Blue Passports and Narrowed Horizons

Aliye Cornish
28 January 2021

Between 1763 and 1766 a young Mozart, aged just seven, was taken on a Grand Tour of Europe by his parents in order to show off his precocious talents. Travelling from Salzburg to Munich they then went on to Frankfurt and Brussels before resting in Paris for five months. There was a subsequent trip to London, where Mozart wrote his first symphonies, before returning home via the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Mozart (Wikimedia Commons)

The opportunity to travel freely, experience different cultures and exchange ideas, has long been a source of inspiration for creatives. The UK’s membership of the EU granted Freedom of Movement across the bloc to all UK citizens, which took away the previous need for work visas and carnets which were a costly and time-consuming drain on resources. This new framework allowed new training and co-operation projects to flourish, most notably the European Union Youth Orchestra and European Union Baroque Orchestra, both of which were based in the UK until Brexit and have now had to re-locate. The Erasmus programme was also a vital scheme in facilitating opportunities abroad for the UK’s young musicians.

As a UK member of the EU you could easily take on work in Europe. You simply needed an A1 form (free to obtain) to demonstrate that you pay social security contributions in your home country. That flexibility was vital in ensuring that different patches of work could be easily tessellated in one’s diary. From bands and individuals to internationally-renowned orchestras, the delicate ecosystem of the music industry evolved around this simplicity. The Musicians’ Union wrote an article highlighting the difficulties of the previous system back in 2018, including details of the cost associated with an ATA carnet that covers 70 countries. It currently costs £325.96 plus a deposit and is valid for one year.

Jersey Chamber Orchestra (Wikimedia Commons: Gary Grimshaw)

The total costs are difficult to estimate as, with different regulations from country to country, the costs will be dictated by one’s itinerary. EU artists wishing to perform in the UK will now need to obtain a Tier 5 visa under the government’s Paid Permitted Engagements scheme, which costs £95, and you need to demonstrate that you have enough funds in your account to support yourself during your time in the UK. With everything on hold due to Covid it will be a while before the reality hits and the cost ramifications both ways are fully known.

Additionally there may be a CITES document required, if an instrument contains an endangered material, or looks as if it does. These are currently required for entry to the USA, and I was required to produce one for work trips in 2018 and 2019. This is not without its difficulties, as you need to find an expert who can verify what your instrument is made out of. The pegs on my viola are made out of Indian Rosewood, which is identical to Brazilian Rosewood, which happens to be prohibited for entry to the US. So I needed to visit three experts to get them to ascertain which kind of rosewood it was, knowing that none of them could be 100% sure, and then anxiously walk my instrument and paperwork through US customs hoping that no one would question me. I also had to have a new part made for my bow, to replace a plastic fitting which replicated ivory. Having heard of a harpsichord being destroyed in the 90s because US Customs officials believed that the keys were made of ivory instead of the plastic stated on the paperwork, it’s not an area where one would like to take chances, and it’s certainly not an experience that one would choose to go through on a regular basis.

The potential impact of Brexit on the music industry was highlighted by campaigners after the Brexit vote, with both the Musicians’ Union and the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) lobbying the government with proposals for visa-free travel for musicians post-Brexit, supported by activism from individuals across the music industry. However this seems now to have fallen on deaf ears.

Now musicians face a very different situation, with carnets needed to transport equipment, and different visa/work permit requirements for each country in the EU. When I worked as a full-time freelance musician I would estimate that touring work made up more than 50% of my income, and many of my colleagues depend upon it heavily. In 2017 I worked in the EU from June until September, in Germany, Italy and France– that would now be significantly more difficult with added bureaucracy and the limit of a 90 day stay in any one period due to Schengen. At the end of 2018 I spent 6 weeks in Paris working on an opera. Both of those projects carried significant income, with no expenditure involved on paperwork. Looking back on that now feels like it was another life. The information on costs is difficult to find, although the ISM was quick to collate the visa requirements for UK musicians according to each EU country. One thing is clear however; the days of touring through several countries in the space of a week or two without difficulty are now firmly behind us.

Just a few little steps… (Musicians’ Union)

So where does this leave the music industry? Figures from UK Music reveal a contribution of £5.2 billion in 2019 (with £2.7 billion coming from export revenue), as part of the Creative Industries sector which brings in £101 billion. These numbers are substantial, and clearly demonstrate the standing and significance of the industry in economic terms. It’s an important point; that music is not simply valuable to our society in an artistic sense.

These figures were achieved before the pandemic took hold, and the industry has declined quickly over a relatively short period of time. It’s not just the live industry that has been decimated. One has to also take into account the loss in PRS earnings from airplay in licensed venues such as pubs and shops. And, surprisingly, in April 2020 (about 6 weeks into lockdown for most countries globally) Spotify announced a fall in streaming of 11%, meaning a reduction in royalties for artists. These amounts won’t be significant, and it’s no secret that the royalty system for streaming needs a serious re-think, but musicians need every strand of income that they have at the moment. Many freelancers have fallen through the cracks in the SEISS (Self-Employment Income Support Scheme) operated by the UK government and currently have no income.

So it is against this grim backdrop that the UK music industry found itself reading the Brexit deal in the last week of 2020, to discover that their Christmas gift from Boris Johnson and his acolytes was the loss of the right to barrier-free work in the EU. Assurances from the government up to that point were revealed to be a cynical attempt to quiet the campaigners, with an ideological commitment to ending free movement in all forms taking precedence over a valuable lifeline for an industry already on its knees.

Musicians are known for their versatility, and it’s clear that the profession will have to change in order to survive, in ways that remain to be seen. This is a real tragedy, not just for the loss to Britain’s previously-thriving cultural scene which was held in high regard internationally, but also for the fact that, like so many industries, the individuals who will be hit hardest are the ones who can least afford it. The Conservative Party has been responsible for deep, significant cuts to music education funding over the years, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at their callous attitude. But for a party that claims to pride itself on economic security, the argument in favour of ending Freedom of Movement seems unfathomable. The colour of your passport is of little relevance when it limits your horizons so severely.

Aliye Cornish is CEO of the Irish Baroque Orchestra and a former principal viola of the European Union Baroque Orchestra. Previously she was based in Oxford and is one of our active supporters. She is writing in a personal capacity.

PS: This issue is the subject of an Early Day Motion in Parliament:

A petition on this issue has already attracted 250,000+ signatures:

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