Friday 2 February 2018

Does Stephen Pollard really want to destroy the UK Music industry?

Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle and comment writer for the Daily Express, is a man who I have a great deal of respect for. Unlike many of the hacks who write for the Daily Express these days, he actually has something interesting to say and whilst I don't always agree with his every word, it is well written, well thought out and conveys an intelligent perspective. As someone who is right of centre, he has a very different perspective to me, but generally is sensible and sound. Last month he wrote an excellent article for the Daily Express on why action is needed to combat the scourge of waste plastic.  Given that the first book of the Talmud is pretty hot on environmental protection, I guess it should be no surprise.

I was therefore quite disturbed to read Mr Pollards latest column in the Express, which is a passionate argument for the case for ending free movement on the day when we leave the EU. To quote Mr Pollard

And yesterday EU officials were reported as saying that the demand that the cut-off date for residency rights be moved back to the end of the transition period was “non-negotiable” and it was “inconceivable” that the UK could avoid free movement during the transition. This is simply barking. And it shows how, even now, they still don’t get what Brexit really means. 

I fully accept that Mr Pollard is a #Brexit hawk. That is his right in a democracy. However as a musician and the founder of the #SaveLondonMusic campaign, I feel duty bound to spell out the stark reality of what Mr Pollard is proposing and how it will destroy the UK music industry, which currently generates over £4 billion a year for the UK economy. I run a music studio complex that employs 12 people directly, another 14 people indirectly and has a global customer base. Last month (January 2018), we had our busiest ever week. We had 822 separate bookings, and see over 1,000 artists a week pass through our doors. For me and my customers music is our life. You may say "what has all this got to do with Free Movement and Brexit?

Well for me it has everything. Mr Pollard primarily focuses on the rights of EU citizens to move to the UK to work. Lets put that to one side for a minute, although we'll come to that later. There is another side to the coin. That is that UK citizens also have the right to work in the EU. Strangely Brexiteers rarely mention this when they are ranting about immigration and free movement. For London based musicians, any change to this would be an absolute nightmare. For the mega bands like The Rolling Stones and One Direction, it will be a minor inconvenience and 'their people' will seamlessly sort out visa's etc. It will however, devastate the ability of the vast majority of working musicians and music professionals to earn a living. Let me explain with a couple of examples. Of my 12 employees, my studio tech is also full time musician. He is currently away on a tour of Europe. His band got a call last week. A band had pulled out and could his band drop everything and schlep around Europe for a week fulfilling their gigs. For his band, this was a very lucrative gig. In London, unknown bands are lucky to pay the bills with gig proceeds, however European promoters pay handsome fees and are great to work with. My studio tech is one of many musicians who is able to enjoy a decent standard of living because his band regularly works in Europe.

If Mr Pollard has his way, then it would be logistically impossible for my studio tech to fulfill such commitments. In the early 1980's my band used to travel to Europe to tour. That was before free movement of people. Everything required meticulous planning. Carnets were completed to list all of the equipment being taken and this would be checked at customs going both out of the country and back in. You needed to prove that you had permission to work and that could take months to sort out. Or you could do what our band did, hire the gear  when you got there and not tell anyone, working illegally for dodgy promoters, who would often try and knock you. As an 18 year old, being faced by a red faced 40 year old promoter, who was refusing to pay you, potentially leaving you destitute in Stockholm (as we'd borrowed money to get there), this was a disaster. Sadly, I discovered that such situations frequently ended in violence. I also learned that when you are on the wrong side of the law, you are vulnerable. In short, it was not practical for a young musician like me to take advantage of the lucrative European circuit. For my studio tech, there are no such concerns. They get booked to play in Hamburg or Brussels and they can be there in 48 hours.

There are thousands of UK jobbing musicians who can survive and be musically creative solely due to such opportunities. Then let me give you the next example. My chief recording engineer was also away last week. A studio in Portugal was doing mixing an album for a label and urgently needed an engineer to assist the producer. Could he drop everything and come over. He was booked on a plane and had five days half way up a mountain in the Algarve, not seeing the light of day, as they slaved to meet the deadline to finish the recording. UK music professionals do this all the time. I see many on a daily basis. The conversation is usually the same "I'm just back from Rome" - "How was it?" - "Dunno, I was in the studio all the time, but it pays the bills".

This is the free movement of labour in action. In both cases mentioned, the people in question will pay UK taxes on their earnings and in some small way have added their chunk to the £4 billion a year that the UK industry generates. These are the people that ensure that the UK and London in particular are the world capital for music production. As I mentioned, my studio has a global reach in customer base. But if my staff were unable to exploit the opportunities that working in Europe allow them, they would simply not be able to afford to live and work in London. They would either have to leave London or leave the industry (probably both). Once our technical base is depleted and our musician base is destroyed, we can kiss goodbye to our creative base and our music related contribution to the GDP. I have had this conversation with the likes of Mr Pollard and they always say "Oh, I'm sure that talented individuals will find a way to get around this". Or they will say "Well we did OK in the 1960's before free movement of people". Well first of all, given that no one knows what Brexit actually means (even the 20 people in the cabinet can't agree), how can he possibly say this. It is what is called wishful thinking. As to the argument about "We did ok in the 1960's". The contribution of the UK Music industry to the GDP was tiny compared with now. It was also the case that UK venues paid bands properly then. Live music was seen as an integral part of clubs and social occasions. These days a DJ and a disco is the preferred option. In short, there is simply not the money in the UK music scene to support our musicians.

But there is so much more to the UK music industry than just our musicans and technicians, important as they are. We also have the huge contribution that EU national artists make to London. Last month, our studio had it's busiest day ever for bookings. We had 40 different artist bookings on one day in our 21 studios. Approx 35% of our customers are EU nationals. We have musicians from every European nation using our studios. We have Romanian gypsies playing traditional music, we have bouncing Czech's,  funky Frenchmen, Gothic Germans, Punky Portuguese, Arty Austrians and Swinging Swedes (pardon the pun). Many of these have formed new alliances in our studio reception and cafe area. We hear some truly awesome music and London is where it is musically because we take all of these influences and make something new and better. These musicians have come to London to further their career. Whilst people might think that these musicians are simply lying around all day writing songs, doing nothing, this could not be further from the truth. Our studios are not a charity, they have to pay to use our facilities. Most are working night and day at a whole stack of jobs, to earn the money to pay for rehearsals and to build their career. They are investing in themselves and the UK economy is hugely benefitting. They want to be in London because we have world class and world known music venues (Ronnie Scotts, The Jazz Cafe, The Dublin Castle, The Roundhouse....). We have the record labels and the publishing companies. We have the talent scouts. We have the BBC, which although derided by many on the right has done more than any other global organisation to nurture new musical talent. Shows like Robert Elms and Garry Crowley on BBC London have given many new artists the chance to be heard.  Jools Holland is perhaps the seminal global music show in the world. It has launched artists like Amy Winehouse.

Brexit puts all of this at risk. Perhaps Stephen Pollard thinks that the £4 billion contribution to the UK GDP is insignificant or not worth the trouble. If he does, then he clearly doesn't understand the soft power this gives the UK. Foreign students pay a fortune to study in the UK, because we are seen as a creative hub. Talented executives and entreprenuers come from all around the world to live and work in London, because they know we have a vibrant city and a great music scene. In the event of an Uber hard Brexit, this will not disappear overnight, but the next generation of talented musicians will not be able to move to London from the EU. The technicians and musicians working in the UK on the second and third tier of the industry will find it harder and harder to survive. It may take five years, it may take twenty, but at some point we'll wake up and find that London has a sterile music scene and that people no longer see the UK as a first choice destination to live, work or be educated.

I am assuming that Mr Pollard has not really considered the UK Music scene in his opposition to free movement of Labour. I am assuming that, as he is an intelligent man, he will at least give the effects of his views on the musical community of London. I am assuming that he would not want to see the £4 billion music industry take a massive hit. I am assuming that he wouldn't want to see musicians lose their livilhoods and when he considers the issues he will work with us to ensure that whatever happens in the mess called Brexit that we have found ourselves in, he will work to ensure that it works for the UK music industry. As I mentioned earlier, Mr Pollard is the editor of the Jewish Chronicle. As such he is a staunch defender of Londons Jewish community. It gives me great pride that our studios have helped launch many fantastic Jewish artists, such as Amy Winehouse. Maybe 30% of our customers are Jewish (I've never asked, but that number feels about right). As part of the Mill Hill Music Festival, I've organised many amazing Klezmer concerts with brilliant artists such as Stewart Curtis K-Groove, Shir and KlezmerCo. Last year we had a sold out night for Balalaika at The Mill Hill Shul. We've recorded music for Holocaust memorial exhibitions and all manner of other events. We probably record five sessions a week for Bahmitzvahs. All of this happens because London is a key music hub and we have musicians, technicians and musical entrepreneurs who recognise the unique musical mix that makes London. The EU rules on the free movement of Labour are one of the key ingredients. I don't think it is unfair to ask him to have a little rethink about his stance on this issue.

I thought I'd finish this piece with a little music from Shir at The Mill Hill Music festival. I was proud to have engineered this session. London is a multi cultural hub and I think this is something worth fighting to preserve. I believe that great musicians, such as Shir, with their diverse influences make us the worlds greatest musical city. This will only persist if we have a greta grassroots music scene. (please note that I've not asked the band whether they agree with me on this issue). I hope Mr Pollard enjoys the track, even if he totally disagrees with me still.

Have a great weekend.


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