Like any other industry, the music business will feel the effects of tomorrow’s referendum. We investigate what might happen if the UK votes Leave
Tomorrow, the British public will vote on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union, or whether it should leave. While the overriding debate around the EU referendum has mostly focused on big narratives of immigration, sovereignty and the economy, Brexit could also cause subtle but potentially seismic changes to the things that people in the UK currently take for granted. Every British industry is likely to feel the ramifications of a Leave vote, and the music industry is no different.
The UK’s music industry is one of the largest and most influential in Europe. According to the BPI, the trade body that represents much of the UK’s recorded music, one in four albums sold in Europe over the last year was by a British artist, while more than half of the UK’s labels see at least a quarter of their sales come from Europe. Despite this, few musicians have spoken up about the referendum, and many were unwilling to talk for this feature. It’s understandable – the EU is hardly a glamorous subject, and it’s also a complex one that no one totally ‘gets’. But nobody wants or expects Skepta to start talking knowledgeably about export tariffs, or for James Blake to put forward a passionate case for Lexit – they just want to hear what they think. The music industry is still an industry, and musicians are workers too. They should have their opinions heard as much as anyone else.
So what might happen to the music business if Britain votes Leave? Here are just a handful of ways things could change.
TOURING COULD GET TOUGHER
For British touring bands and DJs, the ability to hop on a train to Paris or a plane to Portugal and play a show is, currently, relatively hassle-free. This is because they have freedom to move around the Schengen Area, which consists of 26 countries on mainland Europe. “If a band goes to America or Russia or South America, you have to get lots of documents, lots of visas, lots of paperwork; moving equipment in and out of the country is a pain in the arse,” explains Metronomy’s Joseph Mount. “The great thing about touring Europe is that you can just get in a van and drive around. And that’s the same not just for big bands, but (also) if you’re in a smaller band driving yourself.”
However, Brexit could put an end to this free ride, meaning that a European tour would require artists to get visas and work permits to play in the Schengen Area. This wouldn’t just mean more paperwork for bands to fill out – it would raise the cost of touring, too. According to research conducted by Ticketbis, a Schengen visa would cost €60 per person – which might be manageable for a lone DJ, but not for a five-piece band and tour manager. On top of this, acts would be required to get a ‘carnet’, which lets them import and export their equipment without paying any tax on it. Unless a band has the backing of a large label (or a private source of wealth), it’s easy to imagine the extra costs locking them out from touring Europe entirely, worsening the already too wide class divide in the music industry.
This wouldn’t be as big a deal if Britain was a particularly good market for bands, but with effectively non-existent revenues for recorded music, endless venue closures, and a collapsed regional touring circuit, Europe is one of the few revenue streams left for emerging artists – especially as European gig and festival fees are generally higher than those in Britain. Would Britain’s own dwindling venues get a boost from bands swapping European tours for national tours, visiting regional venues and helping to revive the music scenes in provincial towns? Like anything to do with the referendum, no one really has a clue.
“If a band goes to America or Russia or South America, you have to get lots of documents, lots of visas... The great thing about touring Europe is that you can just get in a van and drive around” – Joseph Mount, Metronomy
AND LIVING ABROAD COULD GET TOUGHER, TOO
1.3 million Britons are estimated to live in Europe, many of whom are creatives that left the UK for cities like Berlin and Paris. Planningtorock is a musician and Bolton native who has been based out of the Berlin for the past few years. Although her major concern around the referendum is that a Conservative government, unencumbered by EU law, would further erode human rights laws, she is also personally concerned about how Brexit would affect her ability to move between the UK and Germany. “If the UK does leave the EU, would it affect my ease of travel?” she asks. “I am a German resident, but travel between Berlin and Bolton on a regular basis as my sister is disabled and I need to be able to return to the UK to take care of her in the future. This whole issue of the UK leaving the EU feels like such a waste of time and money, irresponsible even. There are way more pressing issues out there that need those resources, like the refugee crisis.”
Campaigners for Remain have been somewhat irresponsible when speaking to these expats – former attorney general Dominic Grieve insisted that they’d “find themselves becoming illegal immigrants overnight”, despite the fact that it will take at least two years for the UK to actually leave the EU following a vote for Brexit. In the event of Brexit, Britons currently living abroad would probably be fine – if a country like Germany were to suddenly start deporting expats, the UK would retaliate by doing the same thing back – but it would cause problems for anyone wanting to move to abroad in future as they’d be bound to whatever immigration agreements arise out of post-Brexit negotiations.
The practical problems of this would likely lead to more abstract problems. Countless musicians have left their home country to live and work abroad, and their art is often directly impacted by the environment it was created in. It’d also be a huge creative loss – albeit a loss that’s impossible to quantify – if artists were unable to easily move to or from Europe to participate in a local scene in future.
“This whole issue of the UK leaving the EU feels like such a waste of time and money, irresponsible even. There are way more pressing issues out there that need those resources, like the refugee crisis” — Planningtorock
VINYL WILL PROBABLY BECOME MORE EXPENSIVE
Because vinyl (and CDs, which people apparently still buy) is an actual, tangible, physical product, it’s much easier to discuss the impact that Brexit might have on its future. Imports could theoretically become cheaper if the UK negotiates favourable trade agreements with different countries, but the cost of manufacturing would probably go up. The majority of UK-based labels press their records in European countries – GZ Media in the Czech Republic, for example, is the biggest vinyl manufacturer in the world. As Frank Merritt of The Carvery mastering studio explained to The Vinyl Factory, UK businesses don’t currently have to pay import taxes when trading with other EU companies, but that would most likely change in the event of Brexit, pushing up wholesale prices and causing labels to charge more to make up for it. Vinyl sales might be up right now, but it’s unlikely this trend will continue if the public have to fork out more for a record – especially if the British economy sinks into a recession following withdrawal from the EU. There is a limited number of pressing plants left in the world, so it would be tricky for labels to simply shift production to the UK.
if nothing else convinces u… a vote leave is a vote for turning an already fucked vinyl manufacturing situation for UK labels much worse— modern love (@ourmodernlove) June 7, 2016
LOSING EU FUNDING COULD HARM VENUES
Although it’s rarely spoken too loudly, the EU does provide some funding to the arts in Britain. The EU gives more than £1 billion to the creative industries, and UK applications for arts funding apparently has a 46 per cent success rate, while various venues around the country benefit from additional finances provided by EU programmes. Speaking to Pitchfork, London’s Village Underground explained that they receive funding from programmes like Liveurope to host emerging European artists on their bills, money that helps the venue stay afloat while diversifying their lineups, while ongoing projects like Creative Lenses are designed to help venues like their own develop new business models.
On the flipside, new funds might have to be opened up to help British bands with future costs of touring Europe. London pop group Kero Kero Bonito have received grants from both the BPI and PRS For Music (neither of which use EU funding) to help them fund their North American tours, but these were only awarded as they’d built up a strong fanbase in the UK and Europe beforehand. “While we’re really fortunate to have received PRS and BPI funding for our first US shows, we’ve never even had to apply for grants for EU touring because there are no visa costs and travel is so much cheaper,” explains the band’s Gus Lobban. “Brexit is clearly a terrifying move for international British businesses – which, in this digital and almost totally globalised world, include everything from family-run Cornish pasty makers to a band like Let’s Eat Grandma. If the UK becomes a place where bands have to jump hurdles to cross the Atlantic and the Channel, it’s going to be that much less competitive as a music hub. Europe is a lifeline for British creatives, and the idea that some of the world’s greatest artists are going to be at a needless disadvantage is unbearable. Don’t even get me started on the fact that all of the above applies whether or not the Leave campaign’s arguments are inflammatory, easily-debunked mistruths.”
“Europe is a lifeline for British creatives, and the idea that some of the world’s greatest artists are going to be at a needless disadvantage is unbearable” — Gus Lobban, Kero Kero Bonito
COPYRIGHT WOULD BE AFFECTED, BUT IT’S NOT OBVIOUS HOW
The EU is currently reviewing the copyright rules around music that make sure tech companies like YouTube pay fair rates to artists whose music is streamed on their platforms. BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor backs Remain, arguing that withdrawal from the EU could take Britain out of the talks that determine the copyright rules that dictate how royalty rates are distributed. Speaking to Pitchfork, entertainment lawyer Gregor Pryor downplayed the effect that Brexit would have on copyright law, but explained that the UK doesn’t hold intellectual copyright laws in as high a regard as countries like France do, which would be bad news for rights holders.
NO ONE REALLY KNOWS, AT THE END OF THE DAY
With all said and done, no one really knows what will happen if the country votes Leave tomorrow. While most of these points are grounded in some sort of realism, they’re still what could or might happen. And given that it’ll take at least two years to negotiate the UK’s exit strategy (probably longer – if it’s taken seven years to even get close to releasing the Chilcot Inquiry, how long will it take to undo 40 years of EU legislation?), Brexit won’t exactly cause a shockwave in the music industry as much as a series of slow wheezes. We’ll just have to see what happens on Friday morning.