Brexit and music: Theme and Variations
A few weeks ago I had an encounter with a man at a currency exchange desk at Heathrow airport and tweeted the conversation thus:
“Nice bloke at Heathrow currency exchange desk asks whether Brexit will be good for my industry. When I said no, disastrous, he said he asks everyone the same question: and Every. Single. Person gives the same answer. But a bunch of Old Etonian conmen think they know better.”
It is my most read tweet ever (8500+ retweets, 18500+ likes and 1.67m impressions). One of the responses was from Tory MP @NadineDorries who asked, courteously, why Brexit would be disastrous for my line of work. This is my answer.
First of all, why was I at Heathrow? Because I was travelling to Texas to rehearse and conduct the world première of a new work of mine, Invictus: A Passion that had been commissioned by a large and thriving church community in Houston. In order to rehearse and conduct with the choir and orchestra, the commissioning church’s music & arts department were obliged to engage a team of lawyers to work on the visa submission made, initially, to the US Dept of Homeland Security to acquire a ‘petition’ (permission document from the requesting body in the USA). This process is time-consuming and (if the lawyers hadn’t been members of the congregation offering their time pro bono) relatively expensive too. It took weeks, in fact, since to be classed as an alien of ‘Exceptional Ability’ you can’t just assert you have won awards or had your work performed all over the world, you have to prove all these claims in writing. You can’t assert you have won an EMMY award, for example, you have to show it, either as a scan of its certificate or a photograph of the physical award itself bearing your name. Multiply this process by the 40 years of my career thus far and you can appreciate how the hours mount up. That’s just the first stage. The second stage in being granted a visa (for one week’s work!) is you making your own application online to the US Embassy, armed with the Petition that you hope you have by now been granted (which in itself is insufficient to allow you to travel and work). This took a few hours of further bureaucracy and the payment of roughly £140 of fees. The third stage is an interview at the Embassy itself, for which one has to allow approximately 3 hours to include a fair amount of queuing.
Of course this is nothing compared to the nightmare of filling in forms and expenditure when one is applying to emigrate anywhere these days, I know it is a privilege to be able to work in another country as I do from time to time but my point is this: I conduct my works fairly regularly. If I were to undertake the same rehearsing and conducting job in Berlin, or Rome or Paris I simply get on a plane and go and do it. No administrative costs, no visas, no long delays not knowing whether one can travel. Brexit will deny me, and all professional musicians, this easy access to 27 other countries, countries which in the world of music are significant and busy employers of musicians. The bureaucracy I and my Houston friends had to fulfil to get me there for one week will be replicated for any of those 27 countries from next March onwards. For regularly-performing instrumentalists and singers across the musical sector, who have grown accustomed to working at short notice throughout the EU as part of their portfolio of work, never mind all those ensembles, orchestras and bands who tour, the reality of Brexit will in effect choke off much of their livelihood. The Labour MEP @RCorbettMEP has compiled a succinct (and quite alarming) list of the issues Brexit raises for professional musicians working in the classical arena: https://www.richardcorbett.org.uk/concerted-objections/
It’s important to note at this point that music is not a subsidiary, luxury, minor industry for the UK. We are the second biggest provider of music to the world after the USA. Music is of enormous benefit to us as a country. That is a fact, not an opinion. Nor is it special pleading. For a modern, developed country to deliberately, wilfully strangle one of its lead exporters is bordering on insane. Indeed, the Creative Industries as a whole are the fastest-growing sector in our economy, worth last year just under £100bn to our national coffers (to put that in context, in 2016 the NHS cost us £115bn). The Creative Industries Federation are deeply concerned about the knock-on effects of Brexit on this sector and have published their concerns accordingly: https://www.creativeindustriesfederation.com/newsletter-archive/brexit-report-impact-leaving-eu-uks-creative-industries
…as have the Musicians’ Union: https://www.musiciansunion.org.uk/Home/News/2018/Feb/Musicians-Union-Gives-Evidence-On-Free-Movement-f
….and my own professional composers’ body, BASCA https://basca.org.uk/2016/06/28/basca-reacts-brexit/
You’d imagine, perhaps, that being a professional composer might not be as severely affected by the end of Freedom of Movement within Europe as one would as a player, or as a highly-skilled video editor, sound engineer, or App developer. It’s true that the music itself will still be performed, in my case that means all over the world.
Anyone who’s ever been on holiday in Asia will have seen that copyright piracy is more or less endemic in these would-be vast markets for music and other creative forms. You can buy a DVD or a CD of more or less anything off the street, not to mention software programs or video games, and no-one is paying the creators of this work a cent for doing so. This includes, for example, the music that I write for the Mr Bean films, TV programmes and animated movies that have a massive audience all over the world. The laws that protect copyright-holders have during the past 40 years been harmonised across the EU and we as individuals, never mind individual countries, have unquantifiably more clout in negotiating with other territories as a unified group than on our own. It’s baffling why I even need to spell this out in the 21st century, as if there’s anyone left alive who doesn’t get this simple fact of the market place.
As it happens, European copyright laws have during my 40-year career as a professional composer been far more protective towards me and my fellow creators than our own UK government. That applies to the children of creators too. Thanks to our membership of the EU, in 1995, the UK’s old copyright term, life of the writer + 50 years, was increased to life of writer + 70 years.
The first giant wave of copyright piracy (let’s call it what it is – theft) was back in the day of cassette recorders. The music industry’s losses to cassette copying in the 1980s were seismic, even when compared to modern-day internet piracy. Creators’ organisations asked merely that there might be a small levy (15p I seem to remember was the figure proposed in the mid-80s) placed on the sale of every blank cassette to remunerate all the composers and musicians whose work was being ripped off by millions every day. The EU backed this request but the UK Tory government of the time, lobbied by the companies who were profiting from selling the cassettes and players, refused to grant the levy. The EU also responded to creators’ requests for the granting of so-called ‘Moral’ rights to writers, composers and copyright holders, so that, in an era where media were increasingly being transferred on, re-sold, syndicated and otherwise re-distributed, the original makers of a work would have to be acknowledged. Along with acknowledgement of someone’s contribution to a film, or record, or TV programme came a much greater likelihood that they would be remunerated as their work was shunted on down the line from enterprise to enterprise. Moral rights were therefore a good, fair idea and were also forward-thinking to the world of media distribution that is the norm in our new century. Guess what? The EU granted the rights and the Tory government in the UK took them away by statute (in 1988). Which, incidentally, rather refutes the Brexiteer trope that the EU ‘imposes’ its laws on our parliament.
So, as a composer of music that is disseminated all over the world I am extremely concerned that my interests will not be protected by our own government. History teaches us that Tories in government, with some honourable exceptions like former arts minister Ed Vaizey MP, are more interested in protecting the exploiters of creative work than in the people who create it in the first place.
Music publishing is of course a worldwide business but it has historical roots in our ‘domestic market’ of Europe and like most – if not all – other UK-based publishers, mine are having to create a new hub on European soil to cope with the impending disruption of their trade and the imposition of tariffs and border delays once we leave the Customs Union and/or Single Market. This relocation will cost a great deal of money that would otherwise be spent on doing their job of promoting and distributing the music of all of the composers whose work they publish. And, in a roundabout way, this money is partly my money, given that I am one of its earning clients. Jobs will also flow out of the UK to their new hub. This is a tiny microcosm of what businesses in every sector are currently having to do because of the coming cliff-edge of withdrawal from the EU. A flavour of this costly and totally unnecessary burden can be found in the following articles:
I write books. I’ve written two on the history of music that – in their modest way – are best-sellers in their field (I know I’m not exactly JK Rowling or Dan Brown, but they have been translated into many languages and are still on sale throughout the world).
Why would Brexit affect these sales? Well, surprise surprise, the ramifications of our leaving the EU are likely to impact badly on British publishers for all sorts of reasons. I am guessing the average book-reader (and referendum voter) has been totally unaware of these issues. There’s a New York Times article about all this which summarises the problems:
It does not make easy reading. The nub of it is that the difference to an author when we are no longer inside the EU is the difference between earning about a £1 royalty from the sale of a hardback, and earning a 10p royalty from the same book. Quite a big difference. Nadine Dorries MP is an author herself. I wonder if she knows that the re-configuring of British books as ‘export’ to the EU rather than ‘home market’, or that the UK will have to fight off competition from the much bigger US publishing houses for the sale of English-language books in Europe, is one of the consequences of the Brexit she espouses?
I have been making documentary films for the past 30 years or so. Filming with crews and equipment is relatively straight-forward anywhere within the EU. No carnets to fill, no border delays, no bribes to pay customs officials to release valuable materials. But filming in China, the USA or the Russian Federation, to name just three territories, as any film-maker will tell you, is another story altogether. We used to be world leaders in documentary making. We are about to make life vastly more difficult for this sector. Who will speak up for TV production companies in the negotiations over our new border controls? That’s right: no-one.
I write musicals, several of which have been put on in the West End. Most of them have been produced in other countries and there have been European language versions of several. For some reason, and I am hugely grateful, my musicals have been particularly well served in the Netherlands and Belgium. In recent years, the pool of highly-trained, highly-skilled performers that has enabled London to become a pre-eminent global centre for musical theatre has been enriched by a flow of European actors, dancers and singers, not to mention designers, lighting designers, scenic artists and choreographers. I am delighted to say quite a few of them are Dutch, so it’s not been an entirely one-way street. Once Freedom of Movement has gone, this part of the workforce will likely leave or be forced to leave, as has already been the case in many other sectors, especially health. Who amongst the 3 million EU citizens who have settled in the UK and whose work and skills hugely contribute to our society would now trust Theresa May’s hollow reassurances about their status and rights post-Brexit, now she has been revealed as the chief architect of the stripping of rights from the Windrush families? This shocking, repugnant state of affairs is not an administrative error but the result of a series of deliberate, targeted, racist policies that Mrs May boasted about to successive Tory conferences, and whose anti-migrant zeal has only been equalled by Amber Rudd as Home Secretary. Now they have been caught red-handed in the business of destroying lives they have suddenly stopped boasting about their aggressive policies, and are busy trying to shift blame, as they have for the notorious ‘Go Home’ vans. If I were a prime minister of any other country in the world right now, never mind an EU negotiator, I would already have concluded that not one word the UK Prime Minister utters is trustworthy or honourable.
And in any case, in an environment stoked with xenophobia, flames deliberately fanned by politicians to get their Brexit prize across the line, why would EU citizens want to stay?
Why not go somewhere more welcoming of their skills, like the large numbers of scientists and researchers considering moving to other countries as I write?
Never mind even researchers and the exceptionally skilled, we are as a country dependent on tourism, aren’t we? Why would foreigners want to visit a country that is so churned with loathing for them that innocent visitors are attacked on the tube simply for speaking their mother tongue?
These are the self-same visitors that I’d like to come to see my next West End show. So if you are asking me if Brexit and its associated xenophobic poison will make a difference to my industry, the answer is an emphatic yes, it will, a big and bad difference.
The theatre industry (and it is a big contributor to tourism) will find the next few years extremely challenging. An Arts Council England report published in the aftermath of the referendum revealed that ‘17% of the earned income of theatre organisations and 16% of that of dance organisations was generated by international activity – more than the sector-wide average. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s figures show £362 million (just over 56% of all exports) from the “music, performing and visual arts” sector go to Europe.’ EU funds for the arts are another concern. ‘EU structural funds have helped build and rebuild the theatre infrastructure of the UK (Sage Gateshead, Liverpool Everyman) and Creative Europe has helped instigate – and lubricate – international collaborations across the continent’ (James Doeser in The Stage). Who, right now, thinks that the UK government will fill these funding gaps, and all those other gaps in other sectors like scientific research or agriculture?
At the moment, the theatre industry is in fact worrying about its lighting, tungsten lighting to be precise, which is threatened with being banned if a proposed EU directive becomes mandatory. Right now, as participating members of the EU, we can use our voices to have this proposed law modified or halted; the industry is lobbying to give theatre an exemption from the proposed ban and London Labour MEP @SebDance, who sits on the relevant EP Environment committee, is actively making theatre’s case, in person, on behalf of our industry. (In truth, there are cogent and well-argued environmental reasons why tunsgten lights should be phased out for all our sakes’, it’s not just caricature ‘Brussels Bureaucrats’ interfering for the hell of it; were it not for theatre’s particular needs it is a good idea). In a few months’ time, we will have to accept this law whether we like it or not and we will have no representation, no MEPs like Seb Dance, no civil servants and no ministers to make our case, such is the nature of the transition deal being offered willy-nilly to the British public as a result of the in-fighting, fantasy promises and sheer incompetence of the government. We are being frog-marched towards a condition far less ‘sovereign’ than anything we have experienced as a nation in recent decades. We will have no power and no voice while the EU makes the rules we live by, rules we have been making and shaping as members for 40 years. Why on earth are we therefore leaving, if one of the reasons for voting Leave in June 2016 was ‘greater sovereignty’?
Finally, and being British I am coy saying so, I am an expert in my field.
Yes, that word. The word that Brexiteers have grown to hate. Even if the somewhat fascistic urge to attack experts, academics, intellectuals, judges and civil servants were to miraculously ebb after the moment of departure (and all historical precedent points to the fact that ugly populist policies and the identifying of scapegoats and ‘enemies of the people’ ends in catastrophe), the damage is already being done to our society. Open, outward-looking, progressive societies that celebrate diversity are the ones where cultural exchange happens and where it thrives. It has been one of the highlights of my career to have contributed musically to the Opening Ceremony of the London Games in 2012. That inclusive, confident Britain has been mortally weakened by the intolerance and bigotry that Brexit has legitimised. Even if we recover, in time, from this period of conflict and division, we will be less likely to be seen as a welcoming cultural hub for some considerable time. Unless you imagine that people from other countries do not read what is happening here, or do not see it on their TVs.
Music’s history is the story of cultural exchange and openness, of the convergence and flow of genres, styles and peoples. Music has a long history of renouncing racism and of building bridges between communities. Music has thrived in mixed societies that value education, that respect knowledge and the intellect, that enjoy difference, that cultivate an appreciation of beauty, that give space for experiment and encourage the young (who are in any case the principal agents of our world-class pre-eminence in popular music). In what way is the suppressing of the overwhelming desire of those under 35 to stay in the EU a recipe for a harmonious future? How is that going to work, in terms of social cohesion, I wonder?
Even if the economic arguments for this folly were sound, the depravity of the ‘hostile environment’ it has brought in its wake, the race-hate, the bullying, the targeted governmental callousness and breath-taking ministerial arrogance would be enough to render it an experiment bound to fail on a social level alone. A stench of recrimination and intimidation has begun to seep from the pronouncements of Brexit spokespeople in recent months, from John Redwood MP’s threat to ‘punish’ businesses for speaking out against the dangers of Brexit to James Cleverly MP’s tweeted comparison of (brilliant) satirical comedy writer David Schneider to his dog, for daring to question the economic case for Brexit. Elected politicians who stoop to threats and insults demean their office and public discourse in general. Is this the Britain we should expect after Brexit?
The chances of our plentiful, dynamic creative arts surviving in this vile atmosphere, time can only tell, after all, Shostakovich survived Stalin. But prospering, expanding, blooming? The lessons from history are not encouraging.