Brexit for Musicians: What Happened, What Next?

The debate over an EU “musician’s passport” for UK artists rages on, with much of the focus being on what exactly was on offer during the negotiating process last year.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of how useful those details really are any more, here’s an attempt at piecing together what we know or can reasonably guess. This is based on having spent far more time than I’d ever have wished over the last fortnight reading and listening to statements from the various parties involved, as well as the text of the Deal itself, while applying the filter that politicians of all nationalities and leanings will have a tendency to be economical with the truth, and by definition produce a subjective version of events. As always on these pages, it comes with the caveat that I could be completely wrong about any part or all of this.

If you’re sensible enough not to be interested in the speculative ins and outs of a trade negotiation, feel free to skip straight to Part Two, which should still make sense either way.

PART ONE: WHAT HAPPENED?

The timeline of the negotiations seems to start with the EU including a section in the draft text of an agreement published in March 2020. That text is available online here, and the relevant chunk is on page 354.

“Desiring to ensure a common interpretation, the Parties agree that, for the purposes of this Agreement, the category of persons carrying out a paid activity covers persons entering for the purpose of carrying out a gainful occupation or remunerated activity in the territory of the other Party as an employee or as a service provider. This category should not cover: … sportspersons or artists performing an activity on an ad-hoc basis.”

It seems this was rejected pretty swiftly by the UK. The main reason given by the Government has been that it breached their key manifesto promise to “take back control of our borders” – in other words, that for their liking it provided too much open-ended freedom of movement for a category of not only current EU citizens, but future ones too. Additionally, they have claimed that the definition of “artists” wouldn’t have covered technical and support staff, that the arrangement would still have been subject to potential opt-outs and additional work permit requirements from individual EU member states, and that the definition of “ad-hoc basis” wouldn’t cover most musical activity. The Government claims that, having consulted with the Musicians’ Union and other representative bodies, the proposal would not have met the practical needs of British musicians in full.

Analysis: whether or not those additional objections hold water, they strike you as the sort of thing that could be fixed during a negotiating process – this was the EU’s first draft proposal, after all. The red line was surely the first point, that any version of this proposal would contain far more freedom of movement (for EU citizens coming to the UK) than would be acceptable to this Government, which would explain their summary dismissal of the whole idea without further discussion.

Later on in the negotiations, when service industries were being discussed, the UK team reportedly proposed that musical performances be included in the list of permitted activities for business travellers, and possibly also some sort of reciprocal work permit arrangements along the lines of what the UK already offers to non-UK nationals. In contrast to the EU draft text, the public does not currently have access to the details of this UK proposal. The EU have explained that they rejected it as unworkable, perhaps because the EU doesn’t automatically have the authority to override member states’ right to impose their own work permit requirements on Third Country nationals, but also because it didn’t offer anything to EU citizens travelling to the UK to work which they don’t have access to anyway outside the arrangements in the Deal.

Analysis: it’s trickier to deduce exactly what went on here without being able to see the precise details of the UK proposal. But the UK had already staked out its position on entry requirements for EU artists coming to the UK back in February 2020, effectively spiking their team’s guns on this issue before the negotiations even started in earnest. Given that, I can’t see what incentive there was for the EU to put in the work on their side in return for securing little, if anything, in the way of further concessions for their citizens. On paper, while it’s obviously more restrictive than before, the new set-up isn’t that bad a deal for EU musicians, and at the end of the day they still have 27 other visa-free countries to choose from, unlike their British counterparts.

Ultimately, only a handful of people know what happened during the negotiations, and even then recollections and interpretations will be subjective. It’s important to bear that in mind when demanding that various UK or EU officials release details of what went on – they don’t necessarily know that much more than we do.

Stepping back to look at the overall process, you get the distinct impression that a compromise might have been possible (although the UK Government’s objection to the fundamental principal of freedom of movement should not be underestimated) but that nailing down the fine detail of such a compromise would have required time. There’s a reason that trade talks usually take place over a period of several years rather than a few weeks. So many of the issues that all branches of UK industry are now facing are a consequence of the absurdly rushed nature of the negotiations, and the almost non-existent amount of time left to prepare once the details of the Deal were announced.

Where were British musicians when the negotiations were taking place, when there might have been a decent chance of influencing the UK position? In fairness, we’ve had a lot on our plate over the last ten months. The Government’s rejection of an extension to the negotiations was a cheap shot in the middle of a pandemic, but it worked for them, in that it meant they could force through the Deal they eventually got before anyone had time to scrutinise its numerous flaws. Eating up the last few days with nonsensical quibbling over fish was consistent with that strategy, and there’s little doubt that the shortcomings of the Deal for fishermen and touring musicians will be the first of many more to reveal themselves.

PART TWO: WHAT NEXT?

So much for what may or may not have happened during the negotiations. Whatever the truth of it (assuming such an objective concept can even be applied to a process like this), piecing together the clues is by now a diverting parlour game at best. The EU made an offer, which it claims was excellent, and the UK rejected it. The UK made a counter-proposal, which it also claims was excellent, and the EU rejected it. There wasn’t any time to see if a compromise could be reached, and so the subject of any specific arrangements for musicians working abroad was left out of the final Agreement altogether.

The question which really matters now is, what next for UK musicians?

At this point let me reveal, or remind you, that I have two dogs in this fight, as a dual-nationality British and Irish citizen and passport holder, and so it is probably fair to say that it’s a lot easier for me to survey all this with a calm and rational eye. I fully understand the raw emotions that the whole concept of Brexit continues to invoke in my solely-British colleagues, and if anyone ever wants to question whether this really affects me severely enough for me to have a legitimate view on it, then they may well have a point.

But in many ways a calm, rational approach might just be what is needed right now, if British musicians are to find footholds in the walls of this deep hole in which they’ve been dropped. What is crucial is that we distinguish between the intended and unintended consequences of Brexit.

At long last reality is biting, and it is finally becoming clear what the Government’s vision of Brexit actually is; what “taking back control of our borders” means in practice. Many British industries, our own included, are now complaining about the barriers to international trade we now face. But it’s vital that we take on board that these are not there by accident: they are part of the design. Brexit, as conceived by this Government, involves erecting barriers to international trade by its very definition. The extra costs and red tape are not a mistake. They are there as a direct consequence of the Government’s approach, and they want them to stay there. This is Brexit working as intended.

But there’s another category of problems too. Colleagues with forthcoming work in Spain have reported issues during their visits to the Spanish Embassy, where the software used to process visas hasn’t been updated to include the UK as a possible nationality for applicants.

This is an example of an unintended consequence of Brexit, glitches in the systems used for processing and traversing the new trade barriers. Those glitches are there by accident rather than design.

These unintended consequences are largely a result of that recklessly short timescale of the negotiations, and they are desirable to no one. And so the thin sliver of good news is that, if we are willing and able to separate them from the intended consequences, fixing them should be eminently possible. Like it or not, we need the Government’s help on that, and they have every incentive to help us. They need to show that their Brexit works.

To that end, the multiple references to potential bilateral discussions with individual EU member states during this week’s Urgent Question debate in the House of Commons were promising. In terms of making immediate progress on the issues facing individual UK artists working in the EU right now, this is what will stand the best chance of rapid success – for example on ensuring that any opt-outs by member states to the negotiated new arrangements for social security are kept to a minimum. (Labour’s Barbara Keeley asked a perceptive question on this issue during the debate, and Caroline Dinenage’s answer also displayed an encouraging degree of understanding of it.) The more detailed guidance musicians can give the Government on specific areas like this, the more likely they are to be able to lower one or two of those barriers they’ve placed in our path.

Strangely enough, the current state of the pandemic has provided a little bit of breathing space to fix these unintended consequences – if it weren’t for theatre lockdowns and travel restrictions, there’d very likely be a lot more of us stuck in airports and embassies across Europe right now. So if we act quickly, there’s room for manoeuvre we wouldn’t otherwise have had.

During that Commons debate, Dinenage was clear that bilateral talks would be with a view to facilitating current arrangements for visas and work permits, rather than negotiating any further waivers. That may well be the case for the time being, but once those lines of communication are established, who knows what else might transpire? The Government could end up getting a taste for exercising that “sovereignty” they like to talk about so much – it would be good to see it amount to something tangible for once.

Surely this is a serious lack of ambition on our part though? Other campaigns have frequently forced this Government into U-turns on other issues. Why couldn’t musicians do the same, if we find the right slogan and grab enough headlines?

There’s a crucial distinction, however, between issues like free school meals, and a U-turn on freedom of movement. The former is a question of a relatively small amount of money which the Government doesn’t really want to spend, but which doesn’t ultimately amount to any betrayal of an article of faith. (Even their harshest detractors can’t really believe deep down that most Tories live to starve the children of poor families.) By contrast, “taking control of our borders” was the central manifesto promise for the current crop of Conservative MPs; whether you agree with them or not, there can be no doubting that for many of them, it is their most fundamental raison d’etre, and they can also claim with justification that they have a very recent mandate to act upon it. When we demand that they let go of that principle for our benefit, we need to appreciate the magnitude of what we’re asking them to do – and therefore the likelihood of us succeeding.

The other lesson to be drawn from the success of the Marcus Rashford style of campaign is the use of “SMART” goals – specific, measurable, achievable, resourced, and time-bound. Funding for free school meals is a perfect example of this: Rashford is never asking for the moon on a stick yesterday, and that’s clearly not by chance. Government can provide that funding at the stroke of a pen, and at little political cost; the amount of pressure required to achieve that goal is commensurately light.

Some of the noises from the EU might sound more encouraging: both sides, in fact, seem to have said they’re open to further negotiations on musicians’ movement. But dig a little deeper and you find that they both mean on the basis of their respective original proposals. So the chasm between them remains as wide as ever, with the Deal done, and the negotiating teams stood down and disbanded. (Michel Barnier last week: “This agreement will not be renegotiated, it now needs to be implemented.”) It’s not entirely impossible that a rabbit might pop out of someone’s hat at some stage, but we need to be realistic about how likely that is, now that the show’s over and the magician is on the bus home.

Furthermore, UK fishermen are currently demanding “privileged access to the Single Market”, which boils down to what musicians are asking for too, as are farmers, hauliers, and most if not all other sectors of British industry in their own ways. If the Government suddenly caved in and went back to the original EU proposal for musicians in return for a quieter life, it wouldn’t work – those other groups would all be banging on their door the next morning, demanding the same thing for themselves.

The inexorable logic of all this eventually leads back to UK membership of the EEA at least, be it in an off-the-peg or bespoke arrangement by another name. But that long journey will take time – years, not days or weeks. In the meantime, we may well be better off aiming for smaller, more achievable victories.

But even minor progress will require a hard decision from UK musicians: do we want to protest, or to lobby? In other words, to voice our objections to the whole concept of Brexit, perhaps in the hope of eventually getting it all reversed in a few years or decades; or to make shorter term progress in working with what we’ve got right now? One is an act of ideologically pure principled defiance; the other involves getting hands dirty, working alongside our natural opponents, finding small areas of compromise and mutual interest. Most people are temperamentally better suited to one than the other. Both are valid, and valuable, campaigns. But they are, to a large extent, mutually exclusive – you can’t do both at once. If the goal is to reverse Brexit, the problems it’s causing now are an illustration of why ditching it would make sense. But if many of those problems don’t get solved, and soon, it is we who will suffer first and foremost.

It’s a bit like when you dislike the manager of your football club, and find yourself willing your team to lose a few games so that he gets the sack. It might work in the long run, but in the short term you’re still losing. (And even after all that, you might end up with Mick McCarthy.) Whatever our fully-justified feelings about Brexit, if most of us are to avoid the imminent prospect of going bust, we need it to work.

So British musicians need urgently to decide whether they wish to protest or to lobby; to point out the sheer illogical fallacy of Brexit, or to work more quietly to fix the short term problems which are costing them work in Europe right now. Both are important. But you can only do one at a time.


Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

Giving It Away - Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales
Giving It Away – Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales
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Passport to Nowhere

As the post-Brexit dust begins to settle, UK artists are lobbying for an EU-wide “musician’s passport”, allowing them to travel and work free of restrictions across Europe. It’s a lovely idea. But is it a realistic prospect?

Opinion seems divided over how this negotiation might take place. A petition to Parliament created by Tim Brennan has just passed 230,000 signatures, and asks the UK government “to negotiate a free cultural work permit that gives us visa free travel throughout the 27 EU states for music touring professionals, bands, musicians, artists, TV and sports celebrities that tour the EU to perform shows and events & Carnet exception for touring equipment.” Other parties have suggested approaching the EU directly in order to secure a similar arrangement, presumably as a unilateral gift.

Let’s take the latter suggestion first. Just as many Brexit supporters are guilty of mindlessly demonising the EU, those on the opposite side of the debate often make the equivalent error of portraying the European Union as some sort of benevolent all-powerful omnipresent entity. Let us appeal to this deity, that He may solve all our problems at a miraculous stroke.

The reality is quite different, and Remainers – correction / update, Rejoiners – have even less excuse than anyone else for overlooking it. The EU exists to further the interests of its member states. It has been very clear over the course of the Brexit negotiations that protecting the integrity of the Single Market is the EU’s overriding priority, and that the “Four Freedoms” – of goods, capital, services, and people – are indivisible as far as they’re concerned. When the UK decided that abolishing free movement of persons was a “red line” for them, the direct consequence of that was that none of the other freedoms would be available in its entirety either.

Furthermore, as far as I’m aware, no other third country has any such arrangement with the EU. It may come as a surprise that EU member states retain the right to negotiate work permit arrangements individually with nations outside the EU. Sovereign nations after all, it seems. While many third countries have agreements for visa-free entry to and movement throughout the Schengen area, if we’re asking for an open-ended EU-wide work permit, we are suggesting the EU extend its powers considerably, and persuade its members to accept an entirely new kind of arrangement, for the benefit of a country which is not exactly top of its Christmas card list.

We also need to appreciate that it would require the agreement of all 27 member states, and therefore to think about it from each point of view. It’s not clear what, for example, a Polish, Danish or Estonian musician would gain from having to compete with British artists for jobs in their countries, with no reciprocal access to the UK market.

I’m not saying that the EU wouldn’t agree to all of this, but it’s hard to see why they’d be inclined to go to the trouble without getting something in return. Otherwise it seems as much of a Utopian pipe-dream as the idea of “associate citizenship” of the EU for anyone in the UK who wants it. Lovely idea, but pie-in-the-sky unless any reciprocal benefit for EU citizens was included in the deal.

UPDATE: The Independent published an article a few minutes after I finalised this one, quoting “an EU source” who claims with regard to the Brexit negotiations, “It is usually in our agreements with third countries, that visas are not required for musicians. We tried to include it, but the UK said no.” It’s really not clear what was on offer here – the article goes on to claim that “countries as contrasting as the United States and Saudi Arabia enjoy a permit-free exemption for performers in their deals with the EU, which offers the arrangement as “standard”.” If they mean work permits, this is simply not true, as far as I can tell from several conversations with experienced non-EU artists. There are many countries which have arranged visa-free entry to and travel across the Schengen area; and then many countries within Schengen where work permits are not required for short-term contracts. But the two remain separate issues, and work permit arrangements are a matter for the individual member nations – and so, for example, possessing a German work permit does not give you the right to work in Spain, even when your Schengen visa allows you to travel there. As it stands, the article is confusing and requires clarification on several important points.

FURTHER UPDATE: The organisation Wales For Europe has posted a message from Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt with further details of the EU offer, helpfully pointing us to page 354 of the draft agreement published by the EU in March 2020. That draft text suggests that “the category of persons travelling for the purpose of carrying out a paid activity… should not cover… sportspersons or artists performing an activity on an ad-hoc basis”. The question remains whether the EU could have got that past every one of its member states without exceptions and opt-outs, and of which other trade agreements apply this “standard approach” – I’ve been asking around and still can’t find any, so please do get in touch if you have a verifiable example, particularly if you’re a musician from outside the EU who benefits from such an arrangement. But as it stands in the March text, it’s unarguably a generous offer. Verhofstadt goes on to claim that the UK then revisited the issue when services were being negotiated, with a counter-proposal which the EU in turn rejected, which seems to tally with the version of events presented by various UK ministers. Other than the predictable “our offer was better than yours” sniping, the accounts of both sides do seem to be essentially in agreement. In an interview this week with the Financial Times, chief negotiator Michel Barnier broadly reiterates the EU account of the negotiations, but also more significantly warns: “This agreement will not be renegotiated, it now needs to be implemented.”

The Incorporated Society of Musicians has very helpfully compiled a list of short-term EU work permit arrangements for UK musicians, which they’re aiming to keep updated as situations develop and clarify. Ultimately getting all this absolutely right is of course the responsibility of the contracted artist, but it’s a useful starting point at the very least: ISM EU work permit information. There’s a similar list for comparison provided by UK Europe Arts Work: UKEAW work permit information

This brings us to the other suggestion, of lobbying the UK government first. The quid pro quo would have to be to offer the same Freedom of Movement to EU artists in return. That might stand a better chance of providing the EU with the incentive to consider the proposition – presumably we’d be talking about something like a limited mutual right to work permit-free for up to 90 days across the EU/UK, which would certainly simplify life for touring musicians. (I presumed correctly – see further update paragraph above).

But again, a healthy dose of realism is in order. From the current UK government’s point of view, the abolition of Freedom of Movement to and from the UK for EU citizens, and vice versa, is not an unintended consequence of Brexit. In fact, it is for them the fundamental point of the whole process. Having spent years – and in some cases, decades – working towards this goal, and finally having achieved it, how likely are they then to give it up? We might argue that musicians are a special and limited case. But there are many other industries which could make a similar claim.

The politicians currently running the country have spent a long time building this particular wall. They have finally succeeded. I applaud the optimism of those now asking them to immediately remove one of the bricks, but at the very least we should appreciate the magnitude of what they’re asking the government to do.

If the object of this exercise is genuinely to persuade the government rather than merely howl into the wind, then it might be better to make the argument in their terms, not ours. They are keen to demonstrate that the UK is now an “independent, sovereign nation”. It’s not entirely clear what that means in practice. So why not provide them with a minimum-effort opportunity to put some meat on those very bare bones? France has recently unilaterally decided that UK artists will be allowed to work there permit-free for up to three months. The UK could reciprocate that arrangement for French artists here, and make it clear that the same was on offer to other countries on a case-by-case, bilateral basis.

That approach would also have the benefit, to UK artists, of potentially balancing up the individual arrangements. To consider the one pre-existing example, British and Irish workers have retained the reciprocal right to live and work in each other’s countries. Even with my Irish citizen’s hat on, there’s no question that the benefit to Irish musicians of this arrangement is currently greater, since the UK market is far larger. The one wafer-thin benefit of Brexit to UK musicians is that their EU counterparts will face some red-tape barriers when competing with them for UK jobs. At a time when British artists need those home jobs more than ever, they might take a moment to consider whether opening the UK back up to the EU in its entirety is really in their best interests right now. If they decide that it is, I congratulate them on their generosity – but they shouldn’t kid themselves that it’s all gain at no cost. The arrangement will have to work both ways if it is to work at all.

Come to think of it, bilateral talks would also have the advantage of not requiring UK and EU negotiators to lock horns again – after the last few months, they could hardly be blamed for being thoroughly sick of the sight of each other. In practice, sorting out the fine detail of aspects like reciprocal tax agreements with individual nations might be of more immediate and practical benefit to UK citizens working abroad. And without question, the most urgent issue for UK musicians in the short term is to sort out the chaos and confusion surrounding the new working arrangements, which is already causing problems for those travelling to Europe to work.

To be blunt, the campaign for an EU-wide passport has a strong sense of denial about it, of trying to turn back the clock for our little bubble and pretend Brexit never happened. There is no “full access to the Single Market”, as we have so often pointed out to Leave campaigners, short of full EU or EEA membership, which are off the table for the time being. While the genuine grief and mourning is entirely understandable, at some point we need to face up to where we are. The 2016 referendum will always have serious questions over its legal and constitutional legitimacy. But while we were denied the common-sense right to a further confirmatory referendum, we did have two General Elections where we could have reversed the result had we, as an electorate, chosen to make that our top priority. In England and Wales, we declined the opportunity, and we now have to live with the consequences of that collective decision.

In general there’s no love lost between UK artists and their government – there’s a gaping chasm in sentiment and world-view. But if British musicians are serious about making progress towards opening the EU market back up, they’ll now need to swallow hard and take a small step towards understanding the intellectual territory of hardcore Leave campaigners. Only by doing so will they come up with the proposals and language necessary to seize the government’s attention.

The alternative is to sit tight and grumble for a few years in the hope that the government’s mind-set, or the government itself, changes between now and the scheduled review of the Brexit agreement in 2024. I’m not sure most of us can afford to wait that long.


Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

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Coronaclassical 24: Into the Post-Covid World

Yesterday may have been the first day of the rest of our lives. A press release announced that the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine being developed by Pfizer is, on current data, more than 90% effective.

This is good news.

No one should make the mistake of thinking that this is where our current crisis finishes. In Hollywood rom-coms, weddings usually mark the end of the protagonists’ problems. So it is with vaccines in Hollywood pandemic movies. In real life, both herald the beginning of the real hard work.

Many questions remain over Pfizer’s vaccine – what exactly does 90% effective mean in practice, how easy will it be to distribute, how long will it take to get it out there widely enough to make a difference, how frequent and severe are the side-effects, can we persuade enough people to take it – and so on. This may not even be the most practically effective vaccine we end up using in the long run. And there remains the potential spectre of mutations to the virus which will send us effectively back to square one with vaccine development.

But let’s allow ourselves a moment to pause, breathe, and celebrate a little. It was quite conceivable that scientists might have come out at the end of their trials and told us that a vaccine wasn’t a realistic prospect. Whatever else happens next, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The first twilight before the dawn, whenever it may eventually come.

Without going into the logistical details, and the potential bumps in the road between now and the sunrise, it could still be a while yet. For the classical music industry, 2021 might even turn out to be stranger and more traumatic than 2020 in some ways. In an ideal world, the global distribution of any vaccine would be even, fair, and targeted first at the most vulnerable and those most in need.

In case anyone hadn’t noticed, we do not currently live in an ideal world. The chances are that the globe is about to get even more asymmetric, and inequality even more pronounced than before. Travel restrictions and border controls, for example between vaccinated and non-vaccinated regions, are likely to become a more familiar experience to us before they begin to fade. For the next twelve months or so, I would double down on my existing advice to opera casting directors: think local.

This should also be a stark wake-up call to anyone still publicly questioning the logic of strategies to contain and control the immediate impact of Covid. There can be no question now that we can get through this. We need financial help to sustain the artistic community through the rest of this brutal era. But the idea that we should sacrifice the health and lives of our audiences – many of whom, for classical music, are in the groups most at risk from this ugly, cruel, remorseless disease – in a rush to get back to full steam ahead a few months early must surely now be seen clearly for the reckless misreading of priorities it always has been. There’s a safe way of doing what we do, but theatres are dangerous places in many, many ways, and taking risks with the lives of those on both sides of the curtain should never be an option.

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Winston Churchill

If we can just hang on for a few short months we’re nearly there, and then we can come back all guns blazing, as it should be. What a day that will be.

Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

Giving It Away: Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales
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Giving It Away: Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales

Eagle-eyed regular readers of this blog will have spotted that there’s considerably less material on here than there was a week or so ago. That’s been in anticipation of the launch today of The Book of the Blog:

Based on the last six months of Coronaclassical blog posts, with some additional new exclusive content too, the paperback version is available to order on Amazon right now in the UK, USA, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Japan, priced at £7.99 or local currency equivalent. All international purchase links are now available on my website: www.paulcareyjones.net

While I was ill with Covid-19 in April, the Royal Society of Musicians were staunch allies, providing financial, medical, and moral support, making me feel remembered at a time when so many of us were feeling forgotten. It’s my pleasure to be able to pay them back in some small way: 50% of the author’s profits this year will go towards supporting their work.

Keep an eye out for the forthcoming release of the Kindle edition, which will be available in all the territories above as well as India, Mexico and Brazil. An audiobook edition will also be released in early 2021.

If you’ve been reading this blog religiously – I keep an eye on my stats and I know you’re out there – then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the material in this new book, although I hope you’ll still enjoy it in this new format. The support this blog has received over the last six months has been breathtaking at times – thank you all for your time, attention, loyalty and support. Any queries, glitch reports or feedback of any sort will be, as always, very welcome.

This thing caught us all unawares. Disney were preparing to launch their new subscription TV channel on March 24th in many European countries, including the UK, just as those countries headed into lockdown. Disney’s course of action was clear: they immediately stopped production on their new content, told the content creators they couldn’t afford to pay them and laid them off, put all their existing content online for free, and appealed to the public for donations to help them through the current crisis.

Just kidding. Obviously.

So where did I get that nonsensical example? Say hello, ladies and gentlemen, to the fairytale world of classical music.

Stranded in London when the Coronavirus pandemic hit, Welsh opera singer Paul Carey Jones began chronicling the voyage of the classical music industry through the perils – and opportunities – of a global pandemic. Based on his hit blog series Coronaclassical, this book is his lockdown story so far.”

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Vauxhall Mokka

A lot has changed since our last instalment (the gap being a result of me owning a car again). The most noteworthy geopolitical event since 2016 has of course been that Vauxhall no longer sponsor the Welsh football team, thereby relinquishing their automatic bonus in the style section, which without being harsh they could hardly afford.

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This is a more or less brand new Vauxhall Mokka X. One of the aspects of the design proliferation available to modern car manufacturers is that they rapidly run out of non-stupid names, hence this model being named after what I think is some sort of chocolate-frappuccino-caramel-cinnamon-fennel-quinoa-smoothie-shake that you get when you should have ordered coffee, which is black, everything else being flavoured milk. The Vauxhall Mokka is a crossover vehicle, which must mean something to someone. Is it like a crossover singer? On first inspection it seems to be shaped like a proper car but smaller, making it of far less practical use and mildly irritating. Perhaps it is like a crossover singer. That style rating is in mortal danger of dropping into the minuses.

Vauxhall’s official website describes the Mokka as a “rugged, dynamic, stylish, full-on SUV”. They’re fooling no-one. On my original booking the vehicle was listed as a Vauxhall Crossland, and I struggled to work out whether or not the Mokka I was presented with consituted an upgrade. Vauxhall’s offical website describes the Crossland as “Muddy rugby boots. Fizzy-drink spills. Scattered popcorn from the cinema. Luckily, the life-ready Crossland X is ready for it all.” Most of those things aren’t even sentences.

In the absence of anything which makes any sense, I think we can infer that the Mokka is intended for everyday practical use by a small family. (I agree, they should get me to write their blurb – it would be rubbish but it would save us all a lot of time.) In the interests of scientific rigour I therefore assembled the quartet known in the Indian restaurants of London SW17 as oh shit not them again or alternatively the Tooting Avengers, the members and their responsibilities being: Fat Thor (age 45; in charge of driving and crap jokes), Wonder Woman (34; navigation, snacks and discipline), Teenage Negasonic Warhead (12; attitude, alternative fashion sense and soundtrack (music)), and Ant-Girl (4; consumption of snacks and soundtrack (whining)).

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The Tooting Avengers

The task facing this plucky band of heroes was a weekend trip along the M4 junctions 1-32 and back. Fat Thor approved of the Mokka’s ease of bluetooth set-up, which under cover of his pseudonym he feels comfortable in admitting he has never successfully completed in any other vehicle. This immediately led to 17 missed calls to Wonder Woman, who it seems never answers her phone, presumably being too busy saving the world from being overrun by rare blood diseases and laundry. Further crucial assessments came from The Warhead, who comprehensively tested the sound system’s capacity for playback of the entire output of My Chemical Romance – comfortably up to the task, much to Wonder Woman’s chagrin – and Ant-Girl, who was disappointed that the colour scheme turned out to be mainly black rather than the predicted “ummm GOLD”, and found fault with the model’s climate control, which apparently was capable of making the rear left corner of the interior simultaneously too hot, too cold, are we there yet and I’m still hungry.

That’s about all we had to say about it, which may not be much but is still far more than it deserves, and makes infinitely more sense than anything the Vauxhall marketing team has to offer.

Rented from: Avis Battersea
Country of origin: UK but not for long
Country of use: England / Wales

Year of manufacture: 2019
Year driven: 2019
Engine capacity: 1600cc
Power: 17/100
Performance: 19/100
Handling: 34/100
Style: 21/100
Comfort: 59/100
Luggage: 61/100 (bonus marks for carrying 2 children + my duvet and three pillows)
Max passengers: 4 + 3 pillows
Drivetrain: FWD
Value for money: 7/10

Written and originally published May 2019

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Coronaclassical 13: The Death of British Opera

6th July 2020

Three cheers for Oliver Dowden. He pulled through. Or at the very least, he and our new friend Rishi – still artists’ favourite Tory, for whatever that’s worth – have mimed signing the cheque that should ensure that there’s some sort of UK performing arts industry next year.

Thus a short and rare period of artistic solidarity comes to an end, and rather than unanimously attacking the government for its ineptitude and inaction, we can safely return to the comfortable familiarity of attacking each other, as the winners and losers of the self-styled New Deal emerge.

As the dust begins to settle and the smoke of the valedictory fireworks clears, there already seems to be a little less to celebrate for the artists themselves. When it comes to supplying funds to the army of freelancers who are at the core of how the UK arts actually function, the secondary rumblings from the government are less promising.

In truth, who can blame them? They’ve fulfilled their side of the bargain: a huge cash injection into the top of the machine. If they don’t feel it’s their job to fix the mechanism via which the industry chooses to distribute those funds to the people who actually produce the material which is the entire purpose of the whole endeavour, they may well have a point.

I’ll take opera singers as a case study, since that’s where my own experience lies, but the same arguments apply to many other branches of the UK arts where the artists themselves are almost all employed on a freelance basis.

The hard fact is that not only are we artists not getting any of that funding right now, but most of that money is going to be given to people whose job it is to prevent as much of it getting to us as possible. Because in the modern UK arts industry, artists are not employees: we are the raw material. And part of the job of those selling the product is to keep the cost of the raw material to a minimum.

I don’t blame any individual in any of those jobs. In their shoes I would be doing exactly the same. It’s literally what they’re paid to do, and many of them are far more enlightened and benevolent than they have any need to be. This is a criticism of the system, not of the individuals within it. In many cases, we’re lucky to have them.

And indeed as individual artists, we ourselves have been complicit in our own predicament. In fairness, when choruses and orchestras have been made redundant or had part-time status imposed upon them, action has often been taken, at least making a point and taking a stand of sorts. But a generation ago, solo singers accepted the gradual disbanding of permanent company principal status with barely a murmur, perhaps eyeing the opportunity to steal a march on our closest rivals and move up a rung or two of the pecking order.

Let’s wake up and smell the coffee. The recipients of the government’s unexpected largesse – our prospective employers – are no more likely to find a way to distribute some of their pot of gold to us than Tim Martin is going to offer to pay twice as much for his supply of stale lager. That’s what we are: not equal partners, nor employees, nor the geese that lay the golden eggs, but barrels of Carling Black Label, getting perilously near to our sell-by date.

So, here’s the gruesome triple whammy for British opera singers: a dearth of work and financial support at home, even more so than before this latest shit-show; epidemiological pariah status abroad, with uncertainty over travel bans and two-week quarantines making it harder than ever to find work elsewhere; and a UK passport which is, for the foreseeable future, hardly worth the pretty blue paper it’s printed on.

It’s the perfect storm. And any British opera singer who survives it deserves every reward they get.

An artistic ecosystem where the artists are constantly pushed further and further towards the bottom of the food chain cannot possibly hope to thrive in the long term.

So I hope I’m wrong. I hope those now in a position to help us, those running the organisations which will receive large chunks of the £1.57bn – siphoned from our own past and future taxes – will take a wider view; and despite the narrow constraints of what our self-consuming industry requires of them, start to think of ways in which British opera singers – that huge native natural resource which they only occasionally have the courage, imagination and expertise to tap into – could be saved.

Otherwise this might be the moment that UK opera finally eats itself. Where buildings and offices are maintained while artistic talent is left to wither and die. Where all that remains is the imported husk of an irrelevant foreign museum piece, as our detractors so often sneeringly accuse us of being.

And if that’s all we’re capable of, none should mourn our passing.

6.7.2020


Based on his hit blog series ‘Coronaclassical’, Paul Carey Jones’ lockdown diaries are now on sale via Amazon sites worldwide, and make the perfect Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in the world of opera and classical music. 50% of the author’s profits in 2020 will go to support the work of the Royal Society of Musicians.

“Something good to come out of lockdown.” – John Suchet

“an addictively brilliant writer” – Support Action

Details on how to order the paperback and Kindle editions worldwide are available at:www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A4 Avant

This is an Audi A4 Avant TFSi: “T” because it’s got a turbo, “F” because – you know what, I have no idea. Letters on the back of cars are like the medals on the Duke of Edinburgh’s uniform: you assume he earned the first couple but at some point they just started lobbing them on there like kids’ sticky darts. “Avant” is Audisch for “Estate”, which I can’t explain either. Maybe it’s a comment about what eventually happens to members of the avant-garde, they end up driving business-grey German family estates.

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I hope you like this picture, for which I had to break several traffic laws. It was taken on the Afsluitsdijk, which is a 20-mile causeway between Friesland and North Holland, the building of which created a 1100 square-kilometre freshwater lake. The Dutch are really into that sort of thing, and you would be too if your entire country was below sea level. Along the Afsluitsdijk there are several points at which you can stop and buy a souvenir so that you can remember the great time you had staring at the vast grey nothingness of the North Sea and being unimaginably cold.

As you will already have noted, this car is a bit classier than usual, and its job was to drive me on a 900km audition round-trip. I could have kept the car from Budget for a couple of extra days, and if I’d had known it was going to be the Volvo I might well have, but on the other hand, as I explained before, it could have been a Hyundai. Of course you could turn up to an audition in a Hyundai, just as you could walk on stage dressed as Nick Slaughter from Tropical Heat, and when the casting director asks for your CV you could hand him a turd in a shoe box; but in these matters there’s could and there is should.

In other words this was some sort of attempt to give the impression of being a serious grown-up professional, and that’s exactly what this car is – it is serious and grown-up and professional.

The A4 is a modern design classic, neither frozen in time for fear of buggering it up like the Fiat 500 or the Mini, nor actually buggered up by misguided tinkering like the Honda Civic. Every update to the A4 has given it slightly pointier elbows and a slightly more furrowed brow, showing that its design team know exactly what the car is all about. It is serious and grown-up and it means business.

I will pull it up on two points. Firstly, the built-in sat nav is like having a Commodore 64 in the dashboard. It’s so horrible that I drove straight around the block and back to my front door to pick up my Tom Tom. Fine, you can switch it off but it’s odd to lumber half your dashboard with something so useless. Secondly, the stalk for Resume Cruise Control is right next to the stalk for FLASH THE DRIVER IN FRONT OF YOU LIKE AN ARSEHOLE IN AN AUDI, which might explain a lot about the reputation of Audi drivers, and certainly left me wishing I knew the hand signal for Es Tut Mir Leid.

Other than that everything about this car is good, the engine is good, the ride is good, the gearbox (Audi’s trademark superfluous 5th gear notwithstanding) is good, the interior is good, fuel economy is good, load carrying from Ikea is good. It’s all good. And it’s very very good at driving on motorways, and even better on Autobahns, where it will drive extremely fast with only the slightest raise of an eyebrow. In fact, after 900km not a single thing about it bugged me – I’m almost certain it’s the least annoying car I’ve ever driven.

The thing is, there’s that involuntary moment after you’ve been married for a while when a stunning woman in a crowd turns your head, and then on closer inspection you realise it’s your wife, and you know that if you were single you’d marry her all over again. If that sort of feeling is a factor in your choice of car, an Audi A4 Avant is never going to make your heart skip a beat when you catch its eye across a crowded room. But on the other hand, being the least annoying car ever as a basis for wedded bliss also has a lot to commend it.

Rented from: Sixt Den Haag
Country of origin: Deutschland
Country of use: The Netherlands / Deutschland

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1800cc turbo
Power: 88
Performance: 84
Handling: 74
Style: 72
Comfort: 81
Luggage: 87
Max passengers: 4
Drivetrain: FWD
VFM: 8/10

Written and originally published March 2016

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Coronaclassical 7: Living with Covid-19

Reproduced here is a series of Tweets I sent out on April 19th, soon after recovering from the main symptoms of Covid-19. Day 1 was March 30th – I’m now exactly two months in, and the symptoms have all cleared except for the shortness of breath, which reappeared a couple of weeks ago. Doctors seem to think that should improve slowly, although as they point out there’s no way of knowing for certain, since at this stage no-one in the world has had this disease for more than six months.

1. Since many of you have been asking – here’s a brief rundown of my experience of life with “mild” #COVID19. Firstly – I’m alive and feeling almost like myself for the first time in over 2 weeks. I just had a cup of coffee and it was great.

2. Because I avoided hospital and pneumonia, technically my case was mild. In reality, it was anything but. I’ve had shellfish poisoning a couple of times, and the closest analogy is that it was as bad as that, but in slow motion over a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days.

3. Days 1-3 were a mild cough. Day 4 I made chicken soup at lunchtime and then collapsed into bed just feeling hot and exhausted. Day 5 I perked up again.

4. Day 6 was when it really hit – a proper fever (38-39 degrees), extreme fatigue, cough deepening causing an inability to breathe properly.

5. Day 7 those symptoms worsened, and on Day 8 I was in trouble – my breathing had quickened and shallowed, the fever wouldn’t shift and I was alternating between shivering and sweating uncontrollably. Extreme fatigue and drowsiness, and almost complete loss of appetite.

6. My heartbeat was rapid and erratic, and blood oxygen levels getting towards dangerously low levels. I had a bag packed for hospital at this point.

7. I got some antibiotics for the cough – to cover any possible bacterial infection – via NHS-111. Hard to know whether they helped – I did seem to produce a bit of gunk once they kicked in, but the fever remained persistent.

8. Day 9 was a bit better and just enough to keep me out of hospital. I was still struggling with fever, extreme fatigue and drowsiness – sleeping 18-20 hours a day – diarrhoea, nausea, tingly skin, and more than anything with breathing – it felt impossible to get enough oxygen.

9. Day 10 – 14 were very similar, with the symptoms seeming to take it in turns to give me a proper going-over. As soon as one aspect improved, another would kick in. The impossibility of getting into a rhythm of being ill was one of the things which made it so exhausting.

10. At this point my partner was also down with Covid, and with two kids at home we were grateful for the stockpiling – and the emergency supply package from the amazing Melinda Hughes. 

11. Day 12 (Good Friday) I got seen by a GP at a special Covid hub centre – the effort of getting dressed and driving over there made me feel like I was going to collapse. But my oxygen levels seemed good – and improved with mild activity – and my chest sounded ok. Reassuring. 

12. I’d had a constant fever for over a week by now, and I was beginning to have trouble working out what was going on. I’ve been watching Breaking Bad, and kept waking up thinking the house was surrounded by police and worrying about where all my illicit dollars were stashed etc. 

13. From around Day 16 onwards things began slowly to pick up. The diarrhoea had eased, although my appetite was still non-existent, & there were periods where my temperature dropped to near-normal. I began to go for short walks around the block after dark, which felt like marathons.

14. That gradual improvement continued. This is now Day 21, and I’ve been more or less fever-free without paracetamol for three or four days now. My breathing feels almost normal, the cough is a lot better, and I’m only sleeping for 12 hours a day or so. 

15. So I’m almost feeling myself again. Hope that’s useful and answers a lot of your questions. 

16. Bear in mind, all this comes under “mild symptoms”. In reality it completely wiped me out for two weeks and more. Worth considering when we’re thinking about the practicalities of  lifting lockdowns etc.

17. PS advice re preparing for getting hit: do stockpile! Think about a week or two where you really can’t go out, how would you cope? Especially if you’ve got kids, pets, dependents etc.

18. You’ll need paracetamol – two weeks’ worth is 7 packs of 16. (Bear in mind you can only buy two packs of pain killers at a time.) Think about where you’re going to ride this out. You’ll need a lot of comfortable, loose clothing – because of fever sweats I was having to change clothes 2 or 3 times a day at some points. Get a desk fan.

19. You’ll also need lots of fluids – 2-3 litres a day, and you probably won’t feel like eating or drinking anything. Keep track of how much you’re drinking. Get a reliable thermometer and a blood oxygen monitor if you can.

20. Most importantly, do NOT get sucked into the nonsense of “battling” the illness, carrying on as normal, stiff upper lip and plough through it etc. This isn’t a war. Get yourself organised, cancel everything and go to bed. You fight a virus lying down.

21. For some context – because I avoided hospital I haven’t been tested, but my partner tested positive on Day 4 of my symptoms, so in my case we’re 99% certain.

22. I’m mid-40s and otherwise fit and healthy, and I do breath control for a living. Those breathing exercises really do help and I can’t see any harm in starting now if you can stand it.

I hope that proves useful to someone. If anyone has any further questions please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. Singers in particular may find this excellent article by Molly Noori of interest for further reading – the pattern of her symptoms is remarkably similar to mine: Can I Sing Yet? 


Based on his hit blog series ‘Coronaclassical’, Paul Carey Jones’ lockdown diaries are now on sale via Amazon sites worldwide, and make the perfect Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in the world of opera and classical music. 50% of the author’s profits in 2020 will go to support the work of the Royal Society of Musicians.

“Something good to come out of lockdown.” – John Suchet

“Paul Carey Jones turns out to be an addictively brilliant writer” – Support Action

Details on how to order the paperback and Kindle editions worldwide are available at:www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A1

When I was learning to drive in my mother’s 950cc Fiesta, there were four gears and life was a lot simpler. You knew where you stood with four gears. First was for starting off, second was for going slow, fourth was for going fast, and third was for getting from slow to fast. The best gear was third, because the most fun thing about driving isn’t going fast, it’s accelerating, by which I mean the Physics definition of accelerating, which includes going round corners. Which you did in third. The thing is, at the time, when you were in third, you always thought you wanted to be in fourth sometime very soon, so you never really appreciated third gear while you were in it.

At some point soon after that they made a fifth gear, which was sort of fine because you just got to fourth and then eventually remembered there was another one up and across and so that was fifth.

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This is an Audi A1 Sportback S-Line and it has six gears. On paper I thought this would be a good thing on the basis of more-is-more. In practice and with hindsight I think five is plenty if you’re not planning on driving at 100mph+. What six gears means is that whichever gear you’re in, it never feels like the right one – a feeling which is exacerbated by the car, like most modern cars, constantly nagging you about which gear it thinks you should be in. They should just admit what they’re up to and have Patricia Routledge do voice recordings of the whole range of carps. I took fourth as a test case and tried to find a speed at which Hyacinth was happy with me staying in this gear for more than fifty yards. I can report back that fourth gear on an Audi A1 is designed for going at a constant 43mph.

There is also an Audi thing called Drive Select (or that’s what the button said), which allows you to choose between two modes called ‘Dynamic’, which is fun but burns a lot of fuel, correction, which is fun because it burns a lot of fuel, and ‘Efficiency’, which is a lot cheaper but should really be called ‘950cc Fiesta emulator’. The point of shelling out for the sporty model is presumably that it’s more entertaining than the cheaper versions, an experience almost immediately ruined by having one’s inner Hyacinth querying whether we should really be burning this much petrol when there’s a perfectly good and much more economical alternative available at the press of a button.

In S-Line version the handling is very good, at the expense of having a ride quality which feels like when you used to go sledging but only had one sledge between three of you which your big brother would hog so you’d end up having to go down the solid-ice rock-studded sledge slope in a bin bag.

Also it had a built-in Sat Nav with the world’s stupidest route planner, meaning that when I was looking for the Celtic Manor I ended up in McDonald’s. Although perhaps that was just another manifestation of Efficiency mode.

So look, this car popped up on the Avis website as a guaranteed-model option (for an extra twenty quid or so) – that’s worth looking out for if you’re hiring and you like cars. I was quite excited at the prospect of having it for a weekend, and in the end if it wasn’t quite as much fun as I’d hoped then that’s probably my fault more than the car’s (including the fact that it turned out to be a colour which I’ve always reserved exclusively for my first Ferrari). And when I had to hand the keys back I was genuinely sad for a moment.

The thing is, if it came to buying one, I’m not sure who this car is for. If I had been born female I would have been called Jennifer, so my parents tell me. Jennifer Jones would have felt that the A1 Sportback is cute but not as stylish as a Fiat 500 or Mini, not as tidily efficient as a Polo, and not as much fun as one of those mental Fiestas like off the remake of The Sweeney.

As for male manifestations of current selves, what blokes, unless they’re undertakers or harpists, really want in a car is a boot. That’s because the boot is the automotive equivalent of the shed – it’s a place down the end of the thing where a bloke can put Stuff and forget about it for six months. Show me a man in a hatchback and I’ll show you a man who feels there’s something missing in his life but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Unless he owns a shed.

Rented from: Avis Birmingham Airport
Country of origin: Germany
Country of use: UK

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1400cc
Power: 77/100
Performance: 82/100
Handling: 88/100
Style: 75/100
Comfort: 46/100
Luggage: 60/100
Max passengers: 3
Drivetrain: FWD
Value For Money: 8/10

Written and originally published February 2016

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Coronaclassical 2: Giving It Away

24th April 2020

This thing caught us all unawares. Disney were preparing to launch their new subscription TV channel on March 24th in many European countries, including the UK, just as those countries headed into lockdown. Disney’s course of action was clear – they immediately stopped production on their new content, told the content creators they couldn’t afford to pay them and laid them off, put all their existing content online for free, and appealed to the public for donations to help them through the current crisis.

Just kidding. Obviously.

What Disney in fact did was to keep producing their new content, increased their marketing, and heavily promoted an attractive offer of around 12% off for early subscribers. Speaking anecdotally, it was more than enough to make me sign up, with the prospect of several weeks at home and a lot of spare time suddenly looming.

Disney already had a viable business model for home entertainment set up, and so they were well-placed to cash in on a newly captive audience. And it’s to mutual advantage: subscribers can stump up £5 a month or so, knowing that their contribution will lead to more of the content that they enjoy. It really doesn’t take much – one or two flagship shows in most cases. I’m happy that my contribution to Netflix will help finish Better Call Saul, and similarly with NOW TV and Westworld.

So where did I get that nonsensical example in paragraph one? Say hello, ladies and gentlemen, to the fairytale world of classical music.

I’m combining separate examples for dramatic effect of course, although there are a few companies who have reacted in pretty much all of these ways. Elements of this response are apparent across the industry – freelance artists have been instantly laid off with minimal or no compensation, the cap has been passed round to the usual long-suffering and endlessly generous supporters, and most bizarrely, vast archives of digital content have been put online for free.

Now, if we are to assume that the current crisis will last a matter of a few weeks, and that we’ll all be back to normal by the beginning of the autumn season, this approach might make some sense. With strong hints over the last few days from the UK and Scottish governments, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates and others, that realistically we need to think in terms of months and years rather than weeks – in other words, well into 2021 if not beyond – the penny should be beginning to drop that the wait to get back to “normal” may be a far longer one. There is even a non-negligible chance that this could be a permanent new “normal”.

For companies, a theatrical lockdown which reaches into next year means a long time to go without ticket income, or to rely on audience generosity with nothing to offer in return. For individual artists, it would take most of us beyond the period for which we had confirmed contracts, leaving us without even the support those might have offered, and truly out on a limb.

What then for an industry which has over the last few decades, rightly or wrongly, put all its eggs in the basket of live performance?

This business of releasing digital content free of charge was not without a certain logic, after all. The idea (I infer) was to treat it as a loss leader, to drum up interest (albeit often via a mechanism which was so vague that one suspected it didn’t necessarily exist in any genuine detail at all) in buying tickets for live performances – some of which might, with a bit of luck, turn out to be profitable.

But there was always a flaw in the reasoning here. A video recording of a live performance is, in itself, an artistic product, and there was really never any reason why, with some marketing legwork, a viable paying audience couldn’t have been built up for it over time. The era when people were used to getting movies and TV shows (as opposed to music – that’s a separate set of problems) online for nothing is very much over. If you’re not a Disney+ subscriber, and decide you want to watch Return of the Jedi on YouTube this evening, it’ll set you back £6.99. Would it really take much for classical music audiences to undergo the same paradigm shift? Almost all of the freelance artists we’re watching in those classical broadcasts are currently unemployed and trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the next couple of years. Most of them will not be being paid for these broadcasts, and many would have received next to nothing for them in the first place. Would it be too much to ask that we take the opportunity to invite current viewers to contribute to their livelihoods? In fact, had we already done the work to establish the principle of paying for getting classical music on your TV screen, this could have been a genuine boom time for the industry.

Let me give you a concrete example. My YouTube channel contains a song recital playlist, which I made at my own expense a couple of years ago and which, between the various tracks, now has over 10,000 views. While I make no comment on the singer’s performance, the quality of audio and video is high, and at, say, 49p a view I could not only make a decent profit, but more to the point have the financial capacity to produce similar content once or twice a year at least – even under the current restrictions on social distancing and so on. However, the reality is that my huge, and in many cases hugely subsidised, competitors have set the going rate for viewing online classical music content at precisely zero. So I make a loss, and viewers are denied the ongoing production of new high-quality content. It’s the artistic equivalent of burning fossil fuel. And as with the boar seller in Asterix and the Cauldron, everybody loses.

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This moment in history could be an opportunity to think about the most fundamental basis of how our industry works. Without going into the personal details of the Placido Domingo affair and similar recent scandals, a business which sets itself up such that it relies on huge corporate and individual donations, and therefore needs to give them in return, among other things, some special sort of privileged access to “stars” which it is then obliged to create and place in positions of unassailable power, has created an almost-inevitable problem for itself. We lean on subsidies so that a proportion of our tickets can be sold below cost price, allowing the entire industry to adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude to the fact that ours is an expensive product to make. At some point it’s surely not a moral outrage to ask those who consume it to pay for it. What might a truly egalitarian opera industry – where audiences are invited to make a grown-up decision to pay for what they’re getting – look like? 

And let’s think again about that expense. Our productions are expensive – but on the scale of television and cinema budgets, not impossibly so, especially if we begin to apply ourselves seriously to the idea of a potential global, at-home paying audience.

When we come to live theatrical performance, there’s no getting away from the challenges presented. If we’re honest, theatre was already approaching something of a watershed regarding audience expectations of mutually acceptable behaviour and how to share a space in the modern world. Will we need to rethink venues entirely – around a comfort-based individual experience, rather than cramming ‘em in? Will theatrical boxes make a serious comeback? Stuart Murphy’s latest brainstorm for ENO, touting the idea of drive-in opera, raises more questions than it answers. But at least it’s a sign that the industry may be willing to go back to first principles, which is surely the least the situation will demand – and this is not to mention how we might configure our singers and orchestra members at a safe distance from each other. Perhaps it’ll be like the post-AIDS porn industry, and we’ll need medical certificates before we can perform together without protection.

Let’s take the worst-case scenario, and say that the idea of staging a show in front of a live audience of thousands is a thing of the past. We’d all take a moment to mourn that loss. But as grown-up professional artists, our job is to imagine these scenarios, and prepare to meet these challenges. Opera and classical music on video has almost always been hamstrung by the limitations of pointing cameras at a stage, filming something with the pace and scale of theatre and concert hall rather than cinema or TV. It may be time to revisit seriously what we might be able to achieve by designing pieces from the ground up for screen rather than stage. 

Being restricted by the parameters of works designed for theatrical audiences two centuries ago is a choice we make, and other routes are available. If the ideal material to take advantage of a home broadcast format is limited or unavailable, we have a vast number of hugely talented composers, librettists, directors and designers who could produce it afresh. Acting styles might need to adapt, but they always have done in response to the dramatic tastes of the day. In addition, the quality of video and audio equipment people have at home is, in general, unrecognisably superior to what was available when these questions were first being addressed half a century ago. How do we make opera relevant to now? Making it now, for now, is always a good start.

This thing caught us all unawares. We’ve had a chance to grieve for the art that we’ve already lost. Take another moment to do so if you need it. But at some point we either choose to give up, or to get our thinking caps on and embrace this grimly terrifying, weird, and yet potentially wonderful new world, and ask whether it holds a place for those who seek to make viable, sustainable, profitable art. Are we up for it?

24.4.2020


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