Is the UK heading for cultural isolation?

Nigel Clarke | Sep 2021

According to a report by UK Music (published in November 2020) the UK music industry contributed £5.2 billion to the national economy in 2018. The same report also highlighted that overseas visitors to UK shows and festivals rose by 10% from 810,000 in 2017 to 888,000 in 2018. Since these heady days, the pandemic has hit and all economies and many industries throughout the world have been hugely impacted. However, unlike the rest of the world the UK has chosen in parallel to inflict the most grievous economic harm on itself by leaving the largest and most successful trading bloc that the world has ever known.

Unless rapid solutions are found, I believe the UK’s departure from the European Union on the 31 December 2020 will prove to have devastating and irreversible consequences for the future of music in the UK and entirely diminish the nation’s cultural standing in the world.

Of course, it’s not just about economics; music builds cultural bridges and always has been cross-border, even in the time of Beethoven. It was the Philharmonic Society of London that commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, from which the “Ode to Joy” was adopted as European Nation Anthem, chosen because it represented a vision of the human race coming together as brothers. Ironically, this was the very same anthem, which caused Nigel Farage and his fellow Brexit Party MEP’s to turn their backs when it was played in the European Parliament. How many of them knew its origins were in the UK? Some see the impact of Brexit as a one-way issue i.e. it will be more difficult for Brits to travel to the continent to participate in music projects. Equally impoverishing for our cultural life, however, will be the dwindling of the flow of continental European musicians coming to work and collaborate with their counterparts in the UK.

I was lucky enough to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London during the 1980’s. At that time, conservatoires like the Academy aimed to be a conduit for young talented musicians from around the world, including our European neighbours. Bringing in students from their various musical traditions was viewed as enriching and enhancing the education provided to all, whether homegrown or from abroad.

The UK government has now terminated its participation in ERASMUS (the EU student exchange programme). At the same time, it has changed the fee structure for EU students to study in the UK, making it financially prohibitive for our closest neighbours to study here. For example, an EU Bachelors student at a leading UK conservatoire must outlay £24,100 per year just for tuition and an eye-watering £27,450 for a Master’s degree. Compare this to, say, the University of Vienna for Music and the Performing Arts, one of the top rated music schools in the world, which charges €726.72 euros a year for international students, only slightly more than for EU/EEA students. It becomes obvious that the influx of students from our closest neighbours will quickly reduce to a trickle and this will inevitably result in a loss of influence and cultural reach. On the other side of the coin, the ending of free movement means our homegrown musicians have lost the opportunity to gain valuable experience and cultural exposure working in 27 other countries. The EU did offer dispensations for artists during the Brexit negotiations, but this offer was declined by the UK Government.

Another example of the impact on UK youngsters studying music – on the website for the prestigious European Union Youth Orchestra it states: Since the Transition Period following the UK’s Exit from the EU finished on 31 December 2020, UK musicians are unfortunately no longer eligible to apply to the EUYO”. This is the orchestra whose head office was in the UK before leaving British shores in May 2016. The tragedy of this story is that EUYO was a significant training ground for young British performers to work with their European counterparts.

Recently in the media, ‘big guns’ from the UK music world such as Sir Elton John and Sir Simon Rattle have been expressing their dismay and concern that the future of music is under threat. Such big names obviously attract media attention, but in actuality UK Music PLC is mainly a cottage industry made up of thousands of individual singers, songwriters, composers instrumentalists, music teachers and those that enable music to happen: music publishers, agents, roadies, music shops, concert halls, theatres and recording studios and staff. In addition, instrument manufacturers have seen their supply chain blighted by slower deliveries and overwhelming amounts of paperwork in relation to shipping. The whole of the industry is a diverse food chain that is delicately balanced.

An example of this is in my own field, composition. I come from a generation where an established composer is normally represented by a publisher, but so many writers, especially the younger age group in recent years, have begun to self-publish in what is very much a ‘hand to mouth’ industry. It is much harder for an individual to absorb the financial impact of Brexit. To prove this you only have to ask a simple question. How can selling a score of a piece of music to an ensemble or orchestra in the EU be competitive when VAT (which varies from country to country within the EU) and shipping is added, making the product far more expensive than for EU-based composers and writers? It is inevitable that this will result in our composers gradually being sidetracked and overlooked.   It is not that Europeans will not look to the UK for music, but the effort needed to work with UK musicians and those that offer other music services will probably soon become more trouble than it is worth and certainly more expensive.

UK ministers talk tritely of global Britain but the facts speak against this. This week, it was reported in Politico that the British Council, the UK’s main cultural and diplomatic institution abroad, is closing 20 offices around the world including in Europe. The British Council promotes cultural understanding and represents soft power. This devastating news might be just a Brexit- timed coincidence, but with the loss of such a cultural shop window to the UK, it hardly gives the impression that the UK is on the global march!

Music, like so many of the other art forms, knows no borders and is an international language. It is sad to think that talented students from our Universities and conservatoires will find it nearly impossible to work in the 27 countries of the EU. How will our leading orchestras continue to be world class when only choosing from a field of homegrown musicians?

It is up to us to try to keep UK music afloat until a more conducive political climate is in the ascendancy. Until that time comes, it is crucial to maintain relations with our European counterparts, create new relationships where possible and, above all, not become isolationist in our own thinking.

On 20 October, I will moderate a webinar on behalf of the EU-UK Forum. Our three industry experts on the panel will be Professor Linda Merrick (Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester), Paul Pacifico (CEO of the Association of Independent Music ) and Mark Pemberton (Director of the Association of British Orchestras). The aim will be to highlight problems that Brexit has brought to music and try to contemplate solutions and answers to the new reality.