A melancholy notice greeted musicians clicking on the site for Black Dress Code. “Very sadly, we have decided to close our doors,” went the announcement, under a banner offering 70% discounts on the remaining stock of all-black concert clothes. “It is impossible to grow a business with the effects of Brexit both on the UK music industry and on the ability of the UK companies to grow their exports within Europe, our closest trading partners.”
Selling dresses, tops, trousers and skirts designed for performing, BDC supplied orchestral players, choirs, conservatoire students and institutions like the Amsterdam Opera for six years.
The collapse of a single, niche business in Ealing may not carry huge significance, but when I spoke to its founder, Daniella Gluck, it struck me that the story of its demise is a double whammy for both the classical music industry and the businesses that depend on it. The creative industries, including music, were together worth £116bn annually before Covid, similar to finance or construction.
Classical music is international and very European, full of freelancers with uncertain incomes dependent on travel to make a living. And the first misfortune for the business, which Gluck set up after struggling to find suitable concert outfits for her violinist daughter, was that it was set up in 2016, just as the UK voted to leave the EU, in effect turning its back on that cross-border lifestyle in which musicians thrived.
During the transition period, travel wasn’t affected at first, but other problems arose. An Australian company wanted to buy 500 dresses for a choir. “It was the day of the Brexit vote,” Gluck told me. “My business partner said to them, ‘if they vote for Brexit, the pound will slide and you will get these dresses very cheaply!’”
Rather than an incentive, the sight of the UK voting for economic instability had the opposite effect. They cancelled for fear of future uncertainty. For a while, business with Europe nevertheless grew. “Europe is my biggest market – they’re serious about classical music.”
But when the UK left the EU in 2021, the extra paperwork, border checks and
additional costs for exports started to hit. Europe-based trade show Classical
Next became impossible for Gluck because of the expense of taking samples over. Europeans stopped looking on her website overnight.
This also affected the UK clientele as Brexit made travel for work harder. Even seemingly unrelated haulage rule changes affected instrument transport, further hampering orchestra tours and depriving UK musicians of vital performance opportunities and earning the higher fees offered in Europe. Many gave up altogether.
Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Independent Society of Musicians, said the former Brexit negotiator David Frost had “(destroyed) the livelihoods of countless musicians to deliver Brexit.”
It’s not just about travel. The falling pound, as Gluck has seen, took casualties, as did falling wages and disposable income – you don’t buy tickets when struggling for basic needs. Even Glyndebourne opera owner Gus Christie wrote in 2017 that, with Brexit, “we believe that the costs of maintaining our very high standards are going to rise over the next few years, and that our income may not be able to keep up”.
Amid wider belt tightening, the Arts Council last year sharply cut funding to
venerable, big employing institutions such as the English National Opera to support regional arts. After this either-or decision, the ENO’s future is uncertain. The Welsh National Opera shortened its tour and Glyndebourne cancelled theirs – affecting venues, as well as emerging musicians. “They were really good freelance gigs of the sort many of us depended on for the summer,” a professional orchestral musician told me.
This could be career-ending for musicians trying to get established.
Gluck went to a conference of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO).
“Everybody had lost contracts,” she exclaimed. “My sales were a thermometer for what was lost in Europe.”
The brand survived Covid, but its small, family-run suppliers in Leicester lost out on PPE contracts.
“They really got it, whereas most people didn’t understand what I was
doing, why musicians need to be able to move and how to make these clothes move with them,” Gluck said. “They’ve gone bust. It was the last straw.”
She threw in the towel. Her shipping company said many other clients had
done the same. Yet, despite endless reports and inquiries – last month, Annett told the Lords European Affairs Committee: “Brexit has been an
unmitigated disaster for musicians” – nobody seems to clock quite how bad
things are. “Everyone thought musicians were crying wolf,” Gluck told me.
Since then she has made a presentation to the Labour Party about the state of the industry she depended on. “I was asked how long it could survive before it crashes,” she said. “I just quoted Annett: ‘It’s not collapsing, it’s already collapsed.’”