UK touring bands are currently suffering at the hands of “Brexit fuck-ups and a lack of government control” as they return to playing in Europe again as pandemic restrictions ease, artists, management and politicians have told NME.
Now over one year on from the music industry essentially being handed a “No Deal Brexit” when the UK government failed to negotiate visa-free travel and Europe-wide work permits for musicians and crew, artists are attempting to hit the road again after COVID previously prevented them from touring – only to find that themselves on the predicted “rocky road” for the first summer of playing shows in Europe post-Brexit.
Just last week, White Lies were forced to cancel the opening night of their 2022 European tour in Paris due to “Brexit legislation” seeing their equipment held up for two days. Speaking to NME, drummer Jack Lawrence-Brown the situation as “incredibly frustrating”.
“It’s tricky for us because we’ve been doing this for quite a while and to our minds, we were pretty well-prepared for what was to come,” he said. “We’d done our best to ensure that we’d be prepared in any circumstance. It’s very frustrating when you prepare for as long as we have to then rock up to the first venue and find that your equipment has been stuck in a 25 mile-long queue on the M20 through not fault of your own, and no fault of the trucking company either.
“It wasn’t the plan that we’d worked hard to get right.”
While admitting that the confusion and delays regarding P&O Ferries hadn’t helped matters, the drummer put the majority of the blame at the foot of Brexit-related red tape regarding visas and carnets (a document detailing what goods and equipment are being taken across borders).
“Prior to Brexit, this kind of tailback was never an issue,” he said. “There’s now a huge amount of paperwork for bands to deal with if they want to get themselves into Europe. Although we had everything fully in order with our carnets stamped and everything good to go, we still found ourselves in a situation where – because of Brexit – there are these inhumane motorway queues.
“For the lovely guy who’s driving our gear around Europe for the next month, he had to sit in his cab for over a day without any services. That’s not right.”
Tonight’s show can’t go ahead, even though we are in Paris. We are so gutted to announce this. News on rescheduling ASAP. Details below. pic.twitter.com/YDqJKjeJCJ
— White Lies (@whiteliesmusic) April 7, 2022
With a strong following in countries such as Belgium and The Netherlands, Lawrence-Brown argued that White Lies were looking forward to playing Paris in order to “increase their fanbase” in France – and that “all of the shows booked need to happen for this to work”.
“When you book a long tour like the one that we’ve just started, we need each of those 30 dates to happen,” he said. “We can’t afford for shows to be cancelled or pulled. It eats into whatever profit we may have had. We’re not working at such a level where we’re making huge profits.”
He went on: “When you have to pull a show for something as irritating as your truck not being able to get to where it needs to be through no fault of your own, that’s money that we’ve lost as a band pretty directly through Brexit fuck-ups and essentially a lack of government control over what’s happening in Dover.”
Lawrence-Brown went on to agree that the new rules and paperwork, creating huge costs to future live music tours of the continent – look likely to create a glass ceiling that prevents rising and developing talent from being able to afford to do so.
“It’s basically an extra hurdle which is new,” he said. “Having toured America, we’ve got experiences in dealing with carnets and more and we’re at a level where we can hand those jobs to someone else. It’s very, very complicated shit that has to be filled out for a band to go to Europe. It doesn’t really matter if you’re Coldplay or a brand new act – the paperwork that has to be filled in now is incredibly time-consuming.
“If you want to get it done properly then you have to outsource it to someone else – and that’s a cost. We’re lucky enough to be in a position to be able to pay someone to deal with our carnets for us.”
He continued: “That’s basically been brought in for any UK act that wants to do a show in France. It’s not travelling across the world, it’s just a few hours away; and you still have to fill in insane paperwork.”
- READ MORE: “It’s going to be devastating” – here’s how Brexit will screw over British touring artists
The drummer agued that White Lies have a strong following in Central Europe through being able to tour heavily there in their early days – but such opportunities would be in doubt for rising talent due to the new costs and complications.
“It would be a real shame if, as a British artist, you didn’t have some kind of label funding to get out to those shows,” he said. “If you try it without that then it’ll already cost you money, but factor into the that the cost of all the new Brexit paperwork and carnets and there are going to be a lot of artists that just can’t withstand that cost and won’t do it.”
To deal with the “daunting” issues at hand, Lawrence-Brown encouraged artists wishing to play Europe to seek out government funding, check for advice from bodies such as The Musicians’ Union, and get organised.
He added: “Get yourself in order before you go, otherwise you’ll be sure to have a painful time. Try to stomach the horrors of getting across the border, because the best venues are often found in Europe.”
Annabella Coldrick is Chief Executive of the Music Managers Forum, representing managers across the UK. She agreed that what White Lies had gone through was “a nightmare”, but said that they weren’t alone.
“We keep hearing strange things from bands, such as being told that they’re not allowed a passenger ticket on a splitter van and that they have to buy a freight ticket instead – which is three times the price,” Coldrick told NME. “Musicians have also been told that if they’re carrying portable instruments then they’d be OK without a carnet, and then we heard from the Musicians’ Union that one of their members had been fined £150 at the French border for not having a carnet.”
“It’s very uncertain and really tricky. We’re going to have to learn how it’s all applied on the ground.”
Coldrick argued that “a lot of what’s been going on has got nothing to do with P&O”, and was down to unnecessary Brexit-related bureaucracy. “We’ve also heard from people filling out all of their paperwork correctly and sending their merch out to Germany for a tour to go on sale, but then it randomly getting stopped at Rotterdam and not getting to its destination until the tour dates have ended,” she said. “They can’t sell it, so that’s a huge loss of money.”
Coldrick did hail some “small victories” (such as achieving visa-free touring for artists in Spain after an industry-led campaign, and the industry body LIVE successfully lobbying for UK trucks and larger buses to have dual registration and be able to switch to EU number plates when crossing the border), but that, ultimately, “the real problems are only now starting to come through, and the government are just not taking it seriously.”
“Everything is more costly, more complicated, and more uncertain,” she said. “We’re being told one thing and then finding out another. We’re not out of the woods. This year is going to be a really tricky one.”
She added: “The government don’t seem to get the small to mid end of the market. All the working groups that we had where we were sitting down with the government every few weeks to try and work through this stuff, I just feel like they really lost interest. We’ve had one meeting this year and the minister didn’t turn up.
“There’s a war going in Ukraine and there’s a cost of living crisis. Government’s attention is elsewhere, but the impact of Brexit is becoming more and more real. I’m not confident because I don’t think the current government takes music seriously as a wealth generator. I know that’s depressing, but I know other governments take it a lot more seriously.
Labour MP and DCMS Select Committee Member Kevin Brennan has long been campaigning for a better Brexit deal for the music industry, and even raised a recent NME article in The House Of Commons to call for more to be done. When Brennan raised the issue, the Conservative Leader Of The House Jacob Rees-Mogg then defended the government’s stance, before confessing: “I have failed in that I have not read the New Musical Express this morning, or indeed on any morning that I can ever recall.”
Brennan has described Mogg and the government’s response as “pretty hopeless”.
“The problem is that people like Jacob-Rees Mogg see Brexit as some kind of religious achievement,” Brennan told NME. “When people are asking perfectly reasonable questions, like how we try to mitigate the impact of it, lots of people in government just go into a default position of, ‘There can be absolutely nothing wrong because Brexit is a good thing’, which is ridiculous.”
Former Brexit minister and chief negotiator David Frost has even admitted that the Brexit deal presented “a whole set of problems” for touring musicians and their crew. Since his departure, Brennan has hoped for the government to deal with this in a more practical manner – but has found that “ideology is getting the way.”
“They have treated this as if it’s an immigration issue rather than something that’s vital to our economy,” said Brennan. “The fact that he confessed that he’d never read NME was perhaps not the most surprising admission ever, but what was disturbing was the glee with which he admitted it.
“Basically, ministers should understand that the music and creative industries are the fastest growing sector in the UK and are hugely important to our economy. They should be aware of the concerns that are being expressed. I don’t think there were many pop culture references in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s upbringing. I think he was too busy riding the magic carpet of privilege which he grew up on.”
Arguing that the solution was ultimately “an agreement to ensure that UK musicians can tour freely across the European Union and vice versa” without the added complications, Brennan feared that this would not be possible as “the Home Office think that Britain will be invaded by hordes of musicians coming over here, entertaining our people and then settling in the UK.”
“It’s an absolute nonsense, but in their desperate ideological wish to say that European citizens shouldn’t be treated any differently that anybody else, they’re ignoring the economic reality of how important the music industry is to our economy, how much Europe is a part of that, and how many British businesses there are that will be badly hit by all these barriers to touring,” he said.
Brennan added: “Most of the progress that has been made has been by the industry rather than the government, while the government tries to steal the credit for it. I’m optimistic that the issues can be overcome, but I’m not optimistic that the will exists in government to really take this on.”
Mogg would go on to be named Villain Of The Year at the BandLab NME Awards 2022.
Touring aside, UK independent artists and labels are also experiencing the devastatingly “outrageous” impact and “spiralling costs” of sending music products and merchandise to Europe in the wake of Brexit – leading to more huge losses of income.
Meanwhile, the charity Help Musicians are helping those artists whose touring plans and being affected by “the excessive red tape of the Brexit deal”. You can find out more about their work and funding to help artists affected by Brexit here.
White Lies’ new album ‘As I Try Not To Fall Apart’ is out now.