EU & Me: Mogwai, Wolf Alice and more on Brexit

Katie Hawthorne | 16 Jun 2016

What could the outcome of next week's referendum mean for your favourite bands? Mogwai, Frightened Rabbit, Wolf Alice and Public Service Broadcasting weigh in on the vote that determines your future in the European Union

The EU referendum is splashed over your newspapers, flashing at you from your telly box and has probably been stuffed through your front door, too. The whole event has become a confusing, ridiculous spectacle, regardless of whether it's being debated on the streets of Glasgow or the murky waters of the Thames. Will we have to burn our passports? Can the 99% actually weather yet another recession? How quickly will our souls rot if we pull up the drawbridge and only have Farage for company?

We’ve looked deep into The Skinny’s Crystal Baws and we haven’t got a clue. So, rather than speculating about the emotional damage a Brexit could wreak upon our delicate constitutions, we thought we’d better investigate the situation through a medium we do understand: the world of music.

Mogwai’s Barry Burns recently tweeted; “Mogwai haters! Your chance to stop us being able to afford to tour Europe is now! Vote Brexit for no more shitrock.” It sounded worrying. But before we all panic that Berlin fans will be bereft of a future “shitrock” show, or that our Spanish faves Hinds would never again set foot on British soil (no, you’re being sensationalist…) we put our burning questions to people in the business. We asked Google, ransacked Twitter, attempted statistics and distributed email Q&As – read on, for Mogwai, Wolf Alice, Frightened Rabbit and Public Service Broadcasting obliged with some frightening (and enlightening) answers.

Music has long been a vehicle for discussion and dissent, but how many times have you heard someone moan that we’ve not had a proper protest song since Dylan? It transpires that the referendum has inspired an unlikely hero: Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, with a ballad titled I Love EU. It “genuinely came to me in a daydream,” he explains on his blog. “This song is my meagre contribution, and […] personally I’d love my kids to continue to experience the full diversity of Europe.” While Rhys’ rhyme scheme centres on a deep gratitude for the EU’s culinary influence – clearly very important – continued investigation turned up petitions that raise economic and logistical questions for the future of the music industry. 

These open letters, signed by distinguished types like Jarvis Cocker, Glastonbury’s Emily Eavis, Alt-J, Hot Chip, The Proclaimers, Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis and Chemikal Underground chief Stewart Henderson, have been published by Creatives in EU, and Creatives in Scotland Back Remain. They show that the EU debate across the industry revolves around international fan bases, touring and future finances – and cite figures like this one: Since January 2014, Creative Europe has awarded over £4,500,000 to projects involving Scottish creatives. There's clearly more to this conversation than delicious baguettes, so we took these issues to our esteemed panel.

Touring

Although post-Brexit visa talk is still very much speculative, Wolf Alice, Frightened Rabbit, Public Service Broadcasting and Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns of Mogwai share serious concerns that any extra admin or cost to touring in Europe would impact heavily upon the gig habits and finances of British bands. The British Phonographic Industry (the trade body for the UK's recorded music industry) tells us that British artists sell a quarter of all records bought in Europe – but this impressive percentage could change if bands lose their easy access to the market.

J. Willgoose, Esq of Public Service Broadcasting describes “strong support” for PSB in cities like “Rome, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam,” saying that “so many UK bands are dependent on touring Europe regularly.” He warns, “touring Europe is an expensive enough business as it is for bands at our level. Try getting in and out of Switzerland with a few t-shirts to sell and then tell me that freedom of movement isn’t a godsend!”

Ellie Rowsell agrees that EU fans are at the heart of Wolf Alice's success: “We have little, if any, idea what impact leaving the EU would have on any industry in Britain which is a frightening prospect. When we had little, if any, idea of how we were going to become successful and win ourselves a fan base, we turned to the road: the ability to tour Europe, where you can get from one country to another in a matter of hours, without the daunting prospect of visa applications, is a huge blessing for musicians in the EU.”

Frightened Rabbit’s Grant Hutchison writes: “Touring everywhere is important to us. It’s still the greatest feeling you can have as a musician and without it I would definitely not still be doing what I do! It’s also how a lot of bands actually make most of their money to allow them to continue making music and releasing albums. We don’t make a lot from touring Europe currently so to add extra costs would make it difficult for us to make it there.”

Mogwai’s Barry Burns gets technical: “The carnet (a kind of passport for transporting goods, like merch, between countries) to enter countries outside of the EU costs thousands, and on a Euro tour we’d be visiting so many countries that the profits would just vanish.” Simply put, he says: “You can't promote your album if you can't afford to tour. “

Funding & Finances

That same survey from the BPI shows that 78% of the UK's music labels will vote to remain in the EU. What's more, an open letter from BPI boss Geoff Taylor airs concerns about the impending review on creative copyright laws within the EU: “It's our key opportunity to confront music's biggest digital challenges. EU copyright rules are vital when we distribute British music across Europe and they determine how our artists can make a living. Our members want Britain to have a seat at the table when those rules are set.” He describes it as “essential if we are to sustain Britain’s proud record as the second largest exporter of music in the world.”

Willgoose emphasises the importance of those EU sales (and regulations) to PSB, explaining that the band “are seeing more and more streaming and digital sales coming from the continent in particular.” He notes, "The Musicians' Union has also firmly come out in favour of remaining in the EU."

Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite – also joint boss of Rock Action records – reflects that “doing business with other countries if we aren’t in the EU will be much, much harder. Cooperation with other European countries is commonplace and it’s hard to see that not being rarer if Britain goes through with this idiocy. There’s no doubt that this will be a massive ballache for the label. Our distributor is Belgian, our business model is a great example of European cooperation.”

Hutchison agrees: “I think movement of workers at labels/promoters/press etc would be made more difficult which would be a shame, as there's so much to be learnt from seeing the way others work. I think it's also important to be aware of EU members who would want to travel here. Whether that's industry employees or bands themselves, that would be harmful to the UK if there were restrictions."

Public Politics

Given the more toxic corners of social media, it's understandable that our bands might feel worried about contributing to the debate. That, and the plain fact that neither The Skinny nor any of the bands in this article are seasoned politicians. Still – we feel compelled to weigh in. Why?

Rowsell used Wolf Alice's social media accounts to remind Glastonbury-going fans to register to vote, saying “Bands and artists often have a wider reach on social media than politicians themselves, so it's a great thing to do in order to tackle political apathy […] As long as you are aware of your power as a person of influence and use it responsibly.”

Hutchison admits to having doubts about our Q&A. “I find the whole thing very murky, and it seems impossible to find any clear and honest facts on the EU referendum. Then I thought 'fuck it'. There's a young audience that nobody else is bothering to engage with and that's a shame because young folk around the world are the people we need to inspire and connect with, if we're going to wrestle our way out of the current political shitstorm we're stuck in right now.”

Willgoose adds: “We shouldn't be cowed by online nastiness, general snarkiness and the overly commercialised nature of the UK music industry today... having said that, I'm off to hide in a darkened room in case anyone's mean to me online. Bye!”

Braithwaite says, "I'm personally deeply uncomfortable at the thought of being left to the whims of what seems like a perpetual right-wing Westminster government. There are a zillion business reasons of course, but I genuinely fear for what would happen to our human rights and privacy."

Bandmate Burns also takes a firm line. He's lived in Berlin for eight years, running a bar called Das Gift in Berlin's boozy Neukölln district. “I probably would apply [for German citizenship],” he says. “I don't want to go back and live on an island that acts like The Wicker Man is a desirable way to live. Das Gift will survive I hope, but we'll be checking and refusing entry for swivel-eyed loons at the door.”

Blimey. However you feel about the fate of “shitrock,” the economics of touring or our childish jabs at Nige – please use your right to vote in the EU referendum on June 23rd. After all, we decide what happens to our tiny, bonkers island. As Grant Hutchison reminds us in parting, “the most important reason to vote for anything is to have your voice heard.” Let's not squander the opportunity with short-sighted thinking or sitting on our arse.