Breakfasting in a guest house after an evening dancing to a French folk band in a small Normandy town, a very elderly French man approached me. He had the local newspaper in his hand, and tears in his eyes. He pointed to the headline: ‘Le Brexit. Au revoir Angleterre’. “This is so sad”, he said, “so very sad”.
Brexit has caused sadness far and wide, but for very many musicians who are only just beginning to emerge from the Covid-induced touring dearth, Brexit has been a disaster. A survey conducted by musicians in 2021 revealed that 34% of musicians had already lost work as a result of Brexit. A violinist said, “I am professionally paralysed by Brexit”.
Speaking to musicians just starting out and to established artists, and also to people in the many supporting industries such as tour operators, a clear pattern emerges of UK jobs lost and given to those with EU passports, music careers thwarted and new talent withering on the vine.
If you’re big enough, you can mostly work around the obstacles and extra costs Brexit has imposed. But, if you’re a struggling new band with limited resources, the loss of freedom of movement has shrunk your potential for growth enormously. It has also emerged that it didn’t have to be this way – the EU offered concessions on movement for UK musicians which David Frost, chief Brexit negotiator, turned down.
‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’
Since London became associated with the Swinging Sixties, and further helped along by ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 90s, the music and creative industries in the UK have gone global. UK culture has expanded to become one of our most successful, fastest growing exports, bringing in £110bn a year. Over the last 15 years recorded music has become the backdrop to our lives, accessible and free at the touch of a button; so for musicians themselves it is no longer recording that generates their income, it is touring and performing which has been crucial.
And with freedom of movement across the Channel, enabling touring and performing to audiences in a huge domestic market of around 500 million people, careers were made and industries thrived. Dan Smith, lead singer and songwriter for the band Bastille, noted how important it was for the band’s success to be able to “pack ourselves and all our instruments into a car and drive to Europe to play gigs for the cost of the ferry and petrol”.
Touring is crucial
Howard Goodall CBE is a music historian and award-winning composer. He, too, explained how for small unknown and emerging bands touring is crucial to build up followers, a profile and a reputation across a range of audiences.
“You’d just get in a van and off you go… you had this huge market in which to build your career… and that’s how it worked and that’s how we became successful and we became the world’s second largest provider of music after America.
“As part of the single market, London became the cultural hub of the continent, and it was the UK who benefited the most. We provided screen content and music for the rest of Europe and what developed was a very large culture of creative services which included film, fashion, photography…”
Brighton jazz musician Terry Seabrook told me:
“As a jazz musician I could pretty much walk into a jazz club anywhere in the world and jam with the other musicians. Music is an international language… it transcends borders and is culturally beneficial for both musician and audiences… and although Europe is a small part of the world, it is a first step for UK musicians to contribute to a global economy in a positive way.”
Cutting your teeth in Europe remains a significant passport to work opportunities in the USA and beyond.
What has changed?
Since January 2021, UK musicians touring in Europe must negotiate a mountain of red tape and extra costs. Previous visa-free travel throughout Europe has been replaced with different rules for different countries. What made the Musicians Union particularly bewildered and angry was the discovery that, during Brexit negotiations on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), the EU offered UK musicians visa-free tours, but this was rejected by the UK on the grounds it would necessitate reciprocity with European musicians.
Many musicians I spoke to said it was uncertainty about what the current arrangements are which has been stressful. Musicians are leaving their own instruments at home and hiring when they get to the host country, rather than risk complicated forms and hefty fees at the borders. Tour operator Angela Schofield explained how her company has had to adapt:
“Pre-Brexit we sent the backline and some PA [amplification and public address systems], including many of the performers’ personal instruments, all our office equipment and merchandise, over from the UK by road. Now, we source the PA backline and staging locally… we have storage in Spain where we keep all our office equipment, and any merchandise is all sold online pre-festival in the UK.”
Cabotage rules refer to the transportation of goods, and this includes instruments and equipment of musicians. Since leaving the EU these have been subject to greater restrictions, making touring for many impractical. Grant Shapps, as transport minister in May 2022, trumpeted changes to the rules which would enable hauliers to move more freely between countries. But Deborah Annetts from the Independent Society of Musicians said: “Organisations such as orchestras that have their own specialist vehicles for touring are not likely to benefit and still face the difficulties and significant expense of cabotage.”
Restrictions of movement
Significantly, musicians are restricted by the 90/180 rule which affects all UK citizens travelling in Europe these days. Being from a ‘third country’, we can only spend 90 days out of 180 in countries that make up the Schengen zone (that is, most European countries). For those creative touring professionals who are used to travelling to and between different countries, perhaps for several months at a time, their freedom of movement is now severely impaired. Some contracts with EU based opera houses are for much longer than 90 days.
In September, 51-year-old professional session drummer Steve Barney wrote an open letter describing the effects of this rule on his career. After a two-year break in touring because of Covid, his relief at finally earning again was shattered when he realised he could not accept the three-month tour with Anastacia, with whom he’d played for 12 years, as he had already eaten into his 90 days touring with another musician. It was, he says: “devastating.”
What can be done? Carry on campaigning
As we might expect, musicians have been making noise about Brexit’s damaging effects. Some things are slowly shifting. For example, Spain has lifted visa restrictions for short tours and other EU countries are following. As Alex Davies-Jones, the shadow minister for digital, culture, media and sport pointed out, it was musicians themselves such as the British Association of Orchestras whose tireless work achieved this.
The #LetTheMusicMove and Carry On Touring campaigns have also been highly effective. Carry On Touring is an umbrella campaign bringing together musicians and others in the creative and cultural industries. It has drawn the support of 43 MPs and 23 members of the House of Lords.
It prompted the creation of the all-party parliamentary group on music (APPG) which produced the report Let the Music Move, with seven recommendations for changes to ease touring including the appointment of a touring Tsar. The Labour MP for Cardiff West, Kevin Brennan, chairs the APPG and acknowledged the huge contribution of music to the UK economy: “We’re one of the few countries in the world that is a net exporter of music.” And with perseverance he’s convinced that visa free touring in the EU can be regained.
Festival of Europe
And finally, we can all be determined to keep the music playing. The Festival of Europe was conceived in 2021 to celebrate and support the cultural and musical partnerships threatened by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. With vocal pro-European Howard Goodall as patron, and the ‘world class ensemble’ United Strings Of Europe playing at the launch, the Festival sponsored music and cultural events with a European flavour throughout the year and across the UK.
One of the final local events was the Euro-Bal held in Brighton. French musicians had crossed the Channel to play. They were missing two who had not got passports – before Brexit there was no need for passports as ID cards were sufficient – but we danced to the ones who came. Festival of Europe will return next year – join in! And make some noise yourself. Check out the Carry On Touring Campaign and write to your MP to get our music moving again.