During the last weeks of 2020, as negotiations over the UK’s departure from the European Union ran to the wire, and agreement over access to fishing around the coast of these islands was said to be the stumbling block, it was often remarked that the financial value of that industry was dwarfed by the contribution that arts and culture make to the national economy. Despite that, the free movement of artists across borders was being thrown away in the pursuit of ill-defined “sovereignty”.
Within days of the start of 2021, however, it was clear that musicians and fishermen had common cause, alongside hauliers, in opposing a settlement that had produced no benefit to any of them.
When the Independent newspaper revealed that the British negotiators had been offered a deal to ensure soloists, bands, and orchestras could continue to travel without the requirement for visas, work permits and other red tape, only to turn it down, the reaction from the sector was understandably one of fury.
A letter published in The Times stated baldly that “musicians, dancers, actors and their support staff had been shamefully failed by their government” was signed by a veritable Who’s Who of musicians, including Sir Simon Rattle, Nicola Benedetti, Sir Elton John, Bob Geldof, Robert Plant, Sting, Liam Gallagher and Ed Sheeran.
Which of these names was singled out for highlighting depended very much on the perceived readership of the publication that covered the story – and virtually every newspaper and arts-related journal did.
The role of the ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians) was often mentioned in the recruiting of many of the signatories. However the genesis of the initiative – so far the most comprehensive and powerful statement of opposition to the way Brexit has affected musicians – lay in a conversation between Edinburgh guitarist Sean Shibe and the wife of LibDem peer Lord Paul Strasberger.
“I’ve been in touch with Evelyn Strasburger since I did a couple of concerts for her in Bath,” explains Shibe. “Although we are not on the same path politically we talk about things a lot, so I drew her attention to the article in the Independent and she was furious about it because of what it would mean to young musicians she works with.”
As far as Shibe was concerned, “It was bemusing to read that the government could have taken an opportunity to save part of an industry, although it is perhaps not surprising that they chose not to.”
It was Lord Strasberger who made the link with the ISM, as well as recruiting other LibDems in the Upper House to the campaign, while Shibe himself was busy contacting colleagues in his own address book.
“We compiled a pretty comprehensive list of names for the letter of protest. Often these things are taken on by classical or non-classical types so it was good to have collegiate support across the board.”
The fact that his own role in the letter was swiftly overtaken by the starrier signatories was inevitable.
“I didn’t care if my name was mentioned or not; I am a very small part of this, sending a couple of texts and getting some good names on the letter. I just want something to happen, there is no glory in this. There has been deliberate obfuscation on the part of the government about what really happened and all the to-and-fro about ‘what they said’ and ‘what we said’ is not actually focussing on what could be solved.”
There was undoubtedly some confusion in the government response, with junior culture minister Caroline Dinenage and her boss Oliver Dowden apparently at odds.
Shibe explains: “On the same day that the letter was published in The Times, Oliver Dowden met with about 30 representatives of the industry on Zoom. The secretary of the Musicians Union, Horace Trubridge, told me that it was stated several times during that meeting that the treaty with the EU had been concluded and the UK was not going to change it.
“Taking that at face value, the MU thinks that the best it is going to get is bilateral agreements with individual EU states about reciprocal arrangements.”
“But Dinenage was blaming the EU, and saying ‘the door is still open’ implying that the EU had to come to them, refuting Dowden saying the deal was concluded. It all suggests there is still work to be done.”
Shibe says that Lord Strasberger and his colleagues are continuing to put pressure on the government behind the scenes.
“One hopes there is still work to be done. There is a lot of room for different sectors to work together, no matter how unlikely the alliance. Hauliers are being let down so badly, and I read that Cheshire Cheese makers are upset.
“To a degree it is now in other people’s hands. Writing to your MP really has more weight than people think it does, so I would encourage people to do that.”
If the political campaigning has kept the guitarist busy recently, he has not been entirely idle during the past year without live concerts. His most recent online recital was as part of Baroque at the Edge at LSO St Luke’s, a beautifully-recorded concert that ranged from the Scottish manuscripts he has recorded for the Delphian label to a flavour of the music that will feature on his first disc under his new contract with Pentatone.
“It will be out in August and is one of their priority releases for next year. It took lockdown for me to discover this repertoire of Federico Mompou, Poulenc, and Ravel.
“Compared to a lot of the stuff that I am interested in, it is on the easier end of the listening scale and outside of lockdown I might not have been enticed to explore it, but it is so comforting to play.
“Mompou’s major work for the guitar repertoire is the Suite Compostelana [composed for Segovia at the start of the 1960s] which traces part of the Camino pilgrim path to Santiago. There are references to the Galician small pipes and other links to the Celtic diaspora, before the sighting of the great church itself.
“So ‘Camino’ made sense as a title for an album of music that I’ve been on a path to get to, and repertoire that I deliberately did not want to explore earlier in my career because the guitar is so inextricably linked to Spanish repertoire. I wanted to be able to come to it with genuine enthusiasm, and this felt like the right time.”
As well as classic guitar repertoire, Shibe has also been adding lute music to his live concerts, most recently for Baroque at the Edge but also for his contribution to the online East Neuk Festival events last year.
“It was another thing that I’ve had time to explore during lockdown. The lute has been in and out of my life since undergraduate studies, which is the best part of ten years now. The technique that you require for the lute is so radically different and the joy of the instrument is its sensuality in playing it. Again it has been something that is very comforting.”
Nonetheless, the global health crisis came just as Sean Shibe’s star was rising and his career moving up a gear, so such consolations have to be set against the business of making a living in the music business.
“When lockdown happened I moved back to stay with my parents and save on rent. I am very grateful that Pentatone took me on when they did and I’ve already seen such substantial support from them, beyond promoting a record. It is much more holistic.”
He is aware that his predicament is no worse than that of many others in the music industry.
“As instrumentalists we always knew it would be hard work to keep going, but my friends in arts admin perhaps saw their jobs as more stable and that has been taken from them. And I really feel for those who are leaving college at the moment as well.
“ I have had two or three new concerti delayed. But delayed and not cancelled, so I am grateful for that. I have probably lost about £50,000 to £60,000 worth of work that was planned – and for that work to be there in the future those institutions will have to survive. Of course there are still things going on, but it is so much harder.”
To write to your MP and add your voice to the musicians’ campaign, use this online tool: https://hey-mp.uk/?c=music