Brexit, one year on: Music industry remains frustrated at “clueless” government

Touring artists expecting a "rocky road in the summer" as more problems emerge

One year on from the music industry essentially being dealt a “No Deal Brexit“, industry leaders and insiders have spoken to NME about the problems that remain and the ever-increasing frustration at the UK government.

It was just over a year ago that the government jeopardised the future of touring for UK artists when the Brexit deal secured with the EU failed to negotiate visa-free travel and Europe-wide work permits for musicians and crew. Problems still remain when it comes to new rules and red tape, creating huge costs to future live music tours of the continent – which could create a glass ceiling that prevents rising and developing talent from being able to afford to do so.

Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise to fix the issues that could stop artists from being able to tour Europe due to increased costs, only Spain has signed up to allow UK musicians to tour the country without visas.

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New Brexit rules have also seen a “massive” amount of jobs and taxable income lost to the EU due to it making touring “nigh-on impossible” for road crew. Cabotage rules currently mean that trucks travelling from the UK are only allowed to make one stop in an EU state before having just seven days to make a maximum of two more before returning home.

David Martin is CEO of the musicians’ body the Featured Artists Coalition. Speaking to NME, he said that while there was a great deal more clarity on the situation now in comparison to 12 months ago, those efforts had come from the industry and were “not being driven by the government at all”.

“The clarity that we are uncovering just uncovers more complexities – it’s not making things simpler,” he said. “There’s been nowhere near enough engagement from the government. There’s a very long way to go. To get all of this information we’ve had to get it from multiple sources, but none of them were the government.”

Speaking of the few apparent breakthroughs that have emerged, Martin said: “We had some results in terms of touring Spain but that was driven by the industry, same for touring with splitter vans. The government keep claiming victories for things they’ve done no work on.”

Radiohead performs live during a concert at the Kindl Buehne Wuhlheide on September 29, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jakubaszek/Redferns via Getty Images)
Radiohead performs live during a concert at the Kindl Buehne Wuhlheide on September 29, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jakubaszek/Redferns via Getty Images)

Touring aside, UK independent artists and labels are also experiencing the devastatingly “outrageous” impact and “spiralling costs” of sending music and merchandise to Europe in the wake of Brexit – leading to more huge losses of income.

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“There’s an argument about what’s really causing the issues with tours being called off, but you can’t argue that the cost of postage, customs duties and extra paperwork is a result of COVID,” said Martin. “That is easy to identify as an outcome of Brexit – and one that could have been avoided if the government had stopped to think about it.

“Even the complexity of the paperwork that you have to do for places like Spain, and you have to do that across 27 different countries, and our government are not providing any financial or structural support in terms of resource or guidance.”

Martin added that while many obstacles remain, the UK’s £111billion cultural industries would be much more secure if the government were to provide resources, support and financial backing to help weather the upcoming storm of Brexit as travel and trade on the continent returns and COVID restrictions lift.

“It’s just so difficult to navigate these systems,” he said. “Even rules around shipping and transporting merchandise are very, very complex. Once you get to the upper echelons, cabotage is very expensive. It’s going to add a great deal of expense for those artists that do need larger touring parties and larger touring set-ups. As soon as something becomes difficult to navigate, it becomes expensive. That’s manpower hours or hiring an agent to do it.”

He added: “The main thing still, at this point, is that there’s still no clarity or guidance. There’s really poor support from the government and there’s no impetus to get it fixed. There was £43million in the budget for trade. God knows if any of that will get anywhere near us. This problem isn’t going away.”

mad cool festival
Festivalgoers attend the Madcool Festival on July 12, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Picture: Mariano Regidor/Redferns)

Annabella Coldrick is Chief Executive of the Music Managers Forum, and said that more and more problems with the Brexit landscape were continuing to emerge.

“Last January, we spent most of the month realising that all of our worst fears had come true and we had a No Deal Brexit for music,” she told NME. “Then we spent six months trying to work through the details with government, and as we did it just got worse and worse. Now we’re in a situation where things are still popping up left, right and centre.

“We make a bit of progress with one step forward and two steps back, and then more issues arise.”

While grateful for progress in overcoming issues in the costs involved in touring Spain and the legality of splitter vans being used across the continent, Coldrick said that managers still feel like they’re “trying to climb a mountain” to secure EU touring.

“We try to get clarity on things, then the clarity is bad news,” she said. “It’s really tough, because every time this happens all the managers ask us, ‘What the hell is going on?’ We don’t know half the time and our government certainly doesn’t. They’ve never taken up any responsibility to actually invest properly. They keep leaving it to us. The government guidance has been awful.”

Coldrick said that she had “very little confidence” that these issues would be fixed in the immediate future, and predicted that this upcoming first year of open touring since the pandemic would prove quite the test.

“I think what we’ll end up with is lots of individual stories of people encountering barriers, increased costs, and difficulties with different enforcements in different countries,” she said. “There are customs officials and transport police who don’t know what different rules apply to the UK. We’re basically going to have a year of dealing with major issues that people are going to encounter on the road, trying to clarify them then trying to get the government to solve them. I have no confidence that they will.”

She continued: “I certainly don’t have any confidence that the cabotage issue for bigger tours will be fixed. That will be a disaster. Haulage companies have been trying to relocate to the EU as a result. There’s going to be an enormous shortage of trucks next year.

“Places like Croatia and Bulgaria and a few tiny countries where there’s some form of paperwork to be carried out, I have some confidence that those things will get ironed out on a bilateral basis, but the really big issue around transport will not go away. All of the other costs are just going to sit there too: the costs of carnets that we didn’t used to have, all of the increased transport costs.”

Adding that these matters “won’t resolve by a long way”, Coldrick said that UK acts and their crews would be in for “a really rocky road in the summer”.

“We’ll have to field these problems and either make the case that these artists need to be compensated – which this government is not in the mood for doing – or government is actually going to step up and address them with member state governments,” she said.

“We will keep pushing. There are some amazing artists who have been raising their problems with the government and we hope they’ll continue to do so. That’s the only real way that we can make a difference.”

Brexit tour summit
Musicians protesting against Brexit in 2019. CREDIT: Richard Baker/Getty Images

Ross Patel, a manager from Whole Entertainment who is trying to navigate future EU tours for his acts Elder Island and Billy Lockett, also called for “support for the industry at large”.

“Some EU member states still require visas and work permits,” he said. “The process of clearing these have proven to be lengthy, complicated and in some cases costly for artists and crew.”

Elsewhere, Patel said that the remaining cabotage issues meant that “mid to large tours in Europe with larger trucks could be potentially untenable”.

“The UK was the epicentre of EU trucking and the EU does not have the infrastructure to support the new requirements and trucking demands,” he argued. As for struggles with other new red tape and costs, he said that “as with all businesses that are manufacturing in the EU and shipping to the UK, additional taxes are causing the prices of items to the consumer to sky-rocket. There are carnets to pay on any stock being taken across borders as well.”

He added: “It is depressingly apparent that the government will not act until we as an industry raise the alarm on these issues. What is reassuring is that we have now been able to demonstrate that when we do act, we can affect positive change. This should be a powerful motivator and a clear signal to the government that we will not be sleeping on these issues.”

France
Rock En Seine Festival in Paris, France. Credit: David Wolff Patrick/Redferns.

Tim Brennan is from the Carry On Touring Campaign, and was the author of the petition to fight for visa-free touring across Europe that went on to secure hundreds of thousands of signatures – only to be rejected by the government. He echoed the belief that the music industry had been offered up as a “sacrificial lamb” in the name of ending freedom of movement.

“Although Carry On Touring has made a fair bit of noise and brought the issues into the limelight, I do not think the government are prepared to listen or to do anything to help,” he said. “The continued line of ‘the manifesto is to take back control of our borders’ means they have stuck their fingers in their ears and are humming loudly so that they cannot hear the combined voices of the creative industries.

“The only thing they seem to do is make sensationalist headlines on how wonderful they are and how they are dealing with the situation when in fact they are not. In reality, it has been the industry itself that is driving the change, as with solving the problems in Spain.”

Agreeing that the biggest remaining problems related to cabotage, merchandise and UK residents not being allowed to spend more than 90 days within 180 days in the Schengen area, Brennan said that he was still waiting for evidence that the government were involved in a “positive dialogue” with the EU to overcome these obstacles.

“They don’t have a clue how to resolve the issues,” he added. ” On the one hand they have thousands of creatives wanting to be able to have freedom of movement to be able to work throughout the EU, on the other hand they have the Brexiteers wanting to close the borders. Whatever deal is reached will have to be 100 per cent reciprocal so that EU artists and crew can work in the UK as well as us working in the EU. For the government it’s a no-win situation, so they are ignoring it and hoping it goes away.”

Biffy Clyro, who have supported the campaign, playing live in Paris. Photo by David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images
Biffy Clyro, who have supported the campaign, playing live in Paris. Photo by David Wolff – Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images

Ian Smith is also part of the Carry On Touring campaign, as well as the creator of the advisory website ukeartswork.info for creatives wishing to tour and work in the EU. He told NME of how he was “saddened” that his project had “so little good news to impart and share as a non-political fact check site”.

“I’ve simply had to put out clarification after clarification, given how useless and sometimes contradictory advice has come out of official government sources,” he claimed. “So until we get help engaging with the EU to get a visa waiver for 90 in 180 days as Carry On Touring and until the UK government actually puts out clear concise unambiguous non-contradictory advice, the project will have work to do for many years.”

He added: “Where’s our culture secretary again in all this? We continue to try and engage her and her department. Do prove us wrong and show you’re actually interested in helping all our creative industries survive.”

In response to the latest criticism, a government spokesperson told NME that they were “committed to supporting the music sector to adapt to new arrangements”.

“We have worked at pace and spoken to every EU Member State about the importance of touring, and 21 EU Member States have confirmed they offer visa and work permit free routes for performers and other creative professionals,” they continued. “This includes most of the biggest touring markets, including Spain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

“We are continuing dialogue with the remaining Member States, such as Portugal, to encourage them to make touring easier for UK artists and musicians.”

The government said that it is working with the remaining six EU Member States that do not allow visa and permit-free touring, such as Greece and Portugal, to encourage them to make touring easier.

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