Why the government should look to the West Midlands when considering the future of the UK’s live music scene post-Brexit

Ever since the Brexit process began almost four years ago, much of the debate has focused on the impact that the outcome would have on the UK’s agricultural, manufacturing and pharmaceutical industries. Whilst this is understandable, it’s meant that some areas, like the music industry, are judged to have been overlooked by those preparing for life outside of the European Union, which could prove to be a very costly oversight in the long run.

Music tourism – that also includes individuals coming to the UK specifically to attend a particular musical event – was worth £4 billion to the economy in 2016. Of that sum, £253 million was generated in the West Midlands alone, supporting 3,504 jobs according to a 2017 UK Music report. However, it’s feared that fewer artists and productions travelling to the UK from Europe post-Brexit could lead to the loss of this significant economic boost.

This is just one of the many concerns raised by a host of promoters, venue representatives and regional associations in the West Midlands during a one day event organised by the Birmingham Live Music Project. The collaborative research agenda, between Aston University, Birmingham City University and Newcastle University, seeks to analyse how large globalised or national level changes impact on local and regional live music ecology.

The research team drew together the collective insights and opinions of the industry practitioners to form a series of key points.

Supply disruption, touring troubles and a struggle for storage

On a practical level, much of the music industry is reliant on just-in-time supply chains to provide equipment for events at short notice. However, the businesses operating in this way are likely to face higher storage costs after Brexit, as they compete with major importers for more warehouse storage space in a bid to avoid shipping issues at the UK border. This increased expense, combined with higher fees for administration, visas and insurance, would serve to push overheads much higher, threatening the future of businesses based in the Birmingham area.

Elsewhere, the impact of Brexit on consumer confidence and disposable incomes could see a reduction in the number of people attending live music events, with a particular concern surrounding the 2020 festival season. It’s thought that the potential costs to run popular Birmingham-based events like the Moseley Folk and Arts Festival and Beyond the Tracks could spiral amongst the Brexit uncertainty. This in turn would threaten many of the high-end production companies in the city, which provide lighting, staging and tour management, leading to a reduction in the pool of skilled employees.

On a more subjective level, industry representatives are concerned that the damage to the UK’s international reputation as a positive and open place, together with potential visa issues, could cause a cultural ‘pushback’ against British artists and a reduction in cross-border cultural exchange. The practical implications of this would be severe. For example, international acts which have traditionally used the UK as a gateway to European tours may begin their tours in nearby Dublin instead, due to reduced visa or other administration costs and complications. This matters because such acts usually hire support crews in their first location and then take them on tour.

These factors are worsened by a widely perceived lack of information on the implications of Brexit for the industry. The continuing lack of Regional Music Boards is felt to be particularly problematic in light of this, given the limited resources available to the civil service to deal with issues raised by the UK’s departure from the EU across multiple sectors.

A ‘useful testbed’ to help safeguard the music industry post-Brexit

Although the Birmingham Live Music Project is in its initial stages, its early findings map areas of concern which will be useful for academics, policymakers and stakeholders alike.

For this reason, the government should use the insight to conduct a thorough analysis of the impact that Brexit could have on the music industry, with the West Midlands used as a case study. Birmingham alone is larger than Manchester and Liverpool combined, and has a long and distinguished musical history, being the birthplace of heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, as well as heavily influencing different genres such as rhythm and blues, psychedelia, ska revival, techno and bhangra. More recently, Birmingham continues to produce outstanding talent such as Ivor Novello award winning artist Laura Mvula.

Both the city, and the wider region, has a music ecosystem large enough to act as a useful testbed for any proposed changes to safeguard the industry once the UK departs the EU.

(A link to the full Birmingham Live Music Project report can be found here)

Dr Patrycja Rozbicka, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University