Post-Brexit visas and costs for touring artists “commercially crass and culturally wrong,” says Tom Watson

The head of UK Music backs plan for a Musicians' Passport

Tom Watson has called for the government to back a plan for a Musicians’ Passport, allowing bands and artists to tour freely and without visas after Brexit.

As part of ongoing Brexit negotiations, the Home Office previously revealed that musicians from outside the UK will need to apply for a visa and pay to perform in the country from 2021, with EU and non-EU based creatives who wish to travel to the UK needing to prove they have nearly £1000 in savings in their account some 90 days before applying for the visa.

A number of industry figures also spoke out about how the extra expense that would fall on UK artists wishing tour through Europe after Brexit would prove “devastating” and make it “financially impossible” for smaller acts.

A petition was subsequently started by the Musicians’ Union, calling for a Musicians’ Passport to support artists and crew working in the EU after Brexit. It has since been signed by over 82,000 people.

Now, former Labour Deputy Leader and Shadow Culture Secretary Watson, who became the new Chair of the body UK Music back in March, has called for more to be done to help artists tour after the UK leaves the EU – especially due to the extra pressure on the live music industry thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Asked about the idea of the Musicians’ Passport, Watson told NME: “If I’d have started this job pre-COVID, then that would have been my number one priority. The potential greatest tragedy that I could see happening is that we lift restrictions on live music and that our post-Brexit settlement means that we cannot have bands touring across jurisdictions in the European Union because we’ve made it administratively and financially impossible for them to go and do that.”

He continued: “We’ve raised that with the government. We’re obviously extremely concerned that we have cliff-edge breaks here because we need bands, crew and merch to be able to cross borders. That’s the only way that these tours can continue.”

Tom Watson
Tom Watson (Picture: Getty)

With the government this week announcing a new Culture Commissioner and recovery taskforce to investigate ways for the UK’s entertainment industries to survive and bounce back from the COVID crisis, Watson said he was determined to work with the government to ensure that the music industry thrives when the Brexit transition period ends on December 31.

“I’m confident that as the negotiations unfold, they’ll be in no doubt of how important this is for the UK music industry,” said Watson. “Sadly, negotiations are quite fractured and delayed at the moment so I don’t know what the outcome will be – but I’m absolutely certain that the whole UK music industry has made it clear that it will be absolutely catastrophic if we don’t get some concessions in that negotiation.”

Watson said that other essential immigration negotiations included looking for a better deal for UK artists paying for visas to tour in the US, as well as lowering the salary cap for EU musicians entering the country. They previously cut it from £30,000 to £25,600 for skilled workers in the points-based system, but the average earning for the music industry is around £23,000 per year – meaning that “there will still be so many people who still lose out on on being able to tour here”.

“All of this just shows us just how much the lack of friction across the European entity has improved people’s ability to enjoy culture and live music,” said Watson. “To put any of that in jeopardy is not only commercially crass, but it’s culturally the wrong thing to do. The Musician’s Passport needs to be a two-way street, and no one in the music sector would argue against that.”

He added: “We know the clock is still ticking. We’re on lockdown but we can’t take our eye off the ball.”

How will touring musicians survive after Brexit? Credit: Getty

The passport suggested by the Musicians’ Union would last a minimum of two years
Be free or cheap, cover all EU member states, get rid of the need for carnets and other permits and cover road crew, technicians and other staff necessary for musicians to do their job.

“Music and the performing arts rely on exchange of ideas and interaction between performers of different nationalities,” said MU General Secretary Horace Trubridge. “We love working in the EU and we love artists coming over here. If musicians can’t travel easily both ways, our reputation as a country that embraces all arts and culture will be severely damaged. Our members’ ability to earn a living will also be severely affected.”

Responding to the suggestions earlier this year, a government spokesman told NME: “Musicians and performers are a valued and important part of UK culture. The UK attracts world class artists, entertainers and musicians and that’s not going to change under the new system.

“The rules already permit performers from around the world to take part in events, concerts and competitions without the need for formal sponsorship or a work visa and that will continue to be the case.”

Check back at NME soon for more of our interview with Tom Watson.

UK Music defended their decision to appoint Watson as chair after attracting some criticism within the industry.

This week it was reported that around 140 UK music venues at risk of permanent closure due to the coronavirus lockdown have been temporarily saved thanks to a campaign – but many remain at risk. Last month saw the Music Venue Trust launch the Save Our Venues campaign, with a crowdfunding bid to prevent 556 independent UK venues from closure and stop “damage that would undermine the UK music industry for 20-30 years”.

A number of UK venues also spoke to NME about their concerns and requirements if socially-distanced indoor gigs were to be allowed in the months ahead, with the MVT detailing that a range of safe and financially viable solutions were being discussed.

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