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How will the Brexit deal affect musicians?

Leaving the EU highlights the underlying structural problems of the music industry that make it almost impossible for musicians to sustain themselves and their art, says BEN LUNN

AFTER four years of bickering, squabble, fearmongering, chaos and underhand tactics, Brexit has finally happened; a deal finally struck. 

Despite the genuine concerns surrounding the uncertainty of Brexit, the British government and the EU made sure neither lost out. 

The deal has very clearly been in the favour of a certain sector of the populace, however a hefty response from the trade union movement could make quite remarkable changes to this capitalist sovereignty and shift it to a more democratic/popular sovereignty. 

For musicians, across all parts of the UK, the deal brings some clarity, as well as a lot of confusion and uncertainty. 

This is partly due to the lateness of the deal, which means many musicians have not had any real opportunity to prepare for the changes — despite the incessant advertisements telling us to prepare for something we vaguely know is coming, but have no idea what to prepare for. 

As mentioned in previous articles for the Morning Star, for the global music superstars Brexit has no impact at all, as agents, managers and record labels will happily invest in an individual, band or orchestra that sees a quick buck in return. 

For many freelancing musicians, this shape of Brexit spells a lot of problems which could be solved on two fronts. 

First, due to the shift in freedom of movement, the new visa system, which has yet to be detailed, means a bit more paperwork for musicians gigging or auditioning on the Continent. 

The costs are unclear, however. If travel on the Continent does reflect the “Canadian model,” which we have been reassured is what Brexit is, the costs will not be too hefty, and may apply for a particular period and not on a per visit basis, which would be preferable in the immediate term.

This, however, is mere speculation until it is officially announced what travel in the EU will actually look like. 

In turn, this uncertainty means individuals looking to get gigs in festivals, organise tours, audition or take part in summer courses on the Continent will have to wait longer before they can organise themselves and plan into the future.

The nature of taxation is currently the clearest element for gigging musicians. (Who would have thought a trade agreement would be the clearest part? It’s almost like they know how to squeeze more out of the workers). 

As currently stated by the deal, tax simply would be paid in the country one is in. An opera singer doing a Fest Contract (Festspiel) with a German opera house would not have to worry about giving any tax to the British government. 

This is simply a positive as it would be less paperwork for freelancers and stops individuals having to juggle complications of exchange rates and other elements in their annual tax returns. 

Covid-19 and Brexit, like all political and economic crises, have laid bare many problems in Britain, as the ruling powers cannot kid us with the distraction of wealth and prosperity. 

For musicians, in all genres, we have an already damaged infrastructure which in turn was battered by Covid-19. 

This has led to a huge and concerted effort from the Musicians Union, the Incorporated Society of Musicians, Equity, Bectu and many professional workers desperate not to lose their livelihoods. 

The Self-Employment Income Support Scheme was a pretty naff bandage to cover the economic wound, especially as it barely covered the majority of workers, myself included. 

Venues needed desperate support, and thankfully after a lot of pressure they have been given it. 

However, many smaller venues have missed out, meaning many places are at risk of complete collapse. 

On top of this, there has been a big push to make sure streaming services like Spotify actually pay decently. 

This is a necessity — honest pay for honest work. 

However I have a sneaking suspicion a lot of this effort and the concessions were a way to take the pressure away from making sure live performances get the support and coverage they need. 

Why pay musicians better for live gigs when they can make a steady income putting their work online? 

Alongside this, the Musicians Union has continued to campaign for the Musician’s Passport which would effectively allow greater freedom for artists to travel within the EU to do the work they wish to do on the Continent. 

Its aims are good, and I’ll continue to support my union’s efforts in this, however I fear this campaign misses out on the efforts that need to be fought for at home. 

Covid-19 has shown how woefully supported the arts have been for a long time and — much to everyone’s surprise — a system where many are living from job to job or project to project is actually unsustainable. 

On top of this, education has taken a battering. Our teachers have fought nobly throughout this pandemic, and the abuse they have received from the media and politicians is just heinous. 

However, despite the intense efforts, music education has suffered incredibly, mostly due to safety concerns over singing and playing wind instruments during the pandemic. 

This has seen many drop out and we risk losing a generation of young musicians because we did not have the ability to keep them supported through this horrendous year. 

In a previous article in these pages, I pointed out the need for greater investment and support for orchestras, to push the spread of classical music across the entirety of the UK. 

This point remains true. However, what we need now is greater urgency and drive. 

Our music teachers need continued support to make sure we still have generations of kids learning during and after this pandemic. 

Our venues need support, regardless of genre. This support should be pressed with a stipulation that they actually pay fairly, and do not discriminate against individuals. 

Our musicians need more places to work as well as the ability to earn well on it, so musicians are not dependent on performing with numerous groups to make ends meet. 

Our composers need ensembles, venues and groups that actively commission and pay them well so they do not have to rely on numerous forms of work to make ends meet — a portfolio career is not a progressive option and only encourages artists to spread themselves too thinly. 

I have been fortunate that the Musicians Union has allowed me to take a position of leadership when campaigning for the rights of disabled musicians, however I fear that without matching the efforts for a Musician’s Passport with a campaign for a local infrastructure, we risk allowing musicians to become more alienated. 

Due to the nature of musical work, touring is a vital component but without a native infrastructure too, we risk having generations of musicians living almost like nomads constantly travelling and never actually being allowed a home or a community in which to live. 

Ben Lunn is chair of the Musicians Union Disabled Members Network and chair of North Lanarkshire Trades Council.

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