British Musicians Are Already Feeling the Pinch From Brexit

In 2010, Jonathan Clarke left his job as the principal trumpeter of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra to become a U.K.-based freelancer. He reasoned that high-paying gigs in Europe every year, plus the odd concert in his native Britain, would be enough to cover the bills.

And for a decade it did. “I left a major job to be a freelancer,” Clarke explains. “I wanted my children to grow up in Europe, and I wanted to be part of EU culture and concert halls, and thank God I had time to before Brexit.”

Once the U.K. formally rejected a clause that would allow U.K. citizens freedom of movement between EU countries, there were fears that it could cause irreversible damage to British musicians’ bottom line. Now, even before Covid-related lockdowns lift, the impact is being felt.

The stress and cost of work visa requirements, new taxes, and prohibitively high touring costs have upended the careers of Clarke and scores of British musicians, to the extent that many are considering moving to Europe. “There will be a new hub of freelancers in an EU country instead,” Clarke says.

British Musicians Are Already Feeling the Pinch From Brexit

“There will be an exodus of musicians, and there already is,” he continues. “Many have relocated to Berlin already. Music is an export and import industry, and our exports will reduce significantly, because we’re less employable. I don’t want to say that future out loud. If I weren’t settled with kids, I would definitely be leaving.”

Sara Wolstenholme is a violinist in the Heath Quartet, which normally tours Europe year-round. The quartet has an invitation to appear at a concert in Spain in May 2022, but with four work visas costing £232 ($320) apiece (over 30% of their fee), it is a significant pay cut. Wolstenholme is worried that some EU concerts will become scenarios in which quartets would be paying to perform. “Often, travel isn’t included,” she says, “or the hotel is paid for but not the flight. You have to ask yourself: Is the [opportunity] worth the money? It starts to look less viable.” 

Renegotiation Needed

Visas for musicians depend on individual countries’ rules (and each country comes with its own paperwork). Restrictions affect groups and ensembles the most by prohibiting them from making more than two destinations on a single tour because of the imposition of limits on road haulage—musical ensembles carrying their instruments in vans or trucks are being conflated with commercial haulage vehicles, which are subject to rules mandating their return to the U.K. after only two stops. 

British Musicians Are Already Feeling the Pinch From Brexit

Despite U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson appearing recently before a liaison committee and saying that the “government is flat-out and talking to EU partners,” Mark Pemberton, director of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), remains unconvinced.

“We don’t believe any progress has been made at all,” says Pemberton, and he’s pessimistic any progress will be. While the visa issue has arisen only with certain countries such as Spain, which have the power to address it by themselves, the haulage laws are EU-wide.

“This is how it is,” says Pemberton. “It can only be solved by a renegotiation of the trade and cooperation agreement.”

Byzantine Hurdles

Musicians have begun to discover even more byzantine hurdles.

Take, for example, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites, a global agreement that regulates or bans the international trade of species that are under threat. While period instruments made of ivory or endangered wood have always fallen under Cites restrictions, U.K. musicians before Brexit did not have to fill out any declarations as they shuttled between Britain and the continent.

British Musicians Are Already Feeling the Pinch From Brexit

Now, traveling with period instruments doesn’t just mean more paperwork. It means that the way musicians travel has to change, too, says Alison Heather of Bridge Arts Management. These laws are being “rigorously enforced” by the EU, she says. A British musician with a violin made from endangered wood can no longer take the train between London and Paris because the Eurostar has no Cites office, she says. “They have to fly.”

Practice Might Not Make Perfect

More prosaic concerns are truly bedeviling British artists. New, Brexit-related restrictions don’t just impede U.K. musicians’ abilities to tour in Europe, they also jeopardize artists’ ability to rehearse.

Heather explains that, especially for opera, “there’s a huge problem. Singers all go for rehearsal periods—around two rehearsals a week—and then fly around and do other things the rest of the week,” she continues. “For U.K. citizens, that’s become impossible. And it’s impacting the scheduling of bigger engagements.”

U.K. musicians are being treated as visa nationals by the EU, Pemberton explains, which means that a musician playing in France is seen as working in France, and is therefore subject to more rigorous rules than, say, a tourist. All those work permits and visas add up, not to mention lost time filling out paperwork.

Searching for a Way Forward

Nathaniel Boyd, a cellist in the Albion Quartet in London, says that on top of all this, the pandemic has heightened problems that were already present in the industry. Online concerts and virtual performances generate little money. During the lockdowns, “most people are doing things for free,” he says, and the whole industry is just “waiting for the dust to settle, to see whether they have the money to survive.”

British Musicians Are Already Feeling the Pinch From Brexit

Many of his fellow musicians, Boyd continues, have permanently left the world of classical music. “Despite the grants that some people are getting, a huge amount of disruption has happened already,” he says. “And it’s widened the divide between people who can afford to be musicians and those who can’t. It takes us several steps backwards.”

Of those choosing to relocate, the violinist Wolstenholme points out that life in a European city now makes more financial sense than living in the U.K. “There’s better pay in Germany, security is better, the financial setup is different,” she says.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Clarke says. “People are going to leave.”

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