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Western Europe / UK

Opinion: Brexit’s bum note must not silence the UK’s singers

Battered by Covid-19, the UK's touring artists now face another threat as a result of the Brexit deal. Managing editor Richard Gardham looks at what the UK will lose if it hangs its performers out to dry.

On 27 July 2012, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London was held. It presented a modern Britain, comfortable with its role in the world, telling a tale of its past, present and future with humour and humility.

The ‘Isles of Wonder’ spectacle was directed by Danny Boyle, the man behind films such as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. The show was driven by the UK’s rich array of world-famous poets, writers, actors, playwrights, musicians and comedians. It even contained a James Bond sketch that saw an octogenarian Queen Elizabeth II skydive into the Olympic Stadium. The world loved it. Even Vladimir Putin was a fan, describing the event as “wonderful and unforgettable”. When the UK wanted to show the world its best side, it put the arts front and centre.

Fast-forward eight-and-a-half years and the combined forces of the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit have left the British arts scene broken. For musicians, in particular, the need to tour, to perform live, has become an economic necessity. The rise in streaming services such as Spotify has robbed them of any serious income from recorded music (about $0.00437 per play, of which the ‘bulk’ will typically go to the record label), so it is performing that pays the bills. Covid-19 has put paid to any touring hopes in the short term, and now Brexit has added several hurdles (and expenses) to anyone wanting to perform within the EU.

The story of the blues, part two

The Brexit restrictions could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It would seem that the UK was offered a deal by the EU to make performers an exception to travel restrictions, but this was turned down by the British government. The issue has been taken up by a group of musicians including Elton John, Ed Sheeran and prominent Brexiteer Roger Daltrey of the Who. The group issued a letter stating that the new arrangement left “many tours unviable, especially for young, emerging musicians who are already struggling to keep their heads above water owing to the Covid ban on live music… This negotiating failure will tip many performers over the edge.”

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Musicians and the supporting crew will need to obtain work permits for every country they perform in, and there will be further red tape for transporting equipment. This will be bad enough for a solo performer, but when the group gets bigger the problems mount up. The Musicians’ Union (MU) states that 34% of musicians in the UK are considering giving up altogether.

The MU’s general secretary, Horace Trubridge, told the House of Lords: “The music industry itself is worth about £5.8bn to the UK economy. It is considerably more than the fishing industry, which seems to be talked about quite a lot at the moment.” But how do you put a value on a Shakespeare novel? What is a Keats poem worth? Can you really give a price tag to the first few bars of I Want To Hold Your Hand or the operatic middle bit of Bohemian Rhapsody? Calculating the worth of everything the arts sector has offered the UK over the centuries shouldn’t be necessary; the data clearly demonstrates what the country is putting at risk by hanging its artists out to dry.

This data, released in July 2020 by the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), shows that between 2010 and 2018 the gross added value (GVA) of creative industries grew much faster than for all DCMS sectors. The net total GVA in 2018 represented an increase of 43.2% in real terms since 2010; the UK economy grew by just 1.4% over the same period. On top of this, since 2010 the trade surplus for DCMS sectors has also been steadily increasing.

Such tables only tell part of the story, however. The Harry Potter Studio Tour brings in about two million visitors every year (in non-Covid times) to a part of Hertfordshire largely untroubled by tourists otherwise. Nearly 60 years after their first hit single, the Beatles attract millions of tourists to Liverpool every year, generating about £70m for the city’s local economy. Visitors are flocking to Northern Ireland to go on Game of Thrones tours, festivals such as Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Fringe are major international events, films such as Love Actually do more to show off London’s charms than any promotional campaign could hope to achieve. The arts make money. Lots of it. And in lots of different ways.

The sound of silence

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reported to have uttered “f*ck business” when asked about fears over Brexit. The reality always was, however, that Conservative Party members, politicians and, most importantly, donors would strain every sinew to ensure that British businesses remained largely unf*cked. The arts scene, though? With its lefty, liberal figureheads and enthusiasts? Not so much.

In spite of his proclaimed love of revolutionaries such as the Rolling Stones and the Clash, there will be less pressure on Johnson from both his inner and outer circles to do anything to make the lives of future Joe Strummers any easier. Indeed, given the patronising, poor taste, government-backed advert that encouraged people working in the arts to reskill – ‘Fatima the ballet dancer’ was told her true professional future should lie in cyber, she just didn’t know it yet – the next Mick Jagger may well be lost to an IT services desk.

The UK’s international reputation is a mixed bag at the best of times. It is often accused of arrogant exceptionalism and an outdated willingness to wallow in the glory days of its colonial rule over the world. Start singing Hey Jude in a crowded bar in Seville or Santiago, however, and everybody’s inner-Anglophile is on show by the first round of ‘na na na naaas’. The UK needs its songwriters, performers, poets, actors and their brethren. It needs them for reasons that go far beyond financial worth. But even when judged on purely economic terms, the case is clear – hindering the country’s artists to the point where they can’t pay their bills will come at a terrible cost.

Home page photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for Bauer Media.

Richard Gardham

Richard Gardham

Managing editor

Richard Gardham is the managing editor of Investment Monitor, joining from the Financial Times where he was production manager across a number of titles, including The Banker and fDi Magazine.