“It’s going to be devastating” – here’s how Brexit will screw over British touring artists

But all is not lost – sign the petition now to grant British artists a Musicians’ Passport. Andrew Trendell investigates how Brexit could wreak havoc on the touring industry

As Britain now coasts into Brexit, music industry names continue to voice their fears over the uncertain future that faces homegrown touring artists. Last year, the value of the UK’s live music scene surged to £1.1billion, but now many say the implications of Brexit could be “devastating” to artists wishing to tour Europe.

Its thought that the extra expenses incurred and added paperwork relating to Visas, taxation and transporting equipment and merchandise will make crossing the Channel  “completely unviable” for new and mid-level artists. Tens of thousands have already signed a petition by the Musicians’ Union calling for a new passport that will allow acts and crew to travel freely between EU member states, ridding them of new required permits.

“It’s OK when you’re a big-time act and you can afford to swallow costs, but if you’re the average or emerging artist then you’re hand-to-mouth,” Isle Of Wight Festival boss and music agent John Giddings tells NME. “If it’s going to cost more money to tour there or you’re going to have to take extra days off, then it’s not going to be financially possible.”

“Counting on the government for anything is the biggest waste of time going. Brexit is going to do serious harm to touring in Europe” – John Giddings, Isle Of Wight Festival boss

“Counting on the government for anything is the biggest waste of time going. Brexit is going to do serious harm to touring in Europe,” adds Giddings. “If you have to import and export your equipment in and out of each country, it’s going to take longer to do. There will be more travel days, and every day you’re on the road you have the overhead of staff, hotels and everything that goes with it. It will increase the overall cost of everything.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Credit: Frank Augstein – WPA Pool/Getty Images

Mark Davyd is a former venue owner and concert promoter, and now the CEO of the UK Music Venue Trust. Davyd says that despite years of discussions with the government over the impact of Brexit, he feels frustrated that not enough has been done to safeguard the touring needs of less established acts.

“It is quite plain that so far the government has not really acted at all on the basis of the advice that we and plenty of others have given them,” Davyd tells NME. “That advice is that the Brexit deal creates barriers to being able to perform in Europe and for European performers to perform in the UK – barriers that will only be able to be managed by artists with a certain level of success.”

He goes on: “The problem is that at a grassroots music level, we don’t form a huge part of the conversation when it comes to considering what’s happening to musicians. You get Roger Daltrey going on television saying, ‘Everything will be fine after Brexit’ because he used to play in Europe in the 1960s. Then you’ve got James Blunt saying it doesn’t matter and won’t affect him – and you know what? He’s right. With the amount of money he makes from touring, he won’t even notice.

“You’ve got James Blunt saying it doesn’t matter and won’t affect him – and you know what? He’s right. He won’t even notice” Mark Davyd – Music Venue Trust CEO

“This is basically a tax on new and emerging musicians. It’s not a tax that will have any impact on your James Blunts and Roger Daltreys. Someone will sit in an office and fill in all of their paperwork.”

Davyd agrees that musicians should be allowed a cultural passport that grants them the right to work and travel freely, and alleviates them from “the burden of tax and legal compliance”, or to create a funded agency that is free at the point of access to help them along the way.

“Previously, if a rising band like Bang Bang Romeo wanted to go and play in Europe they could have just got on a train,” says Davyd. “If the promoters had some amps, the band could just go over there on the Eurostar and play a gig in Paris tomorrow night.” That will no longer be the case.

Bang Bang Romeo. Credit: Emris Media

In 2018, the CEO of UK Music, Michael Dugher, wrote a letter to Theresa May warning that “the ending of free movement with no waiver for musicians will put our fast-growing live music sector, that generates around £1 billion a year for the UK economy, at serious risk”. While all the headlines regarding that huge income are often centred around the phenomenal success of the likes of Ed Sheeran and Adele, Davyd warns that the chances of other acts being able to reach their level of fame and exposure will be severely hampered by Brexit.

“If we’ve got a new grime artist that’s starting to break through and could probably support five or six 300 capacity gigs in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Paris, Barcelona, Milan and Berlin – those are the people that won’t be able to do that anymore because it will just be an impossible process for them to manage,” says Dugher.

“How many times can you play Hull on a wet and windy Wednesday? The whole thing is insane and it must be costing the country billions,” Mark David, Music Venue Trust CEO

He continues: “You can’t just tour the UK for the rest of your life, it’s too small a territory. How many times can you play Hull on a wet and windy Wednesday? The whole thing is insane and it must be costing the country billions.”

The main concerns revolve around the money and manpower involved in completing the paperwork for multiple Visas to work across Europe, as well as filling carnets (an international customs and temporary export-import document) for the movement of all instruments and equipment, paying tax on the import and export of merchandise and applying for licences to do so on each tour, payment of social security in each individual EU country, and the regular checks against all documentation to ensure that it covers artists for a period of grace beyond any touring that you may be doing.

In order for touring Europe to be economically viable for an artist under Brexit, Davyd estimates that an act would have to play at least 10 shows to venues of no less than 800 capacity across the continent. “Anything below that and everyone loses money,” he says.

Another unfortunate byproduct of the new legwork that would potentially be involved in setting up a band to tour, would be that less established acts could be less likely to receive the ‘make or break’ slots lower down the bills at European festivals.

“The test of all these Visa things is essentially: is this a job that can only be done by you or is there a European artist that can do it?’,” says Davyd. “There’s quite a conceit by British bands to imagine that only they are able to play these gigs. As you tour around Europe now, you’re seeing more and more bands from Eastern Europe playing in places like Germany. Scandinavia has a great scene too. You’ve got all of these great emerging scenes and then you’ve got us with a government proposing very significant barriers.

“The immigration bill is proposing to end freedom of movement altogether and to have a points-based system. Musicians fall under the same category as fruit pickers. They don’t get paid very much and they do seasonal work. The difference is that there are plenty of people locally who would love to do it. We do have that British thing of thinking we’re special. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it won’t make an impact on the Visa process.”

Brexit protestors
Protestors demonstrate against Brexit

One mid-tier band looking to tour Europe in the coming years but without the finances and infrastructure of stadium-fillers are Gengahr. Speaking to NME, frontman Felix Bushe says their experiences of playing in the US made them feel weary about the prospect of attempting to book shows in the EU from 2020.

“Any band who was ever looked at touring America will know what a complete fucking shit-show it is,” says Bushe tell. “It’s an absolute fucking joke. There is no special relationship; an American artist pays about £120 to come to the UK for a visa, but for a UK band going to the States it’s about three and a half thousand. I’m not saying it’s going to be that difficult across Europe, but if it’s at all similar then the majority of acts just won’t be able to do it.”

“New bands might as well just give up now, because they’re not going to be able to tour around Europe successfully if things do go as horribly as they might,” Felix Bushe, Gengahr

“If it goes as badly as it could, then it’s going to be devastating for any mid-level bands. New bands might as well just give up now, because they’re not going to be able to tour around Europe successfully if things do go as horribly as they might.”

Chris McCrory of Scottish indie band Catholic Action says he has little faith in Boris Johnson and co’s advice for touring acts post-Brexit.

“Essentially, just like we’re all going to lose our ability to live, work and travel visa-free in 27 countries for the sake of right-wing political careers and bank balances, musicians too are going to lose an entire continent in which to perform and effectively promote their records,” McCrory tells NME.

“The government guidelines for touring post-Brexit read like they were scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet by Nigel Farage at his local Wetherspoons,” Chris McCrory, Catholic Action

“For bands right now, it literally is as simple as booking a week-long tour in Germany, getting in the van and driving over there. You show your passport once as you leave Dover and there’s no additional paperwork. It’s pretty straightforward and if you’re smart about it, cost-effective.”

McCrory adds: “I’ve looked at the government guidelines for touring post-Brexit and much like the rest of the Leave Campaign, it reads like it was scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet by Nigel Farage in between photo-ops at his local Wetherspoons.”

When the NME asked the Government about the measures that were in place, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport said that they had been in discussion with the music industry and that a period of grace before Brexit was implemented would prepare artists for any upcoming complications.

“We have held a series of roundtables with the music industry and published guidance on how they should prepare,” a DCMS spokesman told NME. “Our Brexit deal will provide an implementation period in which musicians would have more time to get ready before any rules change.”

But that time is getting shorter and shorter and becoming all the more alarming. Sign this petition now to give a more hopeful future to UK talent overseas.

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