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What Brexit Currently Holds For Touring Musicians... (it is not looking good)

Darren Johns for DMS - 13 May 2019
For The Record

The past is history

It used to be so easy. You’d arrange a clutch of shows with reliable promoters on the mainland, book the Eurotunnel, grab your passports, hop in the van and go wild on the continent. Sure, the surly Bavarian cops or French gendarmes may have stopped, searched and intimidated you a few times - and perhaps fined you for carrying too many Marshall half-stacks - but it was all relatively painless, and plain sailing for the most part.

Alas, that relatively serene scenario seems set to change for the worse if/when Brexit is finally delivered next year. It’s the end of an era and the beginning of a serious headache for touring musicians. Despite the uncertainty, history tells us it’s safe to assume that musicians are in for a rough ride – as if general under-appreciation, low pay, increased living costs and arts funding cuts weren’t enough (thanks austerity). Indeed the future tag-team of Brexit and austerity could cause an epidemic of muso tap-outs and a reduction in homegrown talent – as many artists rely on Euro-wide touring as a chief source of income in an otherwise often financially fruitless endeavour.

Ever had to follow a police car to a weighbridge to receive judgement (and probably a fine)? Arguing with bandmates about whose speaker cabs are least necessary for the next show is not a fun situation. Image: Nashville Music Buzz

The U.S. vs them option

Quite how those changes will affect us is not yet known (par for the pre-Brexit course) but the core issue, freedom of movement, could become a thing of the past. To quote a particularly surly Bavarian cop, “das ist nicht gut.” One scenario could see the introduction of an expensive visa system similar to that of the USA, whereby band members would need to apply (and pay, a lot) well in advance for clearance, and pass a number of restrictive measurements. Talk to any independent UK artist who has toured the US, or vice-versa, and they’ll invariably regale you with at least one sorry tale of being refused at customs due to having the incorrect paperwork, or because some over-zealous immigration officer decided that they didn’t like the cut of the drummer’s jib. Oh, and the classic, having to cancel their tour because the visas weren’t processed in time. Now imagine having to do that for 27 EU member states. However you cut it, bureaucracy’s a bitch, and Brexit will be nothing if not a red-tape parade.

Existing European options that probably won't help

Another unwelcome possibility is the re-introduction of the Carnet: essentially, a passport for your musical equipment. Certain Eastern European countries with hard borders still operate under this system. It’s complicated, costly and bothersome, and requires travelling musicians to account for every single musical and merchandise item in their touring cache. Non-EU nation, Switzerland, is a best-case scenario although they are still part of the single market. Passing through isn’t too difficult but some border guards will slap an arbitrary levy on all of a touring entourage’s merchandise, regardless of how much is subsequently sold. Not exactly fair practice but it’s hard to argue when they’re holding all the cards, and your hard-earned merch.

To obtain visas, artists need to prove their status as credible musicians – proof of projected earnings, full itinerary, duration of stay – but of course, the work that musicians do is not always reflected in profits. Music industry showcases, building a fanbase from scratch, gig/tour share initiatives… the often speculative nature of independent touring doesn’t always reap immediate or visible dividends and, as such, these legitimate endeavours fall outside the remit of visa confirmation. In fact, for smaller touring acts or tour supports, it’s often not profitable at all.

It's alright for some, but that's not alright

Whichever way the cards fall, the major league players won’t need to worry. They will always have enough legal clout to sidestep all the emergent issues. It’s the medium and small-sized bands, particularly those operating on a shoestring budget, that will bear the brunt when the Brexit drawbridge is raised. Artists who don’t enjoy the benefits of a sustainable income and whose self-sufficiency is finite. As always, emerging artists will be hit the hardest just as they are at home, with grassroots venue closures and slashed funding for arts and entertainment.

It cuts both ways. European musicians coming to the UK will face the same obstacles, which will inevitably lead to a percentage of touring acts sidestepping the British Isles altogether. Musicians Union General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, has stated: “We’ve always been – artistically and culturally – a very welcoming country. We love artists coming over here… If we become less welcoming, they simply won’t come. Our reputation as a country that embraces all arts and culture will be severely damaged.” Inevitably, cultural diversity will be damaged, as British gig-goers’ opportunities to experience pan-European talent are reduced. Furthermore, UK festivals that host independent EU stages will struggle, as will the already-fragile music performance exchange programmes. And it’s not just the musicians who will be affected. Crew members, sound engineers, tour managers, merch workers, stage managers, band drivers; they all face the same challenges to their Euro-wide livelihood as Brexit edges closer.

Theatrical circus band Pirates of the Caribina are on tour in Europe this summer. The amount of musical gear, trapeze rigging and rehearsed pro stage crews that their shows require is already a logistical headache. Image: Roundhouse

Many other secondary issues that affect musicians may arise from all this instability. To use an example close to home, vinyl sales will likely be affected since the vast majority of vinyl is pressed in European countries such as Czech or Germany. Costs of manufacturing along with import levies could mean that records will simply be too expensive an endeavour for smaller bands to undertake. Equally, British artists’ access to European development funding could be reduced to a big fat zero, another important fact that was conveniently not mentioned during the referendum campaign. Consequently, ambitious bands of the future will be faced with more obstacles, more financial hardship and more isolation. Great.

The Guardian has written an informative piece on this too, we recommend reading this next if you're interested!

Really though? Can we think positively for a minute?

Sure, some things won’t feel any different. The UK has never been part of the Schengen zone, despite our EU membership. We have always been required to show our passports at customs. So on that level, things won’t change. And, theoretically speaking, once a UK band has manage to get past French customs they should be free to travel throughout the mainland, crossing Western European borders at will, as they can right now - ever-changing border control policies notwithstanding. Although, if we do actually end up leaving the EU, you can bet your bottom cent that security operations and police forces throughout the mainland will be keeping their eyes peeled for British registration plates, ready to pounce and punish us for our Brexit sins. Sorry, of course, it will all be fine, the government have got this.

Thankfully, there is a groundswell of support for musicians championed by MPs, the Trade Union Congress, and many music industry institutions such as UK Music and AIM, who all wish to protect creative careers during and after Brexit negotiations. So here’s hoping that common sense and a progressive ethos win the day, despite the fact that a rejection of those values is exactly why we’re in this bloody mess in the first place.

Ever the subtle campaigners, Greenpeace have made their own battle bus. Image: Huffington Post / Greenpeace
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