A No Deal Brexit will be “catastrophic” for British touring artists, music industry warns

"It would shrink the industry and only privilege the very wealthy"

Figures from the UK music industry have warned of the potentially “catastrophic” impact of a No Deal Brexit, leaving thousands of British artists unable to afford to Europe next year.

Many artists and industry insiders have long feared that Brexit could prove prohibitive for a lot of rising mid-tier bands wishing to tour the EU – creating a “glass ceiling” for developing acts.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has since warned that the UK should prepare for a No Deal Brexit when the transition period ends on January 1, prompting widespread concern that new rules, tariffs and restrictions could further jeopardise the £5.2billion music industry when it is safe for live shows to return. It is feared that the financial impact of a No Deal Brexit could be worsened by the damage likely to be done by coronavirus closures, with 170,000 jobs predicted to be lost by Christmas.

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Jeremy Pritchard, bassist of Everything Everything and a member of the Featured Artists Coalition, warned that touring Europe would only be possible for established acts who are considered to be in a “higher tier”, like Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa, unless provisions and protections were put in place.

“The glass ceiling is getting higher and higher all the time the more the prospect of a No Deal Brexit looms,” Pritchard told NME. “There’s a huge swathe of artists in the lower to middle tier, which includes rising talent, my own band and loads that are more successful than us, where touring Europe just won’t be a viable option any more. It would shrink the industry and only privilege the very wealthy and already successful. It would be catastrophic.

“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘We can’t trade live music with Europe any more so we’ll just have to do it in this country’. There are only so many times you can play in the UK before it becomes ever-decreasing circles. There are going to be more people competing for fewer jobs. That’s a famously depressive economic situation.”

eremy Pritchard and Jonathan Higgs of Everything Everything (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)
Jeremy Pritchard and Jonathan Higgs of Everything Everything (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)

The inherent costs for artists that could come with a No-Deal Brexit include visas for every country visited, carnet fees for transporting equipment and merchandise across borders, and the manpower for arranging both. Pritchard and many others fear that this could stop many acts from being able to tour the EU, as well as having a devastating impact on the livelihoods of road crew.

“We’d always tour on a shoestring,” said Pritchard. “Now the costs are going to be so high that it isn’t going to be worth the outlay. We’ve done American tours before that have cost us £30-40,000 because of the visas, the distances, the travel, and the minimum number of crew you take with you – it just spirals. The same thing is going to happen just 12 miles across the channel.”

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Pritchard continued: “When that happens, you start removing crew members, like a lighting designer – and that’s one less less person employed. That’s going to happen more and more because the budgets are going to go up, the crew will have to start slashing their day rates and impoverishing themselves to stay competitive.”

On fears that the state of play could become similar to that with the US, which recently increased visa costs by 50 per cent with another potential 24 per cent rise looming, Pritchard added: “The American touring model is interesting because it shows us just how costly touring can be for just wanting to play in one country.

“If you want to play a 10-date tour in five different countries across the continent and the costs are anything like what they are in the States, then you’re looking at costs of £7,500 per person before you’ve even left the country. For a minimum touring party of four of you in the band and three in the crew, you’re looking at about £45,000. You aren’t going to cover that in fees and t-shirt sales.”

He added: “[The government] are glad of the tax money and they’re glad of the international kudos when they can point to Arctic Monkeys and Adele and say, ‘Aren’t we brilliant? Let’s have a festival of Britain!’ But they don’t actually want to support where it comes from.”

Foals Hackney gig 2019
Jeremy Pritchard, performing with Foals. Credit: Andy Hughes/NME

Annabella Coldrick, chief executive of the Music Manager’s Forum, told NME that the prospect of a No Deal Brexit was “adding insult to injury”. “Our industry is reeling and in a dreadful state,” she said. “When we come into a post-COVID world, we don’t even know if we’ll be able to tour because it’s impossible to know what your costs will be, what the bureaucracy will be and what processes you’ll have to follow in each country, but we do know it will be a nightmare.”

Arguing that such costs would “certainly limit talent development” through rising artists being unable to increase their profile and make money oversees, Coldrick warned that the “little communication” they’d had with the government had not been promising.

“We’ve been in discussions with government all along and one thing we know is that we’re going to need carnets,” she said. “That means every time you cross the border you’ll have to have this document which details everything you’ve got with you so it can be checked out of the country and checked back in, so they’re not paying taxes on what they’re exporting and importing – as well as insurance for all the equipment on the carnet.”

She went on: “If you take t-shirts to sell, then you’d be importing them into the EU and have to report what sold and what hasn’t. There were tales from the pre-EU days where you’d take out four pairs of drumsticks, bring back three and they’d charge you for the pair that you’d broken at your gig in Belgium. Then there’s the fact that our currency has crashed by our 20 per cent, so everything is more expensive.”

Roskilde Festival 2020
Roskilde Festival, Denmark. CREDIT: Press

Both Coldrick and Pritchard said that for European touring to be financially viable, artists and their crew would need “freedom of movement and freedom of trade” – an idea which has received a lot of support through a petition for a Musicians’ Passport.  Remembering the “insane paperwork” of past carnets with costs worth up to 300 per cent of his band’s gear, writer and punk legend of Goldblade and The Membranes John Robb told NME: “The musicians’ passport is a great idea, or just a waiver or some kind of amnesty.

“It won’t do anyone any good to consider all of these different borders and markets. I don’t want to live in a world where you can’t share in each country’s culture. A shared culture is good for the economy, it’s good for everyone’s quality of life and everyone’s sense of awareness.”

John Robb on stage with The Membranes

As well as fearing that less European bands will be able to tour the UK, Robb also stressed that there could be a danger of British acts having less of a profile on the continent.

“What will happen is UK bands will say, ‘We’ll come and play your festival if you pay all our visa and carnet costs and do all our paperwork’,” Robb told NME. “Then the festivals will say, ‘You’re only an up and coming band – we can replace you with a local band who will sell a lot more tickets and are a lot less hassle’. It’s pretty obvious where that’s going to go, and we don’t want that because it’s important that our culture is represented.

“I live in Manchester and I can see a whole city that’s been rebuilt by its powerful music and nightlife economy. We’re a powerful European city – and that’s down to Buzzcocks, Joy Division and all those bands who created a new image and feeling for Manchester. Why would we want to suffocate that with loads of stupid, shitty paperwork and extra costs? There are loads of amazing young bands coming out of Manchester now, but will they ever be able to go out to Europe and grow?”

Robb added: “You might say, ‘Oh, it’s only a couple of grand’, but if you’re a few kids from Wythenshawe then that’s a fucking load of money. Mum and dad haven’t got it to lend you. Is music just going to become a playground for middle class kids? Middle class kids do create loads of amazing music and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it can’t just be middle class kids creating music. It’s got to be everyone.”

The government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have recently chaired three Q&A webinar sessions with creative industries and arts sector bodies, and said that they have been actively engaged with them to advise on policy for the end of the transition period.

Responding to the industry’s concerns, a government spokesperson told NME: “We are working closely with the arts and culture sector to prepare for the end of the transition period and recognise the importance of touring for UK musicians.

“We are seeking a reciprocal agreement with the EU to allow UK citizens to undertake some business activities in the bloc without a work permit, on a short-term basis.”

To date, the petition calling for a Musicians Passport has nearly 85,000 signatures and can be signed here.

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