Elton’s right: UK musicians face a “looming catastrophe” – but they’ll always have Liechtenstein

The month began with the news of our paltry Brexit touring deal, and the bad news kept coming when the country's reopening was delayed

You might be big in America. You may be waving to screaming hordes of thousands from the steps of a private plane at JFK, causing pandemonium in the streets of Tokyo or selling out Knebworths by the hour. But you cannot rest on your laurels. Because, as so many innocent butterflies crushed on the wheel of international touring have learnt to their cost through the decades, you are nobody – nobody – in this game until you’ve broken Liechtenstein.

Most acts just can’t hack it. The prospect of getting in a van and slogging through the exhausting 17-hour tour it takes to play to all 39,000 residents of the entire country is just too daunting. Those brash and foolhardy bands that dare tackle the territory usually split up from the hothouse tedium of cross-country drives that can take upwards of 25 minutes coast to coast. You don’t break Liechtenstein, they say, Liechtenstein breaks you.

Yet the rewards of Lichtensteinian success are monumental. Those lucky few that break through return from rock’n’roll’s promised land boasting of two-figure profits. So the UK music industry breathed a huge sigh of relief when Oliver Dowden announced earlier this month that he’d struck an “ambitious” trade deal to allow UK bands to tour Liechtenstein on the same 90-day visa-free terms that the UK Government turned down for the entirety of the EU in January.

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In a month in which the UK’s reopening has been delayed by four weeks, what a relief it must bands were no longer going to be barred from touring their most vital overseas market, upon which so many acts currently depend for petrol money to get the fuck out of Liechtenstein.

So comprehensively had Dowden grasped the intricacies of international touring that he’d also gone out of his way to strike a deal (possibly, in a year) with that next natural scheduled stop on any European tour itinerary: Norway, a breezy 24-hour drive away, assuming your Satnav can find a route avoiding any of the four or five other countries along the way. And, having won over Norway’s entire population, roughly equivalent to five-eighths of a London, from there it’s a bracing two-week swim to play to the 357,000 people of Iceland, unless you fancy shelling out for flights that you could never possibly expect to earn back without Björk on backing vocals.

Because Iceland is the final piece in the golden triumvirate of VISA-free touring destinations that Dowden has so skilfully negotiated to save the British music industry from Brexit disaster – except, checking the small print, no final agreement with Iceland has actually been reached. It’s almost as though the sunlit uplands we were promised have turned out to be inhospitably cold, craggy and spewing filthy, industry-choking clouds of hot air.

These undisputed triumphs of Brexit haven’t gone down too well with Elton John, who chastised the Government last week for bringing on a “looming catastrophe” by failing to come to a wider agreement with the EU over visa-free touring. In the wake of a meeting with Brexit Minister Lord Frost, and noting the vast potential costs of touring a Europe requiring visas, permits and carnets at every border, Elton argued “we are currently in grave danger of losing a generation of talent due to the gaping holes in the government’s trade deal… This gravest of situations is about the damage to the next generation of musicians and emerging artists, whose careers will stall before they’ve even started.”

Elton’s absolutely right, but he also underestimates the adaptability, ambition and wile of the British music community. Realising that Dowden’s deals offer a wide and wonderful new opportunity for superstardom amongst an overseas audience equivalent to almost a whole Scotland for those willing to grasp it, only the acts prepared to drop all the grime, experimental electronica and future rock in order to become an international success will survive in the Brexpop age. The acts that realise that the biggest homegrown bands in Liechtenstein are of one specific ilk: symphonic death metal.

If you’re going to hold your own amongst the local Liechtrock titans such as Demonium, Dark Salvation and WeltenBrand (famous, of course, for their orchestral doom pop album ‘The End Of The Wizard’, which went tinfoil in 2002), you’re going to have to slap on the shakily applied Kiss make-up and gargle your way to a survivable overseas ‘fortune’. Pub bands of Birmingham, your time has finally come.

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If we jest, the government started it. Trumpeting such minor-league achievements while shunning the Europe-wide visa-free touring agreement offered to them is like claiming you’ve saved a beached whale by giving it a Calippo. Instead, they effectively chained, muzzled and caged British music, condemning UK acts – previously capable of ruling the world – to a limited, provincial level of success. Streaming knows no borders, but gigs pay the way; if it’s prohibitively expensive to tour Europe in support of international hits, building faithful fanbases beyond our borders, then any amount of online attention can disappear faster than billions in public funds into the Panama accounts of Tory donors turned PPE/track and trace experts.

Combined with the month’s delay in reopening larger, socially un-distanced gigs without – yet again – providing any support at all for the musicians and crew effected by the loss of up to 5,000 gigs nationwide, or insurance for any festival cancellations that might result, the Tories have disinterestedly lobbed British music into the eye of a perfect storm, proving once more the utter disdain they have for culture and how disposable they see this £5 billion-a-year industry. The next Elton John? As far as they’re concerned, Liechtenstein is welcome to him.

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