Mark, My Words: Brexit will kill Britain’s reputation as the world’s music mecca

Acts wishing to play in the UK post-Brexit must pay £240 for visas for each member and prove they have savings of around £1000

“I wonder what’s inside your butthole,” mused eight-year-old Jolee Dunn, thumb-strumming on her battered acoustic guitar and singing into her mum’s phone to the tune of 8.3 million Twitter views. “Maybe there is astronauts / Maybe there is aliens / All inside your butthole,” she continued. After the song clip went viral at the start of the month, There were punk covers of ‘I Wonder What’s Inside Your Butthole’, along with dance remixes and metal reinterpretations. Lockdown mania worked wonders on this simple sphincter ditty from a wide-eyed young dreamer bound for a career as the world’s most disappointed proctologist.

I bring up lockdown’s cutest viral video as an incongruously heart-warming metaphor for the latest development in Brexit’s war on British pop culture. We are, musically speaking, about to become Europe’s butthole – a closed-off territory of impossible fantasy. In a move that even UK Music Chair Tom Watson has condemned – and there isn’t a party that guy won’t happily undermine – Home Secretary Priti Patel recently announced that acts wishing to play in the UK post-Brexit must not only pay for visas for each member at around £240 a pop, but also prove they have savings of around £1000 before they’re allowed in. The days of The Polyphonic Spree bussing an entire faculty of starving University Of Texas students around the country pretending to be Pentecostal cult crazies, it seems, are officially over.

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The vast majority of new acts record music, play tours and build their own followings on a shoestring and, while you might bag a paltry tour support budget if you’re lucky, long gone are the days when a deal with a lower-ranking independent label might mean a regular wage that would keep the average rent-paying, painkiller addicted bassist a grand in the black. They’re called ‘starving artists’ for a reason – they need that T-shirt sale to afford the petrol to the next gig, and maybe the occasional Chomp between five.

Without hacking into anybody’s historic bank statements, it’s easy to make a longlist of acts who started out on indie labels or self-releasing, and who would probably not have made the cut to tour the UK on their first album or two under such rules. Tame Impala, Nirvana, Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, Pixies, The White Stripes, Blondie… I’m sure you’re shouting half a dozen world-changers of your own.

There appear to be some loopholes. Visits of less than three months may not require a visa, but it’ll be untested until 2021 whether that will allow a band who tour here for a fortnight in January to come back in August to play R&L. And you’ll still need that £1k each in the bank. So the effect of these new restrictions will be that those new bands who do manage to scrape together the plane fares and van hire for an early hand-to-mouth festivals-and-clubs tour of Europe will likely start mapping their route by drawing a big red cross through Britain. Some may argue that’s a good thing, forcing our homegrown talent to thrive and inbreed until it triumphantly straddles the handful of venues that will survive coronavirus. But that ignores a major part of Britain’s role in the global music scene as flagrantly as Boris Johnson would ignore CCTV footage from the Barnard Castle visitors’ car park.

We might not be the world’s biggest market but, historically, we’re the best respected. We produced The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols, The Cure, Blur, Radiohead and what’s left of Adele, and developed a fast-moving and enthusiastic music media to support our non-stop eruption of world-beating musical talent. That had made us the music world’s most trusted A&R – bands came here to break first. The Killers, The Strokes, Kings Of Leon and countless other bands specifically targeted the UK early on in their careers, knowing that getting our enthusiastic audiences and hype-horny press onside would kick open doors for them back in their homelands and beyond. We’ve long been a musical mecca, and in return we’ve reaped the benefits of early access and exposure to the world’s best new music. We got an entire noughties guitar explosion, for instance, out of two Strokes tours in 2001, while the rest of Europe barely got to sniff the hems of their legendary leathers.

The disintegration of our media consensus, and streaming putting a glass ceiling for grassroots touring acts on our singles chart, has already eroded our global influence over the past decade. If you look down this week’s singles Top 40, you’ll see that there isn’t much America don’t already got a whole heap of for themselves. But these new regulations will put the final nail in the coffin of the UK’s position as the heart and home of great new music.

Even now, the rest of the world still looks to us for cutting-edge taste and guidance, but post-Brexit we’ll be starved of many wisdoms to share. No exclusive previews of the new Alabama Shakes or The Walkmen or Hinds or Death From Above 1979 or Fontaines D.C. – Belgium will get them all long before we do. Just as US visas have made it financially unviable for most rising UK acts to tour there, only bands who’ve already broken through over two or three albums back home will be bankrolled sufficiently to play in our clubs, or feel it’s worthwhile promoting themselves in our press. We’ll essentially be dictated to by American radio and playlist compilers rather than picking our international heroes for ourselves. Britain’s blessing will no longer be a golden seal of approval, a musical Michelin star. The best new bands in the world simply won’t need us in the same way.

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Where will that leave us? Just another medium-sized European market with its own internal favourites, little more important to conquer than Hungary or Montenegro but, for many foreign acts, impossible to even have a crack at. Once a world-leading hub and haven for pioneers and visionaries, reduced to an unwelcoming island of shrinking relevance. What’s inside Brexit’s butthole? Nothing worth the cost of lube.

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