Jun 30, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

Last Thursday, citizens of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum by a margin of 52% to 48% to sever ties with the European Union. In the week since, endless financial and political experts have speculated on just what exactly happens next.

Like every industry in Europe and the UK, classical music has embraced and come to rely on the free movement and open borders of the EU structure. Classical music is an international business. Ensembles increasingly recruit top performers from all over the world, and a London-based orchestra or chamber group in Liverpool regularly play concerts in Cologne or Paris. For that reason, the response from classical institutions over the prospect of limited access to musicians or cumbersome travel regulations has been deafening and near-unanimous in the week since the referendum.

“As things stand today, I see no specific grounds for optimism. I don’t see anything that looks easier as a result of this,” Birmingham Symphony Orchestra CEO Stephen Maddock told the British-based Classic FM.

Laurent Quénelle, who is a French citizen and first violin at the London Symphony Orchestra, shared his concern in a Vice article prior to the referendum over whether a “leave” vote would mean he would have to move from the UK after living and working there for 26 years.

“I don't think people realize there is a massive amount of foreigners in the artistic world,” he said. “It's what makes Europe so rich, it's a big melting pot.”

Following the referendum, a group of British and European musicians demonstrated their disapproval with a pop-up performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from his ninth symphony. For audiences worldwide, the piece is seen as a symbolic call for universal brotherhood, but it carries added weight for Europeans as the official anthem of the EU.

In reality, no one yet knows just what new normal classical musicians, conservatories or publishing firms will operate under in a post-Brexit world. With the numerous trade and travel agreements that exist under the current model set to expire, they will be replaced by something. But figuring out just what will take years, and some fear that the negotiating parties might not be in the most amicable mood.

Economic experts warning of the potential harm of Brexit argue that the UK and EU need access to each others' markets and institutions. Therefore, some in the “stay” camp are hoping if the UK can’t undo its vote, it might be able to negotiate a deal akin to Norway’s where it is part of the European Economic Area or like Switzerland, which is part of the European Free Trade Association. Each of those models keeps relatively open trade and movement without full-fledged EU membership. At the same time, some political pundits warn that even with the strong economic need for one another, EU members might not want to allow the UK a chance at the full benefits without membership out of fear for another of its member countries seeing a “leave” vote as being in its national interest.

Should the UK be unable to work out an easier travel deal with the EU than it has with the US, it could be disastrous.

“A US Visa takes six months to arrange and costs, including management of taxation, circa $5,000 for the most organized," warned Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust in the UK. "Even imagining a single EU entry visa, with no further border controls or conditions as UK musicians pass from one EU nation to another, that sum of money and the organization time is beyond 90% of the UK musicians currently supplementing their income with EU performances.”

That is likely a worst case scenario, but even a few travel and work visa hurdles could have significant repercussions. English orchestras will continue to employ many European musicians and vice versa, just like they employ musicians from all over the world. But the added expense of work visas, or more likely, the added expense of the staff time required to complete that process could put added strain on cash-strapped ensembles and limit just how many foreign musicians they want to take on.

John Smith, who is general secretary for the Musicians’ Union in the UK expressed “profound depression” at the vote he “suspects [will be] very bad news for musicians.” Smith promised the union would vigilantly try to influence negotiations and legislation that might limit the harm for its members.

While travel and working abroad is at the top of the list, there are also concerns over the existing EU copyright laws the UK would effectively opt out of. Similarly, there is concern about the distribution of recorded music, particularly as most of the vinyl records in the UK are pressed in the Czech Republic. Perhaps the biggest concern has to do with funding for the arts, both because an economic downturn (which many predict as a result) hurts donations and ticket sales, and the EU has been a large sponsor of arts programs and projects for British groups. The money the UK has contributed to that EU sponsorship could possibly find its way back to support the arts internally, but the immediate absence leaves uncertainty about the levels of support arts organizations can expect.

As stated earlier, the response from the art community has been near-universal against the referendum results, but there are a few dissenters — or at least a few critiques of the backlash. Ben Davis, the national art critic of Artnet Magazine wrote that the response and shock over the results of the referendum suggests that the art world is too insulated.

“What do the results — [when 52% vote to leave] — show if not that artists do not at all represent the ‘national consciousness?’” he writes.

Davis specializes in visual art and has criticized the inflation in the high-end art world and how it reflects a nation’s income inequality. To that same end, he wondered at memes shared online by the art world prior to the vote promoting staying in the EU that featured work by Damien Hirst, an artist famous for making a £50 million artwork.

“[If you are] more likely to imagine yourself invited to a flashy new museum opening [than to] be affected by a factory closure, [that] might tell you something about whether you are lured by the Brexit rallying cry,” Davis writes.

Undoubtedly, the high-end art world and the classical music world are ripe for critique on the fronts of accessibility and class. However, it is interesting to note how artists are positioning themselves in the Brexit fallout as opponents to larger cultural trends.

An increasingly globalized world has brought both economic wins and losses depending on whose story you listen to, but artistically it has brought incredible sharing and growth. The Brexit artistic backlash talks first about the economic consequences, but artists are also becoming increasingly vocal speaking out against political movements (not only in the UK but worldwide) that gained popularity after the 2008 financial crisis and numerous terrorist attacks, seeking to pull back from the rising tide of globalization.

Conductor Daniel Barenboim has spent much of his career looking to use music as a way to bridge international mistrust — founding the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra that brings you musicians from across the Middle East together and recently planning a performance in Tehran with a Berlin orchestra that earned the scorn of both Israeli and Irani governments. Writing on his blog after the Brexit vote, Barenboim said the vote represented a larger trend that artists must stand up to.

“There are now two possible reactions: To lament Brexit and watch extremist movements in other countries such as France and the Netherlands seeking to follow the example of Great Britain. Or, to think about necessary improvements for the EU and to work together towards a true spirit of unity and collaboration, especially in finding a global solution for the refugee crisis and not an exclusively European one,” he writes. "Nationalism is the opposite of true patriotism, and the further fostering of nationalist sentiment would be the worst case-scenario for us all."

Beyond the work visa headaches and economic impact, one of the lasting legacies of the Brexit vote might be an increased level of political activism among the apparent majority of artists who oppose the result. As Davis pointed out, the referendum numbers suggests that they don’t speak for the majority of the UK, but they are determined to speak. For musicians wondering about touring or whether their longtime stand partner will be next to them a year from now, the impact of the vote is personal and tangible.

In the coming months as politicians and bureaucrats work to sort out what happens next, it seems likely that artists (both in the UK, EU and elsewhere who see parallels to politics in their home) might follow Barenboim and others’ advice to become a larger voice in the discussion. But like with all things Brexit, it's too early to tell.