Geldof is wrong – the arts can thrive after Brexit
What lies ahead for the arts and culture industries? Disaster or exciting new horizons? In the past week, we’ve had two very different views of that question. The open letter from Bob Geldof, signed by a number of worthies in the musical world from Simon Rattle to Sting, sees only disaster, in the shape of Brexit. Geldof declares that, when it comes to music, “Britain does still rule the waves. Why? Because we are brilliant at it. It reaches out, all inclusive, and embraces everyone… That is proper Global Britain.”
Well that’s a bit overstated, but it’s good to see patriotism burning bright in the heart of a Remainer. And it’s true Britain is the second biggest exporter of music, after the US. And, yet, Sir Bob thinks that all this is in danger of vanishing in a puff of smoke. He says that touring, sales, royalty collation and copyright legislation will all be negatively affected by
Brexit, and then leaps to this apocalyptic conclusion: “We have decided to put ourselves in a self-made cultural jail!” What are we to make of this treatise? Geldof makes some valid points. There are very real practical issues to be faced. The fall in the exchange rate has already had a negative impact on touring, though it has also made UK artists cheaper for foreign promoters (there’s always a cloud and a silver lining in any change to the exchange rate). But Geldof spoils his case by exaggeration, and hinting at disasters where none exist. He tells us that 60per cent of all royalty revenue comes from within the EU. Well yes, and after March 30 2019, the business of collecting and distributing royalties, in and out of the UK, will carry on exactly as before. And there are no plans to change the period of copyright legislation. Turn from Geldof ’s vision of imminent catastrophe to the leaders of Britain’s cultural industries, and you find a very different picture.
Last week, they held their annual summit, at which the “B-word” was hardly mentioned. Instead, their focus was on other pressing issues within the creative sector of the UK economy, a sector which, it should never be forgotten, is worth more than oil and gas, life sciences and aerospace put together. Subjects under discussion included the role of rapidly changing technologies, the fact of changing patterns in the workplace, where around a third of all workers are freelance, and problems of intellectual property and piracy. There were sessions discussing ways Britain could make better use of culture as “soft” power, how creative industries can make cities more liveable and efficient, how they can contribute to urban design and the conservation of the built and the natural environment.
What was striking about the summit was the sense of adventure and possibility. What’s striking about Geldof ’s missive is its lip-smacking gloom. He treats any problem as a herald of disaster, rather than a challenge to be faced. There’s also his glaring non sequitur, of saying that to foster a sense of open, “Global Britain” we have to continue our current political and economic ties with Europe, forever. But why should we privilege theatre companies and orchestras from Lyon over those from Cape Town or Melbourne or Minsk? You may say: because we have ancient cultural ties to western Europe.
But if those ties are strong, they will reveal themselves naturally in the choices made by audiences and artists and promoters; it’s not the business of government to enforce them, by making life easy for some and hard for others. Surely, what we want is an immigration policy that makes it possible to welcome talented musicians and artists – as well as engineers and care workers – from anywhere. It is undoubtedly true that when Brexit takes effect, the arts will face practical and economic problems when it comes to importing to and exporting from Europe. The paperwork involved in inviting an orchestra from the EU takes one hour of administrative labour; this could rise after Brexit to the level of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which takes 100 hours.
Even if British artists and musicians visiting Europe can overcome visa issues, they will still have to pay up to 20per cent of their fees in social security costs, from which they are, at present, exempt. Fortunately, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, has made it clear that he is keenly aware of these issues, and is seeking to address them, for example, by lowering the income threshold for long-term residence, which at £30,000 is far too high for the arts sector. There are numerous other issues to sort out, and time is short, but shortage of time has a wonderful way of concentrating minds.
It’s easy to see what lies behind Geldof ’s open letter. By painting a picture of imminent disaster, he’s adding his voice to the clamour for a second referendum. It would be more productive, and certainly more responsible, to see life for the arts after Brexit as a challenge, even – dare I say – as an adventure. Isn’t that what the arts are supposed to be about?
Ties: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under the baton of Andris Nelsons, above; Bob Geldof, below left