Covid-19 has prevented just about all music touring, but it will start afresh. Bands, orchestras and choirs will travel the planet again. They will play to packed houses, festivals and stadiums as soon as people are free to attend. But touring for all types of UK musical performers after Brexit is beset with administrative difficulties, barriers to trade and hoops to jump through. It is also exporting jobs and tax income to the continent and beyond.
The UK has the world’s leading music production industry. World tours frequently start in the UK as this is where there is a seemingly bottomless pit of talent, experience and facilities. And it’s not just UK acts that use these services, acts from all around the globe can pitch-up on our shores and benefit from cutting edge sound, light and video technology. They can have stunning sets and touring stages designed and built. Our rehearsal spaces and pre-production facilities are hard to beat. There are trucking and sleeper bus companies equipped and experienced in driving equipment, performers and crew around the UK and the continent. There is a wide range of tour catering to suit all tastes and budgets. And of course, all this is useless unless there are suitable qualified personnel to drive, unload, build, set up, operate and put it all away again – and the UK has thousands of enthusiastic, experienced and professional crew with expertise in all areas of touring production. But the future is looking bleak for musicians and crews, as well as the touring production facility and transport sectors.
Thanks to Brexit, trucks leaving the UK have to return after two stops abroad. So the main trucking companies have registered themselves in the EU where they pay tax and where their UK drivers’ HGV licences may no longer be valid, so they will mostly be using European drivers whose licences are valid and who will not need visas.
Chris Taplin is production manager for Simply Red and The Darkness, both of whom will be touring next year. He says
“Simply Red are based in the UK and will do their pre-production rehearsals here, but trucking will be supplied from Europe, using a European-plated truck with a European driver.” He goes on to say “But we don’t know how much experience in music touring the driver will have, and delays of only a few hours can mean the loss of a show, so the tour will also take an experienced UK truck driver, familiar with the best routes, venues and the pitfalls of music trucking to ensure that the schedule is maintained – but he won’t be allowed to drive the truck.”
Brexit has piled on costs in money and time
Visas and carnets, which allow for the temporary export of equipment, are time-consuming to complete, threaten delays at borders and are another additional tour cost. Preparing these documents are specialist functions and are best handled by agents who do not work for free.
“It’s the uncertainty” says Taplin, “No one knows how the rules will be applied in which EU state. Making provision for ‘what-ifs’ just adds to the cost.”
One rule that could scupper a tour is the limited number of days Brits are allowed to stay in the EU. In short, the limit for both British crew and performers is 90 days in 180, so an EU tour cannot last longer than 90 days. It also means that an individual who has already been in the EU within the qualifying period may not have enough days left to complete a tour.
Larger UK acts with substantial sales and playing to tens of thousands, like Simply Red, are better placed to absorb the increase in costs. But smaller acts and the next generation who have yet to establish themselves will find it much harder, or impossible, to expand into Europe to hone their skills and make a living. Taplin is also advancing a tour for The Darkness.
“They play smaller venues with capacities of one or two thousand,” he says. “Pre Brexit, this was a sustainable model. It worked financially with the band doing a few gigs in each EU country. But the cost of visas to do three shows in Spain, for instance, is around €15,000 which makes that leg of the tour unfeasible. This means the band won’t earn and the promoters will lose a popular act.”
When the Brexit deal was negotiated, the services sector got short shrift – and music touring is a service. It has created thousands of high-skilled UK jobs and led to the development of world-beating sound, light, video and staging technology which sell around the world – and this is real world-beating, not the sort of nonsense spouted by our Prime Minister. Music production earned billions for the country. But the uncertainty resulting from Brexit means that fewer world tours will start in the UK, which in turn means that big international tours are less likely to take advantage of our fabulous facilities, production equipment and personnel, and that will mean a significant reduction in tax take for the UK treasury.
Why touring is essential for survival
Despite the crass pronouncements of Oliver Dowden when he was Secretary of State for Digital Culture Media and Sport, most professional musicians are not multi-million- selling superstars. Since streaming became the primary method of music distribution, acts make an income by playing live. They slog their way around the UK’s clubs, pubs and colleges with occasional festival gigs. But there are only so many gigs a band can do in the UK. Europe is orders of magnitude larger. It also pays better. From club tours to one day festivals, continental Europeans have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for live music. UK bands have relied on this market to keep body and soul together while they strive for the elusive hit, that distant glimpse of chart success and mega sales that bless only a few. But post Brexit, many performers who used to be able to jump in a van and tootle off to try their luck across the channel can no longer afford to. And it is not just the cost of the carnets and visas required to work in each country they visit that puts them off. Touring income is made up of performing fees, which for most bands tend to be modest, and merchandise sales such as tee-shirts and CDs which is often the only thing which makes a tour financially feasible. Taplin says that this is another additional cost of Brexit: “The act can no longer sell their own merchandise, they have to use a local agent which is another cost”. This will be another cost that small acts cannot afford.
Performers will also have to pay import duties and sales tax on all the merchandise they carry as they enter an EU state before it is sold. They can claim this payment back for any they don’t sell, but it means they need the cash up front which few will have. They are also subject to detailed searches of their vehicles at all borders – borders which may or may not be open when they arrive which could adversely affect their schedule, so they have to allow extra time to be on the safe side – and time is money.
And then there is the crew. These are the people who supply the transport and technical back up for the musicians and make touring possible. Some touring crew work full time for an act. However, the vast majority of roadies, tour managers, production technicians, riggers, lampies, noise boys, video techs, caterers, wardrobe staff, makeup artists, and all the other miscellaneous personnel that make up a touring entourage, are freelancers. They work from tour to tour and while most have thin times, they usually make a living by working on consecutive tours, or getting on a long tour or finding the odd well-paid job which makes up for the less well-paid work. All this is backed up by their versatility and ability to fill a number of roles on festivals, corporate events, film and TV work. There was usually work for good crew. Until Brexit.
The government that brought you Brexit, also brought sod all in the way of help for the self-employed during the Covid lockdowns. While their employed colleagues were furloughed, the freelancers had to find work elsewhere to pay their rent and feed their families. Most of this work was not related to music production. So, when the live music and touring industry returns, many of the jobs will have moved to the continent, where they cannot easily follow – even if their domestic arrangements allowed. They will have lost their jobs and the industry will have lost their talent, expertise and experience.
Generations to come will look back on the last few decades as members of the EU as times of liberation for the creative arts in general and music in particular. A time when we were free to travel and work on the continent, a time when the creative arts were a realistic way of making a living – OK it was seldom easy, but very little worth doing is easy. And they will ask what the hell happened? Why did you give it away for no gain? And most importantly: how can we get it back?
And that is the big question. How CAN we get it back? One thing is certain. This government is not going to fess up to having made such a momentous cock-up. They have sold the fishermen down the river. The farmers are about to reap the Brexit whirlwind. The music business is being shafted right now – and as a little bit of icing on the crap-cake they have given the OK for us all to be deluged in excrement from sewage overflows. And who knows which sector of society will be next? Johnson and his Brothers in Brexit are prepared to make a great sacrifice for their ideology – as long as it is someone else who gets sacrificed.
And the mainstream media plough on, parroting the weasel words of this shambolic bunch of incompetents. They keep pushing a deluded vision of some fictional halcyon past, of sunny uplands and of a long-gone, brutal and largely unjust Empire as if that was something we should aspire to. Others (OK, the BBC) fail to make a big fuss because their funding is at stake. Meanwhile, the cronies shovel vast quantities of taxpayers’ cash into their offshore accounts.
What can be done?
So, what can be done? Who can send a message to the greater population and say “You are being stuffed up the jacksie.” The fragmented components that make up the creative industries do not have a formal collective voice. So who can overcome the stream of lies and propaganda generated in industrial quantities by our masters through their almost total control of mass media?
Celebrities, that’s who. They are the one section of society that the Brexit-supporting media cannot resist. And that doesn’t mean those shameless half-wits, body-builders and vessels for makeup and cosmetic surgery who will do anything to parade their stupidity on our screens. It means the real stars – the musicians, film and TV stars, the footballers and other sporting icons whose every move and utterance is the stuff of the tabloids. They can get the media coverage that ordinary, sensible people find impossible.
The good news is that some musicians are making a start through ‘Let The Music Move’. And YOU can help. Spread the hashtag #LetTheMusicMove on social media, and download images to show support from https://letthemusicmove.org/campaign-assets/.
You can write to your favourite performers and tell them about the campaign. Talk to your local megastar when you bump into them in the chippie and ask if they have signed up. There don’t appear to be any classical acts on the site at the time of writing, so if you know a conductor, orchestra, choir, string quartet, opera singer or virtuoso accordionist, give them a nudge, they are suffering too.