘carnet’), certifying that everything that leaves the UK returns. Old instruments containing material such as ivory need further CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) certification.
Coming as the real shock for Pemberton, however, were the rules applying to EU road haulage – ‘cabotage’ – a word we’ve become familiar with recently in connection with lorry driver shortages. It means, for example, that a lorry carrying orchestral equipment for a tour can only unload three times in the EU before it has to return to the UK.
Brexit impact on music colleges
For speaker Linda Merrick, principal of the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), limited access to opportunities in the EU means that students from elsewhere in the world, for example China, may choose to study at a European conservatoire rather than a UK one. The loss of such students would come on top of the inevitable loss of EU students due to higher post-Brexit fees and increased difficulties in employing EU staff. As a result, the ‘ecology’ of institutions like the RNCM will be harmed.
Composer Howard Goodall had warned of the potential effects of Brexit throughout the negotiation and transition periods. To try to avert them, he and many others had drawn attention to the contribution of the music industry to the UK economy (£5.2b in 2018), imagining this might afford people’s careers and earning capacity some protection. But, as forum speakers made clear, the predicted bureaucratic and financial nightmare has become a reality.
Why is touring important for musicians?
In an article for Yorkshire Bylines, Goodall made the important point that we’re not just talking here about major symphony orchestras or big rock bands.
The ability to work in the EU has been crucial to what he describes as the “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”. Such people – technicians as well as performers – were “amongst the busiest, most sought after, most flexible, most hired of all Europe’s nations”. Now livelihoods are at risk.
The third forum speaker, Paul Pacifico, chief executive of the Association of Independent Music and member of the pan-European Independent Music Companies Association (IMPALA), expressed his fear that it is these very kinds of people – small and medium-sized groups who don’t have the support staff available to the bigger outfits – who are most at risk of falling foul of the new arrangements.
Much harder for UK-based young musicians
“Some visas take up to three months to be approved, which means the old days of ‘jumping in’ (when we get a last-minute phone call from a colleague or our agent, asking us to replace an indisposed artist) seem well and truly over. Last year I had a phone call at 9am about a concert in Amsterdam for which the advertised artist had fallen ill. I was asked if I was free and knew the repertoire, and was on a plane shortly after, giving the recital that night. These opportunities often give artists their first big breaks. UK-based young musicians will never get out of the starting blocks.”
Dame Sarah Connolly made much the same point recently on Desert Island Discs (reported in the Guardian). The ability to work abroad is essential, she said, to the development of a career and indeed to the maintenance of the UK’s position as a leading musical nation.
Slow and steady decline for UK music
At the Forum event, Linda Merrick talked about the ‘soft power’ that the export of our musicians allows the UK to exercise. The same point was made in this week’s report from UK Music, ‘This is Music 2021’. Appealing for support post-covid and demanding changes post-Brexit, it draws attention to the ‘economic spillovers’ that derive from our position as a ‘soft power superpower’.
This will be lost through what Pemberton predicted will be the “slow and steady decline” in the desire of EU promoters to bother with the hassle of booking UK musicians.
Forum speakers were in agreement that at the level of government officials, much advice and support is available. However, at ministerial level, there is, in Pemberton’s words, a Brexit ideology “glass ceiling”: proposals that threaten to taint purist Brexit notions about borders and free movement are simply blocked. This makes it unlikely that the UK government will take any initiative to improve things, although they are under pressure from many arts organisations.
Will the EU be willing to help?
Pemberton’s strategy, through membership of PEARLE, a European association of arts employers, is to push Brussels to be flexible on relevant aspects of the Brexit agreement, hoping that MEPs will play a role in supporting this.
Pacifico’s perspective was that the EU music scene is harmed just as much by the present situation as the UK’s and that failure to sort out the situation will lead to “mutually assured destruction”. From within IMPALA, he is campaigning for the introduction of a single cultural touring permit (to be known as the GECAT pass) to cover the whole geographical region of Europe.
What can we do? We can put pressure on our MPs to advocate reopening this issue, and support organisations such as Carry On Touring who are doing the same. The 2022 ‘Festival of Europe’, a celebration of our cultural and artistic links with Europe, will have events that we can also support.
In the longer run, like Goodall we can at the very least look forward to a younger generation, “more at ease with diversity and cultural openness”, restoring our proper working musical relationship with Europe.