Saqib Bhatti: Labour’s plans for the music industry would have a disastrous impact – at a time when we should be promoting its growth

30 Nov

Saqib Bhatti is MP for Meriden.

Joy Crookes, the 23-year-old British-Irish-Bangladeshi singer, is one of the rising stars of British music, reaching critical acclaim this year both at home and abroad.

She has a Top 5 album and was nominated for Rising Star of the Year at the BRIT Awards last year. It may appear that Joy has suddenly risen to stardom. In reality, there are years of investment, creative expertise and promotion behind the promising trajectory she is on today.

Joy is just one example of why Britain’s music industry punches above its weight on the global stage, topping charts, racking up awards, and fronting sell-out tours. From The Beatles and Elton John to Ed Sheeran, Stormzy and Adele, we should be proud of our creative heritage and globally renowned music talent.

Our music sector plays a vital role in creating jobs and opportunities, including for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and in projecting British soft power across the globe. Our artists are a vital advert for UK plc in growing markets internationally.

The UK music industry cannot risk losing that critically acclaimed reputation. However, a Labour-led Private Members’ Bill – being branded as a ‘simple fix’ to how much artists earn from streaming – has been tabled and is expected to seek legislation for the introduction of so-called ‘Equitable Remuneration’ or ER.

The proposal suggests that streaming revenue should be diverted away from the labels who take the initial risk and make the upfront investment in an artist’s career.

Of course I want artists to get paid more, especially if it results in a more thriving music industry. However, while ‘Equitable Remuneration’ might sound appealing, the system it describes would be far from equitable. It would do exactly the opposite of what it intends to do.

First, the proposal would cripple small independent British labels and make it harder to be a DIY artist because of the new red tape. A logical conclusion is that if record labels (of any size) have their revenues significantly cut, there will be less money to invest in emerging new artists.

This means fewer opportunities for the young superstars of tomorrow, or for those from under-served communities. Some of our greatest UK artists have come from extremely underprivileged backgrounds and that is part of the reason we must continue to encourage record labels to invest in growing talent.

Second, there’s also a real risk ER would make Britain’s music industry uncompetitive and harm our music export potential. As free-market conservatives, we need to do all we can in the industry to become attractive for investment. Additional barriers will only hinder growth opportunities for local talent.

International competition is already eroding our position as a global leader in music. Markets in Asia and Latin America are booming, while the UK’s overall share of global music revenue has slipped by seven per cent in just six years. This legislation would hasten that decline if large labels decide to invest more in overseas territories than the UK, as larger markets like Latin America or the US would have lower costs.

Third, a change to the entire streaming model in the UK, and its economics, will add further complexity to an already complex business model which in turn will force operational costs to rise. This cost will ultimately be passed onto the consumer, bad for fans and another inflationary pressure.

We need to support the dynamism of this industry and continue to create opportunities for the next wave of British music talent, rather than stifle investment with the unintended consequences of regulation. Our efforts should focus on maximising investment in British talent, ensuring that streaming platforms responsibly protect and value music, and enabling the live music industry to continue to bounce back post-pandemic.

The Government is already doing great work in this area, looking at thoughtful and collaborative reforms in the music industry via several DCMS working groups that report back next spring – an important and thorough industry-led process.

Ultimately, success in music is largely driven by consumer choice and popularity in a fiercely competitive industry. It is vital that we do everything in our power to ensure the continuation of the sector’s global competitiveness and throw our weight behind initiatives that encourage investment in UK music and foster international success.

If we want a thriving music industry with lots of upcoming talent then we must encourage investment, not take away the incentives for doing so. Let’s not pull the rug from under the feet of our future musical talent.

Joshua O’Connor: A Seat Out to Help Out scheme would support our creative industries – and boost the UK’s soft power

2 Apr

Joshua O’Connor works in the private equity executive search and advisory industry and was a local council candidate for Lewisham Central in 2018.

Much of the UK’s soft power is driven by the creative industries. British music, art, theatre and film have huge global appeal projecting an image of the UK around the world. If you go on holiday, chances are, in a bar or restaurant you will hear the song of a British musician in the background or see an advert for a film made in Pinewood studios advertised on a billboard at your landing airport.

Back when we could still travel, I was in Paris and got chatting to a friend of a friend about a tricky subject which had been dividing many Brits that week. It was not the progress of the latest Brexit negotiations at the front of my colleague’s mind, but my opinion on the forthcoming North London derby that weekend, broadcast live on French TV. When in New York, the conversation focused not on the US President’s forthcoming trip to Scotland, but the latest series of The Great British Bake Off.

It is easy to look back and wonder whether the richness of our culture, and subsequent soft power was a given. American political scientist, Joseph Nye defines “soft power” as a persuasive approach to international relations through political values, culture and foreign policy. The UK’s tapestry of high-quality creative output – from Jane Austen to Game of Thrones to Harry Styles – gave Britain the title of the “soft power superpower”.

Our superpower status created a platform for trade and prosperity promotion, and projected an image of an open, liberal and free society. The perception of a country is not understood only through political standing, but by its citizens’ impact on the wider world.

We see this when viewing other countries on the world stage, particularly in the world of sport (which I appreciate is not strictly the creative industries). I suspect, for example, millions of Mixed Martial Arts fans associate Dagestan with legendary fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov and Ireland with Conor McGregor rather than each country’s current political leader and history.

The UK, until 2018, was number one in the Soft Power-30, a ranking index of countries’ soft power. The rankings are based on “the quality of a country’s political institutions, the extent of their cultural appeal, the strength of their diplomatic network, the global reputation of their higher education system, the attractiveness of their economic model, and a country’s digital engagement with the world.” In 2019 we slipped to number two overall. Brexit, and its perceived negative implications meant we were beaten, albeit narrowly, by the French.

Although Brexit – now done – and the administrative frameworks for the creative industries to operate internationally are in place, the UK must ensure that we remain the best destinations in the world to make movies, record music and host sporting events.

The impact of Covid-19 on the creative and entertainment industries, particularly, remains to be seen. The optimistically anticipated “roaring twenties” will hopefully become reality, but if you took a stroll through any cultural UK hub today, it would be hard to not feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. Previously bustling centres of entertainment and creativity have taken an extended interval.

Business leaders in the sector recently warned they “risk the near-extinction of the arts and culture sector, plus the countless hospitality, leisure, retail and tourism businesses that rely on it, in one of the most culturally rich areas in the world”.

The worst-case scenario, as predicted by the consultancy Arup, estimates a 97 per cent decrease in economic output, which would amount to a total loss of £18.5 billion in gross value added between 2020 and 2024.

Many Conservatives might say that the market will dictate the future of music, art, theatre, film and live events, and this is true. However, as conservatives, surely we should conserve the culture which enriches our society, whether it be the weekly football game, fringe festival or independent film? I believe we will be richer for it in every sense.

The £1.57 billion package approved for the creative industries in the summer of 2020 was rightly welcomed. It is a small sum, when viewed against the backdrop of the industry, which contributed £112 billion to the economy in 2018 and grew two times faster than the rest of the economy between 2010 and 2018. The creative industries are bigger than the UK life sciences, automotive and aerospace sectors combined.

Those in arts and entertainment sectors are growing increasingly worried at the lack of decisive action to implement the best measures to enable a swift recovery, such as an extension of the theatre tax relief scheme, a government-backed insurance scheme for theatre and arts and cultural institutions, an extension of the VAT cut for arts, cultural and hospitality businesses and an extension of business rates relief until at least March 2022.

I believe we can go further. As live venues open, we should offer a similar scheme to “Eat out to Help Out” for live venues – from theatres to music venues to open air performances to lectures.

Seat Out to Help Out would help to solve the immediate need for venues to generate income, while re-establishing longer term community engagement with live venues, museums, cinemas etc. which had already been in decline.

The idea was floated by the Government in September of 2020. Oliver Dowden ordered the civil service to “move at extreme pace” to get the public back into large venues. So far nothing has materialised. Understandably so, given the sharp rise in cases at the end of last year, and the subsequent, world leading vaccine roll out.

As we start to come out of the harshest part of lockdown, the Government can set out a roadmap to reopen and save these precious industries. Reduced prices will encourage attendance, while increasing spending in nearby cafes, restaurants and bars. The scheme could be applied across the UK. Furthermore, after what will be nearly two years of near isolation, incentivising social, in person, activities would raise the national mood too.

Our soft power will be stronger as a result. Just as crises generate brilliant business ideas or scientific discoveries, so too can creative ideas flourish. Just as the post-Brexit, post-Covid environment will encourage entrepreneurs to build the next UK unicorn, we should incentivise the artist, writer or musician to create the next global phenomenon, illuminating the UK as a country to invest in and travel to. The UK can still be the home of the Queen and Olivia Coleman.

I say all this with a large caveat: I am a failed musician. If I look back to my younger self – a struggling singer songwriter looking for a big break – I hope that I speak for at least a portion of those in the arts. It was not a handout I longed for, but an environment which gave me the opportunity to make something of my life, doing something I love.

Britain’s music industry, the EU, the UK – and an early entry for Frost’s inbox

2 Mar

Some post-Brexit barriers to business between the UK and the EU are a consequence of both parties failing to clinch an agreement that one or the other or both already have with third parties – in which the loser is the industry concerned, on both sides of the channel.

Others are a product of our own bureaucracy: of government being ponderous when it might be nimble in offering advice and support.

And others still are simply a product of Brexit as we agreed it, which brings with it friction in trade with the EU, which in turn can be minimised but not eliminated.

The continuing row over the access of British musicians to the EU and EU musicians to Britain offers examples of all three.

In the first category, we have visas.  Some EU states will allow our musicians to visit without a visa for up to 90 days and other won’t.  That isn’t a problem for other third party states, such as St Lucia, Tonga or those which make up the United Arab Emirates, because they have a bileteral deal with the EU that waives the requirement.

In the second, there is VAT. UK exporters of physically recorded music and merchandise must go from paying no VAT to negotiating 27 different EU VAT systems to dealing with a single EU VAT system during this current year.  This is a classic instance of the businesses concerned needing more advice from the government as it seeks to navigate two systems within twelve months.

Finally, there will be more bureaucracy, admin and paperwork – even if the UK and the EU can sort that visa issue, and others that could reasonably be settled (such as carnets, for which there may already be an exemption for portable musical instruments taken into the EU for professional purposes).

That last category is integral to leaving the Single Market and Customs Union – which is outweighed, to some Brexiteers, by the regaining of national independence and, to others, by the gains that come from being outside the EU system and willing to act on it.  Our vaccine success alone could be worth “more than the most pessimistic assumptions about the economic damage of Brexit,” according to Jethro Elsden of the Centre for Policy Studies.

(Northern Ireland, of course, remains in the Single Market for goods and, in key respects, in the Customs Union too for practical purposes.)

Why the difficulty over negotiating a deal on visa waivers or work permits?  Because musicians are caught up in a wider issue of which their story is part: freedom of movement.

To cut a long story short, the EU made a public offer on the issue, which had wider implications for free movement, and the UK made a private one, that did not.

The former would have applied not only to musicians but to other workers and travellers, as Free Movement confirms.  But, for many people who backed Brexit, ending it was integral to the exercise.

Our proprietor’s EU referendum day poll of over 12,000 people found that a third of those who voted Leave said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.”

Meanwhile, Oliver Dowden says that “the reason why we rejected the offer from the European Union was that it wasn’t binding, it didn’t cover touring, it didn’t cover technical support staff, and crucially, it didn’t cover work permits.”

This continuing impasse is an early bidder for entry near the top of David Frost’s inbox as he begins only his second day as a member of the Cabinet – though if the free movement obstacle remains immovable, there will be little he can wring out of the EU.

However, Frost knows the ropes, having led the negotiation on the trade deal himself, and is so is well-placed to knock on the doors of individual member states, into whose hands most of these matters fall in the absence of an EU-wide agreement.

UK Music argues that “fishing is of course an important British industry, contributing £446 million to the UK economy in 2019 and employing 12,000 fishers”.

“But it pales in comparison with the UK music industry, which in the same year contributed £5.8 billion to the economy and supported 200,000 jobs.”

It is strange to think that there is more money in Peter Grimes, figuratively speaking, than there is in real fishing – even if because there is less than there might be because of the dispute.

There will be a £23 million fund for fisheries, and Music UK proposes, by way of parallel, a music exports office to help the sector cope with the increased bureaucracy.

Perhaps Rishi Sunak will make an offer tomorrow – after all, today’s papers are full of pre-briefing, as is way with modern Budgets, of £400 million more for theatres, museums, galleries and live music venues.