Musicians Sound the Alarm over Brexit

Britain's orchestras are a global success story but what effect could Brexit have on this multinational community?

Gettyimages 697853664 WEB
John Hodgson, Mark Willis
Published: 12 Sept 2018 Updated: 13 Jun 2022

Uncertainty is a fact of life if you are a professional musician.

On top of their itinerant lifestyle, musicians invariably work for relatively low pay in an insecure environment exposed to funding cuts in recent years.

Instrament Violin 02

Now Brexit has sounded an additional note of caution in the UK’s musical community, which is as multi-national and trans-European as any Premier League football club.

There will inevitably be concerns among musicians over the impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union on visa requirements, the level of performance fees, currency exchange rates and the cost and ease of air travel.

There are also question marks over issues such as tax withholding, VAT and social security when musicians perform in an EU country. The greatest potential change may be for those inbound overseas artists who earn more income in the UK than the VAT registration threshold and so may have to register.

Britain’s orchestras are a global success story and a showcase for British culture across the world. For decades, they have been continental in their outlook and composition.

They recruit conductors, players and staff from all over the EU, often at short notice, with some orchestras having up to 20 per cent of their members from other EU member states.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra sponsorship

Take the world-famous City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), which Smith & Williamson is proudly sponsoring for the next 12 months.

Not only is the CBSO – which celebrates its own centenary in 2020 - one of the finest orchestras in this or indeed any European country but its home, Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, was built entirely with EU funding.

Many of the orchestra’s members also hail from EU countries while the CBSO’s Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is from Lithuania.

Musicians are accustomed to being mobile, moving effortlessly between EU member states without a single form needing to be completed. Likewise, orchestras can move all their instruments, at least one for each player, without impediment. What’s more, if a musician is ill, they can call upon another without delay or the need for an emergency visa.

Double-accounting tax relief arrangements exist now so there is no need for extra PAYE requirements. There are no regulations with regards to ivory and other specialist equipment, as there is with the USA when transporting violin bows, which are subject to special treatment.

And if an orchestra requires a guest conductor from the EU for a week or so, they can employ one without the need for a short-term visa. Likewise, there is no need to pay any extra tariffs on selling concerts across the whole continent.

But this could be called into question unless the right Brexit deal is concluded. For instance, visas for musicians, carnets (special export documents) for every instrument an orchestra takes on tour and emergency visas may be required after the UK leaves the EU at the end of March next year.

This is in addition to inevitable concerns about musicians’ performance fees, possible fluctuations in currency exchange rates and the cost and ease of air travel.

A special deal for music?

Our touring musicians are cultural ambassadors and it is in their best interests to retain as much as possible the benefits of access to both the European Single Market and the customs union to avoid any additional cost and to enable continued cultural exchange.

A more restrictive scenario could have significant implications for orchestras in a number of ways. Touring within the European Economic Area, for example, has become intrinsic to the funding model of British orchestras and the potential for additional costs associated with controls on borders and migration could price some of them out of the market.

In addition, there are concerns that without a special deal for music, the UK could eventually become a less attractive place for foreign orchestras to tour.

No-one would doubt Brexit is a momentous task for the government but among all the other voices competing for the ear of ministers, those of our musicians need to make themselves heard.

Whatever Brexit deal may eventually emerge in the coming months, it will be important that classical music in the UK continues to flourish.

“We’re in such an interconnected world in classical music. We don’t recognise frontiers really, we play European music and we play in a European arena.”

Stephen Maddock OBE, the CBSO’s chief executive, in an interview with Sky News

“If we have to go and sort out visits to embassies, visas and work permits just to go to Germany, France or The Netherlands, our tours become non-viable, which is a problem because we rely on that income and
reputational pull.”

Stephen Maddock OBE, the CBSO’s chief executive, in a BBC interview

*Smith & Williamson’s sponsorship of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra includes exclusive sponsorship of November’s UK premiere of Roxanna Panufnik’s choral work ‘Faithful Journey – A Mass for Poland’, written to mark the 100th anniversary of Poland regaining its independence.

By necessity, this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. This briefing does not constitute advice nor a recommendation relating to the acquisition or disposal of investments. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. Details correct at time of writing.


This article was previously published on Smith & Williamson prior to the launch of Evelyn Partners.