‘British music will be silenced in a self-built cultural jail’
Fears grow for the creative industries
Last year, the British music industry posted record-breaking sales not seen since the commercially bloated days of Britpop. Revenues rose by 10.6%, the £92bn creative sector grew at twice the rate of the national economy, and the former rough-sleeping, street busker Ed Sheeran became the world’s biggest-selling pop star.
And yet the industry is gripped by
the fear that Brexit will shatter that success and cause irreparable damage to the UK’s cultural influence and output. In an open letter to the prime minister today, organised by Bob Geldof and backed by dozens of pop, rock and classical heavyweights including Sheeran, Rita Ora, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Simon Rattle, and Brian Eno, the sector makes an urgent call for a rethink on Brexit.
“We are about to make a very serious mistake regarding our giant industry and the vast pool of yet undiscovered genius that lives on this little island,” the letter warns. It predicts that the “vast voice” and reach of British music will be silenced in a “self-built cultural jail”.
One of the signatories, the broadcaster and award-winning composer of choral music Howard Goodall, said he believed the time had come to put diplomatic reserve to one side.
“Bob’s letter is passionate and very emotional and that is one of the things missing from the wider debate,” he told the Observer this weekend. “A lot of musicians will have believed that there would be some sort of musicians’ passport arrangement. People are going to lose their jobs if there’s no deal, and even if there is a Chequersstyle deal, there will be no provision for this kind of professional travel. Everything is going to change.”
On Wednesday, the prime minister pledged to abolish article 45 of the EU charter of fundamental rights, which grants freedom of movement to EU citizens, and “bring in a new immigration system that ends freedom of movement once and for all”. The letter describes this as “a serious madness”.
Geldof said that everyone he had asked to add their support to the campaign said yes.
The fallout for the industry and its stars is stark – and expensive. Last month, Lily Allen joked that had she won the Mercury music prize, the £25,000 prize money would have been spent on “visa applications after Brexit”.
Alex Sushon, a producer and DJ better known as Bok Bok, told the
Observer: “I am definitely living in fear of having to secure weekly visas to European destinations in order to keep working. It is a daunting prospect.” Sushon, who runs Night Slugs – one of the UK’s most influential music labels – said that curbs to freedom of movement within Europe would be “pretty devastating” for him, and for many more DJs and producers: “Probably 50% of my income depends on it.”
For Massive Attack, who have sold more than 11m albums worldwide, Brexit poses more than a financial problem. “I will never complain about paying taxes or extra costs,” said band member Robert del Naja. “But I find it morally repugnant that Britain expects the rules should be different for us.”
Del Naja is clear that “without Europe, we would not be the band we are now. When we played in France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the audience there defined what we became.”
Speaking to the Observer, Al Doyle, a member of Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem, felt that there was little chance of his bands having the same success if they were starting out now. “With Hot Chip, we didn’t wait to get big in the UK and then match that in Europe – we were always going out there. It is completely plain and unarguable that British music will suffer – it just depends on how much you care about that.”
For small venue owners and record labels, the problems are manifold. Stephen Bass, co-owner of Moshi Moshi Records, the independent that first signed Bloc Party, Kate Nash and Florence + the Machine, predicted that “any change to travel rules” would have “a dramatic effect on the fortunes of the [bands] I look after and the crew of people involved in live shows”.
“Countries like America make it increasingly difficult to tour, and effectively cut themselves off from being a territory in which Moshi Moshi acts can perform and generate income. To have our near neighbours isolating us in a similar way would be a disaster for us and even worse for bands starting out in their careers,” he said.
Auro Foxtrot, who owns London gig and club venues Village Underground and Evolutionary Arts Hackney, said difficulties had been building since the referendum. “The exchange rate is a massive issue and when the pound crashed, artist fees went through the roof and lots of shows got cancelled [across the UK].” To him, the impact on thriving club culture is immense. “Those things develop through exposure of new ideas, different ways of viewing the world, other takes on society. If you close it and slim it down, you cut off collaboration, understanding and tolerance.”
British musicians, including, from left, Jarvis Cocker, Johnny Marr, Rita Ora, Ed Sheeran, Robert Del Naja and Bob Geldof, fear EU departure will damage the industry.