‘Control’ has been a powerful signifier in UK music, from the counter-cultural glory days of The Clash and Joy Division to the contemporary melancholia of A.A. Williams. Whether skewering cash-grab ethics of major record labels, coldly describing someone in the grips of an epileptic attack or walking the tightrope of mental illness, the word ‘control’ has multiple resonances for different people in different contexts.
Control is also a concept, like ‘fairness’ and like things being ‘perfectly clear’, that has been stripped of nuance and meaning and crushed beneath the wheels of post-2010 UK politics. When the Conservative Party, lethally addicted to power, decided to give the UK public a vote on the country’s membership of the European Union, it was a move born out of fear of the right-wing (now far-right) UK Independence Party, whose populist anti-EU, anti-immigration rhetoric was eating into the Conservative’s polling scores.
However Brexit was sold to the public, it originates in electoral cynicism and the intersection of right-wing xenophobia and the interests of UK businesses and business people who stand to benefit from a post-Brexit bonfire of workers’ rights, regulations and tax laws. The country’s cultural sector, however, has very little to gain from an isolated and de-regulated UK.
At its top end, the UK’s music industry is worth an annual £4.5 billion to the economy, through sales, streaming, tours, merchandising and licensing. Leading industry figures have warned in detail about the impact of Brexit, but it is the independent and underground sections of UK music where its impact will be most profoundly felt. There are few scenes in Britain that are more interconnected with Europe than homegrown hardcore punk and heavy metal. From hosting EU bands on UK tours to playing to the anarcho-squat scenes in Germany and the Netherlands, British metal and hardcore bands are fundamentally connected with their musical equivalents in mainland Europe.
Whilst there are potential pitfalls around royalties, merchandising and licensing in a post-Brexit scenario, where its impact would be most keenly felt would be in bands’ ability to tour on either side of the English Channel. Outside of the EU, UK citizens could be subject to visa restrictions, travel tariffs and spot checks on any commercial goods they might be carrying. Apply those barriers to, say, Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands and it’s increasingly unlikely that British metal leaders like Conjurer, Bismuth or Pijn would be able to play next year’s festival in the face of travel and financial restrictions. Flip the situation to a UK festival and it’s equally hard to imagine even establish acts like Belgians Amenra or Germany’s Kadavar wanting to slog through post-Brexit border restrictions and their related costs to play in London. Without the freedom of movement, the UK’s political right won’t just be stopping refugees at the border, but culture as well.
If UK underground music does ends up cut off from the rest of Europe, it would amount to a cultural tragedy. In the streaming age of boundary-less, asynchronous access to music, after Brexit the UK would be marked out as an isolated, insular anachronism. For heavy bands operating in scenes and subcultures that are far from being mainstream in the UK, access to audiences within Europe is not only a source of income and exposure, but part of a cultural crossover that builds relationships, creates life experiences and fuels the fires of creativity.
If Brexit was founded on a fragile, cobbled together notion of a ‘pure’ and superior British culture, then the fact that our best heavy bands often come from a place of multicultural exchange is a telling rebuke to the nationalists, xenophobes and outright racists who have led the push to drive the UK out of the EU. Bands like Venom Prison, Calligram, Conjurer, Vodun and Sūrya couldn’t have existed without the EU laws that allowed their European members to live and work in the UK. Without immigrants from outside the EU and their second and third generation descendants, there would have been no Killing Joke, no Skindred and no Ithaca (ditto Vodun).
Shutting the doors on Europe and, more widely, immigrants and refugees, is an act of cultural vandalism that limits the possibilities of culture and severely narrows the horizons of what bands, labels and promoters in the UK can achieve. Not only that, the Brexit debate’s toxifying of arguments over immigration, Islam and race in the UK has resulted in a situation where bands containing people of colour are facing pushback from newly-emboldened racists over their right to exist and talk about issues that affect them. The vote for Brexit was a vote for a bland, suffocating national monoculture and we can only hope that heavy music in the UK, in all its cultural variety and outward-looking ambition, can survive whatever comes next.
In the meantime, we spoke to some of the UK’s most outward-thinking bands, promoters and labels to get an musical insider’s view of Brexit. Click here to check it out.
Words: Andrew Day