How Brexit will shape British Pop Culture

Avinash Gavai

How Brexit will shape British Pop Culture


David Bowie spent three years of his life in West Berlin, where he found the urban muse for some of his most seminal work, including “Heroes.” We are talking about the 70’s here.

Fast forward to 2016 and a reunified Berlin is the capital of Germany. It’s hip and cosmopolitan, beloved of artists, travelers, hipsters, and other assorted bon-vivants.  But if Bowie lived there in a post-Brexit age, he might have had his ass deported if he didn’t possess a valid visa.

In a globalized world, this scenario sounds surreal and absurd. But it is now a realistic possibility – just one of many negative consequences of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. We have already heard the talking heads on television and read the columnists in the dailies on how business, trade, and foreign relations will be affected for the worse. There is no doubt it will affect the cultural world as well.

We are now faced with some important questions concerning arts and entertainment—will the British music and film industries lose their open access to their most important market, namely Europe? Will Brussels discontinue the EU’s cultural support provided to the UK? It’s increasingly likely that people on both sides of the Channel will suffer the consequences of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Cultural isolation

Much of the bitching about the EU from the Brexit enthusiasts was a result of the cash the UK gave to Europe. But the EU also funded all kinds of things for Brits. Many important movies actually reaped benefits from EU money.

“The UK creative sector has long been a strong and vibrant contributor to the economy,” Michael Ryan, chairman of the Independent Film and Television Alliance, told Variety. “The decision to exit the EU is a major blow to the UK film and TV industry. It’s likely to be devastating.”

Indeed, as The Telegraph’s head movie reviewer Robbie Collin pointed out on Twitter, the EU’s MEDIA program “ploughed £130m into UK film over the last decade. The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, The Queen and Hunger all depended on it. As did An Education, Philomena, Another Year, Amy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Four Lions, The Woman in Black and Nanny McPhee. And Under the Skin, Pride, Berberian Sound Studio, Fish Tank, Sightseers, Mr. Turner, The Shaun the Sheep Movie, Macbeth, Belle, and The Lobster.”

The removal of this money will obviously directly affect the business operations of hundreds of companies and agencies.

“Producing films and television programs is a very expensive and risky business, and certainty about the rules affecting the business is a must,” said Michael Ryan, chairman of the Independent Film and Television Alliance, in a recent interview with Variety. “[Brexit] has just blown up our foundation. As of today, we no longer know how our relationships with co-producers, financiers and distributors will work, whether new taxes will be dropped on our activities in the rest of Europe or how production financing is going to be raised without any input from European funding agencies.”

For British touring bands and DJs, the ability to hop on a train to Paris or a plane to Poland and play a show is pretty smooth. But now that the UK has flipped the bird to the EU, it’s possible that British acts will need to acquire separate working visas for each country. And conversely, musicians coming from EU countries will now require a UK visa. The extra hassle and costs could limit the mobility of smaller, financially-strapped bands.

“I think the nature of touring is going to change massively,” Lauren Mayberry of the band Chvrches told BBC News. “The summer we’re looking at right now is just hopping from country to country within Europe and in order to do that when we’re not part of the European Union, we would presumably need to go to a different embassy for every different country and apply for a visa for us and everybody in our crew.”

Even the cost of flying in and out of the UK could get more expensive, with added restrictions due to tightening border controls.

This wouldn’t be as big a deal if Britain was a particularly good market for bands—it’s not. With effectively non-existent revenues for recorded music, endless venue closures, and a collapsed regional touring circuit, Europe is one of the few revenue streams left for emerging artists – especially as European gigs and festival fees are generally higher than those in Britain. Would Britain’s own dwindling venues get a boost from bands swapping European tours for national tours, visiting regional venues and helping to revive the music scenes in provincial towns? Like anything to do with the referendum, no one really has a goddamn clue.

As currencies fluctuate in the wake of Brexit, budgets could take huge hits. If a tour’s cost has been calculated in pounds, that price could suddenly seem far steeper as the sterling’s value drops.

And curbing the exchange of talent could cramp theatre’s style too.

Europe’s single market is the largest for the creative industries, and it wounds the soul when you read that a Creative Industries Federation survey earlier in the year found that 96% of members were for staying in the EU.

“Why would we want to impose borders on the free exchange of talent and ideas?” National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner told theatre publication, The Stage. “Theatre thrives on the free exchange of talent, ideas and inspiration.”

Post-Brexit, visas will need to be addressed and European training may be restricted, while the trade union representing artists from across the entire spectrum of arts and entertainment Equity has said leaving the EU would be “very unwelcome” to both artists and performers.

And that’s probably why Benedict Cumberbatch and Helena Bonham Carter joined 280 actors, musicians and other illustrious figures from the art world to sign a letter backing Britain’s EU membership in the lead up to Brexit.

In short: everything looks quite fucked at the moment.

The age-factor

It shouldn’t be forgotten that three-quarters of British voters aged 24 and under—the future of the country and the prime consumers of pop culture—voted against Brexit. Young people feel their future has been endangered. Their EU membership provided them with ease of travel in Europe and easier access to jobs, affordable education, and social services on the mainland and yes, a plethora of cultural delights to gleefully assault their senses.

David Bowie may as well have been singing about their Brexit opponents in his classic song Changes:

“I watch the ripples change their size

But never leave the stream

Of warm impermanence

So the days float through my eyes

But still the days seem the same

And these children that you spit on

As they try to change their worlds

Are immune to your consultations

They’re quite aware of what they’re going through”