By Aliye Cornish
“Music is not mere entertainment, but rather one of the most powerful forces for good that we have. It makes us smile. It makes us weep. It brings us close to each other. We live in a world that all too often seems dominated by division ... it has the power to unite us in beauty and in strength”.
These were words from the conductor laureate of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis, when he addressed the 6,000 strong audience in the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday night’s Last Night of the Proms, with countless thousands listening and watching across the globe. This year, in addition to the many Union Jacks which traditionally adorn this event, the EU flag was extremely prominent.
These were offered for free to raise awareness of the plight facing UK musicians after Brexit. I supported this movement, as I am a freelance viola player who has appeared in several Proms over the last few years, most notably with Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists, and this year performing in Handel’s Theodora with the ensemble Arcangelo. The act of giving flags was reported as a "hijacking", but in the context of the support that we experienced from the music lovers in the audience that feels like a misplaced description.
Sir Andrew’s words will ring true for anyone who enjoys classical music. What many people don’t realize is that music is also hugely beneficial to our economy. The Incorporated Society of Musicians report that the music industry as a whole brings in £4.4 billion for our economy every year. Writing on the Musicians’ Union blog earlier this year, the Bristol West MP Thangam Debbonaire stated that music generates £2.5 billion of export revenue for the UK. Musicians are hugely concerned about losing freedom of movement. In the wake of the Proms, now is the ideal time to highlight the issues ahead and alert audiences to how Brexit stands to adversely affect classical music in this country. There is no point having these conversations in six months' time.
In a poll by the Incorporated Society of Musicians, a third said that 50% or more of their income comes via work in the other EU member states. So, following the vote to leave the EU, where does this leave us?
As it stands, my colleagues and I plan to undertake EU work post-Brexit. We hope that the UK achieves a deal with the EU, and we know that in this instance we will retain freedom of movement until the end of 2020, under a transition period. Currently if I am offered work with an orchestra in Paris, all I have to do is send them a form from HMRC which demonstrates my status as a UK tax payer so that they can pass my fee on to me after the gig without deducting tax in France.
If freedom of movement is lost, as it is likely to be following a transition period, then things become more complicated, as they were before the UK joined the EU. With the loss of freedom of movement we will be required to provide instrument carnets, work permits and/or visas to support our touring activities. As it stands, if you tour to the USA with an instrument then you must carry a document certifying all of the materials contained within it. If the customs officials suspect that your instrument contains a banned material then it will be destroyed. Now, I accept that it is unlikely that this sort of regulation will be applied overnight on 29 March 2019. But you can understand that no instrumentalist wants to take that risk.
It has been 18 months since the UK government triggered Article 50. Since then we have heard nothing about freedom of movement regarding services. Nothing. With just over 6 months until we leave that is simply extraordinary.
I am involved in organizing a tour with the Oxford-based orchestra Instruments of Time and Truth. We go to Spain for a week and leave the UK on 29 March 2019, which is the day that the UK is set to leave the EU. We have to get paperwork in place for 40-50 musicians. Do we only need paperwork for our return journey? Do we need to demonstrate on our return journey that we left the UK on 29 March, even though that technically wasn’t an issue at the time? Does every member of our choir and orchestra need to apply for a work permit? We have accepted the dates so I accept that this paperwork may well need to materialize. I cannot begin to deal with any paperwork until there is some guidance available. This is a shocking dereliction of duty by our government and the uncertainty, as in so many other sectors, is not good for business.
Going forward, if UK orchestras do need to generate this paperwork for tours in the EU then realistically the admin costs will need to be added on to our fee. Will a promoter in the EU want to book a UK group, or would they prefer a cheaper group from an EU member state operating without the costly burden of bureaucracy?
Do EU nationals playing in the Last Night of the Proms earn the £80,000 a year required to keep their place here? Every single Prom from this year’s festival would look and sound very different if you removed each non-UK EU national from the stage.
If music colleges have to charge EU nationals the rates which currently apply to non-EU countries, many will simply not be able to come. The talent pool decreases, and standards drop. How many music college professors from EU countries earn more than £80,000 per year? The UK has already lost two of its most prestigious training opportunities to Brexit; the European Union Youth Orchestra and the European Union Baroque Orchestra. The latter shaped my path into the profession and it’s a disgrace that our musicians will now miss out on these valuable training opportunities.
Artistic Director of the Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh, sums up the situation as follows. “Let's be realistic - leaving the EU is not going to prevent the Berlin Philharmonic appearing at the Proms. Nor will concert halls and opera houses in Vienna, Paris or Madrid cease to engage the most renowned UK soloists and singers. But the axe will fall very hard on the thousands of hard-working UK-based freelance musicians in orchestras, choirs and all sorts of musical ensembles across the EU, who are likely to face drastic loss of earnings.”
Going forward, I and the musicians with whom I stand are writing to our MPs, and working hard to protect our rights as performers. We ask those who would like to support us to also write to their MPs, to raise these issues. In order to maintain our place on the world stage we need to preserve freedom of movement in the EU so that we can continue to share the world-class music-making which happens in this country.
I end with an endorsement from mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly DBE, “The BBC Proms season is the greatest music festival in the world. It welcomes excellence from abroad and so the audience is bound to reflect this sense of unity. Music-making should be barrier and boundary free and in my understanding, Brexit is about limitation, narrow mindedness resulting in impoverishment. I whole-heartedly endorse Aliye’s thoughts and will add that when we are in peril, music has the duty to carry a powerful and important message.”
Aliye Cornish is a freelance viola player.
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