How Boris Johnson’s government “took a wrecking ball” to the music industry

Without an agreement to allow artists to tour visa-free after Brexit, experts say the UK’s cultural life will be decimated.

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“As a musician, I want answers,” said alt-rock artist Nadine Shah, in response to the government’s failure to secure an agreement with the EU to allow performers to tour visa-free in Europe. “At present I feel robbed and betrayed by my government and grossly overlooked and undervalued.”

On 30 December 2020, six days after the UK agreed a Brexit trade deal with the EU, the BBC published an article quoting a government spokesperson, who said the UK had tried to secure better conditions for touring musicians in Europe, but its “proposals were rejected by the EU”. On 9 January 2021, the Independent quoted an anonymous EU source, who claimed it was the UK government that had rejected an EU offer of visa-free tours for musicians to EU countries. 

A representative for the European Commission told the New Statesman that both the UK and the EU made offers, which neither party could agree upon. The EU’s offer, the Commission spokesperson said, “was certainly more generous than the [late] UK’s offer”. They added that the EU rejected the UK’s offer because its specifications meant “it would not have solved the visa issue for UK musicians in the EU”.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) denies the government rejected such an offer. “It is not true we turned down a bespoke arrangement from the EU to allow musicians to work and perform in member states,” a spokesperson told the New Statesman. “As suggested by the creative arts sector, the UK proposed to capture the work done by musicians, artists and entertainers, and their accompanying staff, through the list of permitted activities for short-term business visitors. This would have allowed musicians and support staff to travel and perform in the UK and the EU more easily, without needing work permits.” 

Even Boris Johnson seems unclear about what has and hasn't been agreed. Questioned this week about the claims the UK rejected an offer for a 90-day visa-free period for UK musicians to tour in Europe, the Prime Minister insisted that it had not, adding: “What we have is the right for UK musicians to go and play in EU countries for 90 out of 180 days.” But, in reality, musicians require work permits to do so.

[see also: Brexit is no cause for celebration – this is a moment of national shame]

Whatever happened during the negotiations, it is musicians and crews who will pay the price, following a year of tour cancellations due to Covid-19. “The government has taken a wrecking ball to the music industry,” said Deborah Annetts, the chief executive of the ISM, the UK’s professional body for musicians.

The music industry contributed £5.8bn to the UK economy in 2019. (By contrast the fishing industry, which has been financially supported by the government to address the impact of lost quotas after Brexit, contributed £1.4bn.) With streaming rarely paying out for small and mid-tier artists, performers rely on touring to earn a living – and ISM research found that 44 per cent of musicians earned up to half their income in the EU pre Covid-19.

Without an agreement, traveling around Europe will be a bureaucratic nightmare for all, and unaffordable for many. Each country will have different regulations for work permits, making tour planning extremely complicated. A costly carnet (a document that permits the tax-free and duty-free temporary export of goods) will be required to transport instruments and equipment. Multi-leg, fast-paced tours, in which artists and crews cross national borders to play gigs and festivals, one day in one country, the next in another, will be significantly disrupted by red tape, border delays and high costs. 

“This is a lose-lose for both sides. We want to see a resolution to it,” said Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, the chief executive of UK Music, a campaign group representing the UK music industry. 

Njoku-Goodwin, who previously worked as a special adviser to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, was criticised on social media after telling the Independent that “a blame game helps no one”. “If the indication from both sides is that they want to have a solution, then my focus is on both sides coming to the table to come to some kind of solution,” he clarified.

These news reports come after a petition launched by the concert technician Tim Brennan, which asked the government to seek a Europe-wide visa-free work permit for touring professionals, was signed by more than 250,000 people and backed by musicians including Laura Marling, Dua Lipa and One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson. An open letter by staff at the London music venue Cafe OTO is also asking the government to provide a similar “admin-lite visa-free work permit” to non-UK touring professionals wishing to perform in Britain.

Many fear this need for a reciprocal relationship has led to a stand-off in negotiations. To reach an agreement that would allow UK musicians to tour visa-free in the EU for 90-day periods, the UK would need to grant the same allowances for EU musicians touring in the UK. The musician and producer Geoff Barrow, whose bands include Portishead and Beak, described the situation as “political point-scoring”, speculating that the UK government is reluctant to “give European artists or musicians an opportunity to come into the country”.

“I think the reason is political,” said Annetts. “I think it’s being driven by the Home Office and its commitment to ending freedom of movement.”

The Home Office directed the New Statesman to a DCMS statement which clarifies that EU nationals travelling to the UK are able to give performances without a visa for up to six months, provided they are not paid for such activities – so a touring band from the EU could not charge for tickets to their UK shows. The Home Office would not comment further when asked how its interest in ending freedom of movement has affected an EU agreement on touring performers.

[see also: Is the government’s Brexit deal any good? Even Boris Johnson can’t tell you]

Jason Williamson of electro-punk duo Sleaford Mods called the situation “very sad” and the new restrictions “insane”. “The presence of bands and the many personnel involved overseas in my industry is what makes this job enjoyable. It cannot be a venture only for those that are financially able,” he said.

The composer, broadcaster and cross-bench peer Michael Berkeley said he has submitted an urgent question to the Lord Speaker on the issue. “By trying to appease the European Research Group and trying to get the deal that was acceptable in terms of immigration, they’ve had to sacrifice something which was really important. And in terms of culture, they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. This could decimate our cultural life,” he said.

Berkeley fears for the UK’s future as a centre of cultural importance, one that relies on European artists performing in the UK just as much as UK artists performing in the EU. The UK has a history of hosting the best European talent – from Handel to Kraftwerk. “Music and, indeed, all art is about the exchange of ideas. If you’re not able to have that conversation, you become very backward-looking,” said Berkeley. 

“I genuinely believe that our contribution to society as musicians is not only important but vital, especially in such testing times,” said Shah. “Music brings to many a chance to dream. Music can transcend borders and unite us. As it stands, many of us are in a position where we are financially crippled and unable to afford to make work. I’m tired of having to plead and to beg to be treated with respect, to be valued.”

Barrow added that the restrictions will hit low- and mid-tier bands – who rely on touring as the primary source of income and who cannot afford the extra visa – hardest. “This won’t affect the corporate infrastructure. Artists like Ed Sheeran are not going to be worried about the weight of their van,” he said. “It’s the smaller bands that are going to suffer the most. It’s hard enough already. This is going to make it impossible.”

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s assistant culture editor.

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