British musicians pin their hopes on a Labour government

Image above: Independent Society of Musicians

“We were lied to”

It is now three years since the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement came into force. Three years since the Independent Society of Musicians, which represents more than 11,000 musicians, discovered with horror that despite all the assurances they had been given that their ability to tour EU countries freely would not be affected, there was not a single mention of the creative industries in the agreement. No visa waiver, no nothing.

“We had been lied to” the Chief Executive Officer of the society, Deborah Annetts, told The Chiswick Calendar. “There were provisions for other sectors of the economy, but for the creative industries it has been a hard Brexit.”

It has meant that they do not have freedom of movement. Musicians and other artists in the creative industries – theatre, dance, modelling, fashion – as well as their support crews: sound engineers, lighting technicians and stage managers, have to get visas and work permits, fill out complicated forms and pay fees to take their instruments, equipment, trucks and merchandise across borders, to meet regulations which change from country to country within the EU. It makes touring from one country to another a nightmare.

Images above: Library image of musicians

Musicians unable to tour in Europe

There are so many obstacles in the way of touring that the complications and the costs make it prohibitive for many musicians and artists to perform in continental Europe any more, closing off a huge pool of opportunity which they used to be able to take for granted. The ISM has lobbied continuously to get this changed:

“We have sent letters, made representations, written reports, delivered a petition with more than 100,000 signatures that generated a debate in parliament, and … nothing,” Deborah told us, so now they have given up hope of this government ever doing anything about it.

The obvious solution would be a reciprocal arrangement with EU countries to allow performers to travel without visas.

“They won’t tackle it because they are worried about how the mobility issue would play in the Red Wall seats,” said Deborah. “I was told that in a meeting with the Cabinet Office. They could not get past the concern that it wouldn’t fly with the Red Wall.”

The Labour Party lost 47 seats in England in the 2019 General Election, all of which had voted to leave the EU by a substantial margin, voting against freedom of movement within Europe.

Image above: Hilary Benn MP

“Labour have been much more positive”

Instead the musicians’ association has put its faith in Labour. An august and usually conservative (with a small ‘c’) organisation, which has represented many well-known classical musicians,  including Edward Elgar in its early days, it is disgusted by the government’s unwillingness to support the creative industries.

“Labour have been much more positive,” said Deborah. “They know the creative industries are an important part of the economy [£116 billion pre-pandemic, more in a year than the aerospace, automotive, life sciences and oil and gas sectors combined]. They have signalled that they will commit to a visa waiver agreement.”

There could be a reciprocal visa-free travel arrangement with the EU for performers without unpicking the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, she says. She was at a Fabian Society conference recently at which Shadow Cabinet member Hilary Benn MP said Labour would be pursuing a visa waiver agreement.

Hilary Benn was the chairman of the Select Committee on Brexit from October 2016 – January 2021. He wrote to Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to extend the committee’s lifespan in order to evaluate the impact of the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement on the UK; a request which was denied.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Society of Musicians now wants the members of her professional association, their relatives and friends, to lobby their member of parliament and, when it comes to it, all the candidates in their local constituency on the issue.

Image above: Independent Society of Musicians’ Paying the Price report, August 2023

Society’s report shows almost half their members have had less work in Europe since January 2021 than they had before Brexit

The Society brought out a landmark report last August, ‘Paying the Price’, detailing their members’ experiences of trying to tour post Brexit – the first since the COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted.

Their members had experienced fewer job opportunities because of Brexit, they had lost work, they had to spend more time and pay more money to deal with the increase in red tape. They had also come up against a lack of consistency from border staff as they tried to navigate the new rules.

Almost half (47.4%) of the respondents to their survey said that they had less work in the EU after January 2021 than they did before Brexit. Over a quarter (27.8%) said that they had none at all. Some had left the industry altogether. Others (39%) had to turn down work because of the difficulties.

“European opera companies are reluctant to audition UK singers since the changes” said one respondent to the survey.

“Having previously taught regularly on many courses all over Europe, since Brexit I have not been invited to teach anywhere” said another.

“Work has come to a halt” said another. “The offer of European gigs simply dried up completely… my band simply can’t make any kind of living in the tiny UK market, so we basically have folded as a working band.”

‘The issues are particularly problematic for solo and emerging artists’ the report said.

One of their members commented: ‘The larger artists I work for can absorb the extra cost of the red tape, but smaller ones won’t tour there now.’

The report called for the government “to take responsibility for its role in damaging the music and creative industries and take the steps which are well known to them to make Brexit work.”

Now they have given up on this government and are looking to the next one.