By trade, I am a composer and conductor, and cynicism of the EU is very hard to find in a profession that has come to depend on the freedom of movement to make work a possibility. If anyone observes the activities of my trade union, they would know they actively campaigned for the, now, unsuccessful ‘People’s Vote’ and are currently backing Keir Starmer as the new Labour leader because of his pro-EU credentials; this campaign is also accompanied by a campaign for a ‘Musician’s Passport’ which aims to make touring and performing in the EU easier once we lose the access to freedom of movement.
After the failure to stop Brexit happening, many musicians, composers, conductors, and others in the field have been in a state of shock and almost nihilistic dread due to scary prospects of what the future entails. To understand why musicians are in the circumstances we are in, there is a lot to unpack.
Firstly, if we look at why musicians are dependent on freedom of movement, we need to check our own affairs. The infrastructure and trajectory from learning an instrument, to becoming a professional, to maintaining a livelihood, which can support a family is crumbling. If we look at the recent cuts across the board in Scotland alone, access to musical education is disappearing, meaning the ability to get the first rung of the ladder is incredibly difficult.
If we take the next step, and look at higher education, music colleges like the Royal Academy of Music, Royal Scottish Conservatoire, and Guildhall dominate professional life (especially within classical music). The number of jobs which exist are already fiercely fought for; but trying to make an impact without an esteemed music college on your CV can make it even harder.
Then finally, observing the spread of large scale musical institutions (orchestras and opera companies primarily) we see that only two opera companies, Welsh National Opera and English National Opera, have a full-time chorus meaning all other companies rely on ‘freelance’ contracts – so singers are effectively fighting from production to production. While in comparison, orchestras are heavily concentrated within London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester, Bournemouth, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Gateshead; meaning if you are not based within commuting distance most of the stable work is not accessible to you.
This has meant the vast majority of musicians rely on being on multiple dep. lists, extra chorus lists, and travelling constantly for work. Many British musicians now live and work in Germany due to the stable infrastructure that exists for both opera and orchestral musicians; with every city having an opera house and orchestra. So, it is understandable that when the EU referendum appeared the Musician’s Union, and many musicians, actively supported remaining because livelihoods did depend on it.
Once the result came, I fear an opportunity was missed, not just by musicians but by the Left and trade union movement in general. Outside of the EU we are completely free to devise our political and economic landscape as we wish: so, if we wanted, we could create a neo-liberal hellscape, a US micro-nation, or a more Socialist (or Social-Democrat) inclined society, the choice is ours. When the result came out, many pro-remain people focused on how the campaign lied, pointing towards the infamous bus campaign, and various other failings within the predominantly UKIP and Tory Brexit campaign.
The Left was divided, choosing either to respect the vote, but with very little popular backing spent a lot of time in small venues discussing to similar likeminded individuals, or were wanting to fight against the democratic mandate, often taking out anger at the pro-Brexit left. This meant that the Right were not taken to task. We can point out that the number on the bus was wrong, but what could have been if we actively forced the government to provide that number once the result came in?
With this kind of mindset, personally, the brightest future musicians could hope for in Britain is a vast construction of a cultural infrastructure which places orchestras within reasonable distance of John O’Groats and the farthest reaches of Shetland and Orkney. An opera in all cities – imagine what the cultural landscape of Britain would be like if Canterbury, Bangor, Exeter, Inverness, Sunderland, Carlisle, and the Isle of Man had a stable opera house.
If venues actively ensured musicians gained decent wages, but also gained decent coverage because British musicianship deserves celebration because it is ours. After the Kamikaze efforts of Labour in the general election, at this moment in time, this vision is a utopian vision; however, just because it is utopian should that mean we cannot wish for it to happen?
After years of fighting Brexit finally happened, and Britain looks set to completely lose access to what the EU has to offer at the end of the calendar year. This of course has not come about through unanimous consensus of the British public, much like the margin of the initial vote; divided is a very light way of describing the political situation in Britain. However, when it comes to the EU, one sector is an incredible 90% in favour of the EU; that is the musicians.
At this moment in time, Boris Johnson and the Tories seem eager to push for a neo-liberal hellscape, cutting everything and only investing in what could constitute as a fast buck. The recent announcement of the ‘points-based visas’ show our freedom from EU red tape will be replaced by good ol’ British Imperial red tape. However, this does not mean that within a few years the cultural sector will die. The top end of music (namely the economically successful top, I’ll let the reader assess the quality of the ‘top’) will be unaffected.
The highest quality musicians, conductors, orchestras, and opera stars will still perform in Britain; because it is profitable and will be worth an agent’s time investing. The fighting for work within Britain for the rest of us will get harder if we accept things as they are. It can already be noticed that organisations like the British Council, British Embassies in the EU, and EU Embassies in Britain are increasing activity to promote cultural relations because it is no longer easy. So, in a strange backward manner, making work less easy is forcing cultural organisations to actually work harder for musicians. This will, however, only benefit those who are given the gigs or the funding or support.
For everyone else, we are at a crossroads. If we sit back and complain about losing the freedom of movement instead of fighting for a beneficial compromise our profession and our livelihoods will suffer. However, if our trade unionism, our unity, and our energies are focused at putting the government to the sword the necessary investments in education, institutions, festivals, record companies, and other extraneous necessities we could turn our present moment into an opportunity to turn our nation into a nation where culture is more actively entwinned into the fabric of society.
As Christopher Caudwell pointed out, it was not the Marxists that made art political. Art is a social phenomena which is constrained by our political and economic circumstance; meaning regardless of whether we make ‘art for arts sake’ we still live on this island and now actively have to fight to make sure we are connected to this island in the next stages of its journey.
Composer and Conductor