Musicians post-Brexit in Europe: Fewer gigs, less money, no tours

Scotland Europe Initiative
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Musicians post-Brexit in Europe: Fewer gigs, less money, no tours

October 30 2023, by Professor Jeffrey Sharkey FRSE

Ever since Brexit became the reality for our country, I’ve had a paraphrase of John Donne running through my mind:  “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

“No one is an Island”,  but we have been islanded in a sea of culture. Our musical culture has been connected to the world and most directly connected to our nearest neighbours in Europe for centuries. Our wonderful Scottish traditional music bears the influence of Irish, Danish, Breton and other Scandinavian influences as much as it is indigenous to our shores. Our classical music development was always an offshoot of the continent – with song and opera originating in Italy, the Germanic tradition taking hold in the classical and romantic period, and our island responding and adapting in its own unique way – but adapting to its cultural neighbours with a free exchange of artists flowing across the natural border of the North Sea.

The sea as a border was challenge enough, but the visa restrictions for touring artists, the challenges in recruiting talented Europeans to come and study with us, and the loss of culturally diverse voices to study alongside our Scots – these are all taking their toll on performing artists.

One of the most recent and telling reports on the impact of Brexit on musicians appears in this article from the New European; it focuses on several individual challenges to finding work in Europe post-Brexit and the lack of enough opportunities in the UK.

“For hundreds of years, musicians have moved across the Channel for work, learning and audiences,” wrote Suna Erdem. “Classical music is collaborative and international, Brexit is not. It introduced barriers to work and travel, expensive paperwork that most musicians cannot afford, and sent young British artists down the pecking order when it comes to plum European jobs. Everything from vital orchestra tours to singing gigs and study opportunities has been affected.”

The Independent Society of Musicians and Musicians Union have surveyed their members and found stark challenges:

  • 77% of musicians expect their earnings in Europe to decrease due to new red tape and extra costs.
  • 43% of musicians are still planning tours or shows in the EU in the future.
  • 42% of musicians would consider relocating to mainland Europe in order to continue working.
  • 21% are considering a change of career.
  • The Guardian reported average UK salaries of musicians dropped to 14k per year – exacerbated by difficulties in gaining income in the EU.

Forgetting the arts

The performing arts were thought of too late, if at all, in a series of complex negotiations to leave the EU. This inattention to the challenges for artists is in spite of the contribution that the creative arts and industries make to the UK – £111 billion – and £5.8 billion to Scotland alone.

The loss of Erasmus is devastating for the arts. It was two-way, providing musicians, actors and dancers from differing cultural perspectives a pathway to engage with our home students and influence how they express their own art. It offered a life-enhancing experience for our Scots who could study for a term abroad and for our faculty and professional staff who could enhance their own practice by working with European colleagues. It also meant we had a regular pipeline of Europeans who fell in love with Scotland and chose to study with us for a Masters.

The replacement programme offered by the UK, Turing, is one-directional and now even more challenging to achieve funding for small specialist institutions like our conservatoire.  Scotland promised a replacement Erasmus programme and has not yet delivered on its promise, though the proposed Scottish Education and Exchange Programme (promised for this session of the Scottish Parliament) might help a single student for a short period.

Our UK conservatoires, including Scotland’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, have been a magnet for talent around the world and domestically. The innovation and artistry here is one reason why I chose to leave the United States and come to Scotland. I want us to be able to continue to attract and develop domestic and international artistic talent, while showing that the arts can be both accessible and world-leading.

We lost our deep connection to countries that care deeply about the arts and, in their caring, had a chance to influence our own governments, which seem to take them for granted. I am Vice President of the Association of European Conservatoires and work hard to maintain the visibility of UK conservatoires.

But it is very hard now to have a performing career funded solely in the UK. This shrinking of opportunity is causing people to leave the arts as they cannot finance a long-term career. The country will notice, but perhaps only after the artists and their sector are gone.

Professor Jeffrey Sharkey FRSE, is Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This blog is based on his presentation to the RSE’s Scotland-Europe Initiative Workshop on Higher Education. A version of it appeared in The Scotsman on October 19.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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Scotland-Europe Initiative

This Initiative will examine Scotland’s and the UK’s relations with Europe and the effects of Brexit on our daily life by exploring public policy issues such as trade and investment, energy policy, and migration.

Find out more about the Scotland-Europe Initiative