There’s an old saying that when you do something too late, it’s like closing the stable door when the horse has bolted. If we apply to this equestrian idiom to the music industry in the age of Brexit, it’s more like the horse has been sent to the glue factory. And Martin Green, the director of Britain’s upcoming “festival of Brexit”, wants to close the stable door and have a big old knees-up. There will be bunting.
It’s not happening until 2022, but Green’s vision has been touted as “a bit of joy and hope and happiness”, as he recently told The Observer. He wants his do to be part of the country’s “healing process”. It’s early days and the details are still very sketchy – as in, there are no details – but the Treasury has freed up £120 million for a festival that will celebrate British culture after we’ve exited the EU. So far, so toe-curling. Danny Boyle’s 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony is still widely touted as the last time everyone in the country liked each other, and indeed it was a jubilant shindig for which Arctic Monkeys covered The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ (imagine Alex Turner doing something crowd-pleasing!) and the Queen jumped out of a plane with James Bond. It was such a hit no-one even minded much when Russell Brand honked through ‘I Am The Walrus’ on top of a multi-coloured bus during the Closing Ceremony a couple of weeks later.
Of course, any bus-related japes take on a rather different hue these days. Brexit, itself a festival of jingoism and deception, is happening, whether we like it or not (I don’t). So a national ceremony celebrating ‘Britishness’ inspired by an isolationist political movement funded by self-interested billionaires can’t help but feel loaded with the same values. A lot’s happened since 2012, Martin. There’s a lot of stagnant water under the bridge. It might be best not to go poking around in there with a stick.
To be fair, Green has recognised that his festival of Brexit can’t be a single London-based event like the Olympics opening ceremony. Instead it will be an “exciting programme” of arts, culture, design and technology.
“If you’re trying to do creative projects which reach and engage as many people as possible, probably what this is never going to be is an event, in a place on a day,” he said in that Observer interview. “You have to start thinking about other places where creativity exists. Instantly you think digitally, but it’s not just that. It’s durational things, it’s things that travel, it’s things of scale, it’s about going where people are.”
If we try and stick a pin in this fairly woolly premise, it sounds like a series of related events that will take place across the country. It’s too early to say if this of a piece with Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings pretending to like the north of England because it suits them for the time being, but what it’s not too early to say is that the music industry – which is in the business of regularly celebrating British culture in a non-toxic way and hosting festivals that people actually want to go to – is set to lose out from Brexit.
Last year it was revealed, in a report from Aston University, Birmingham City University and Newcastle Universities, that “a significant drop in music tourism and an exodus of firms vital to infrastructure are among a number of Brexit-related concerns voiced by the music industries sector”. Music industry bible Music Week has warned that this could cost the UK music industry “hundreds of millions”. The universities’ report alleged that this year’s festival season may be greatly disrupted by Brexit-related complications with supply chains, which could lead to unsustainable costs for large-scale events.
Then there are the issues facing British artists who want to tour (artists’ most reliable source of income now a stream’s worth two bits of fluff and a button) across Europe. In the event of a no-deal Brexit – which is still very much on the table – they’ll need to abide by individual EU states’ immigration rules regarding visas and permits. Going by car to keep down costs? That’ll be a lengthy and costly process to acquire a “green card”, thanks. Want to take stuff on tour? You’ll need to stump up £325.96 a year for a weird inventory named a “carnet”, for some reason. Can’t pay? The fines can run into the top ends of the hundreds. Oh! Nearly forgot: you’ll need more costly visas for crew and there’ll be added VAT to pay on merch.
In conclusion: Brexit looks real bad for UK music – and don’t just take it from me. Last year, Michael Dugher, the chief executive of industry body UK Music, told The Guardian: “Superstars who make millions and book their tours months if not years in advance are very much the exception. Most artists operate on tiny margins and the prospect of extra cost and bureaucracy would kill their ability to tour, develop their talent and build their fanbase.”
So life is probably about to get that little bit harder for, say, the next Arctic Monkeys. We want solid-gold British success stories to celebrate in the future, don’t we? Martin Green, whose intentions do seem honourable enough, can talk all he wants about “joy and hope and happiness”, but the reality is that the very political happening that’s inspired his event is set to have a negative impact on the day-to-day running of one of the creative industries he purports to covet – arguably Britain’s last great industry. It would be a bad look for musicians to take part in the inherently toxic festival of Brexit, but there would also be the distinct sense that they’re dancing on their own graves.
How about channel some of that £120 million into the actual day-to-day running of the music industry Brexit’s set to batter? Like that horse bolting through the stable door, it wouldn’t touch the sides – but at least it wouldn’t smack of hypocrisy.