Brexit and the Music Industry: Concerted Objections

What impact will Brexit have on classical music in the UK?

Only 2% of people in the music world thought that Brexit would be good for their industry. Recent reports show the government has done little to win over the other 98%. As the Tories rush to drive us over the Brexit cliff edge, the government’s “creative” solutions fail to address the scores of issues facing classical musicians and orchestras across the country.

First, there’s guaranteeing free movement of players across Europe. The ability of orchestras to tour around other member countries of the EU has become a vital part of their business model. The Association of British Orchestras estimates that UK orchestras made a total of 96 visits to 26 different EU countries in 2016. But if we leave the EU in March 2019, this travel could be hampered by visas, carnets, tariffs and controls.

Even if we were to negotiate visa-free access for musicians, orchestral players would still see 15 to 20 percent of their salary deducted to pay for social security in their host country, a cost that is currently waived under the EU’s A1 system.

And what would happen in performance emergencies, when a singer loses their voice and needs to be replaced at the last minute? Professionals at this level are rare, and orchestras rely on being able to draw from musicians across the EU at very short notice.

As my Labour colleague Julie Ward points out, musicians from the EU also play a crucial role in the day-to-day make-up of UK orchestras. Between 20% and 25% of musicians in some orchestras are from other countries in the EU. Indeed, there are around 14,000 EU citizens in the UK music industry as a whole. Professor Linda Merrick, Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music and Chair of Conservatoires UK, has expressed concerns that our future talent pool will be “severely compromised” if we can no longer attract top students from the rest of Europe.

You only need to look to the conductors of the BBC Philharmonic, the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra or the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to see how a restrictive visa programme post-Brexit would damage the cultural fabric of British music.

Alongside the movement of people is the less discussed issue of the movement of instruments. Outside of a customs union with the EU, musicians would need to hold an ATA Carnet to avoid paying import duties and taxes on their instruments. Such carnets are expensive, and checks will lead to long queues at borders.

A few hours’ delay may not seem like much for a well-known orchestra, but what about the school jazz band who want to play in a festival in France, or the community youth orchestra planning their first international performance? Additional administrative burdens can be enough to put off smaller organisations from organising the trips that give them their first taste of touring with music and performing to a diverse range of new audiences.

And Brexit has already limited opportunities for young people in classical music. Young musicians from Britain will no longer be able to participate in EU-wide schemes, such as the European Union Youth Orchestra, which is moving from the UK to Italy as a result of Brexit.

On top of the major mobility issues facing the music industry, a whole array of other problems are beginning to pile up. The Tories have no solution to the UK’s reliance on conservation specialists who come from other EU member countries. Or the fallout if the UK falls out of sync with the EU’s Radio Spectrum Policy, and musicians have to change equipment every time they perform in the EU. Or the importance of native speakers to help with language coaching at the Royal Academy of Music.

But there are also broader questions emerging, around student loans for EU citizens who come to learn at conservatoires in the UK, as well as the future of European Union orchestras that are based in the UK. How does the UK retain influence over vital legislation on copyright or intellectual property, which will affect UK musicians regardless of our membership of the EU? And could orchestras lose the exemption from charging VAT on concert ticket prices when we leave the common system of VAT across Europe?  

Bilateral deals might be able to nip some of these issues in the bud. But the government has neither the capacity nor the wherewithal to deal with all these problems before December 2020. As shown by the recent spate of evidence given on the benefits of free movement of EU citizens, companies and organisations are beginning to speak out against the damaging impact of this ideologically-driven Tory Brexit. The concerns of the musical world can’t keep playing second fiddle to the whims of Jacob Rees-Mogg.


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