UK music is locked in by Brexit. The figures make for grim reading: 80% of musicians report a fall in earnings since Brexit; the cost of touring is up 30% and administrative costs up 56%; 49% of bands say their touring has been impacted; 43% say touring is no longer viable.
Broadcaster and journalist Jonty Bloom, with his sharp business focus, forensic knowledge of Brexit and engaging interviewing style, was the perfect moderator for our event in Brighton in early September. The Unlock the Music event attracted a range of high-profile speakers who told us in detail how life had changed for the UK’s touring musicians since Brexit.
Tom Kiehl, Deputy CEO of UK Music, explained the work of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Music, which had produced a detailed report on post-Brexit issues. He told us how the loss of freedom of movement and the need to navigate 26 immigration systems were preventing musicians from touring. Visas or work permits are needed for some jurisdictions, but not others, and the Schengen 90/180-day rule forces some artists to decline potentially lucrative offers of work. Although the EU-UK Trade & Cooperation Agreement (TCA) allows tariff-free goods trade, rules of origin make it hard for bands to sell merchandise when touring, causing them to lose significant ancillary revenue.
Dave Webster, head of International for the Musicians’ Union, painted a broader picture of a music sector hit by ‘ABC’ (Austerity, Brexit, Covid) over the past decade. There was dismay that the TCA had done nothing for the creative industries; it was effectively a no-deal.
Smaller bands leave the stage
Musicians lower down the scale are most impacted by Brexit. Larger bands have more resources to overcome administrative burdens, whereas many smaller bands have simply stopped touring. In the music haulage industry, larger hauliers can restructure to circumvent the new rules, for example by forming a subsidiary abroad, whereas smaller firms lack the means to do so.
Hanna Madalska-Gayer, head of Policy & Communications for the Association of British Orchestras, highlighted increased bureaucracy and costs. International touring represents 20% of orchestral sector income, of which 60% is generated in the EU. Orchestral income earned abroad helps fund UK activities, but there is no financial support to develop new markets.
As she put it, she had not got into the performing arts “because of her love of deciphering road haulage legislation”. But that was now a large part of her workload. Cabotage rules – that restrict UK trucks to three stops while touring – make route planning especially complex. And the limits even apply to an orchestra’s own truck with its own instruments and driver. Orchestras are being creative in finding workarounds, such as travelling with instruments in hand luggage and booking additional plane seats, but these are not viable long-term solutions.
Heather Bird, a flautist, double bassist and founder of Classical Evolution, described herself as a “refugee from Brexit Britain”. As a resident of Portugal, she initially believed she would have freedom to work anywhere in the EU. Alas, as a UK national, she faces the same barriers as a UK resident. She estimates she has lost £10,000 as a result of Brexit. Friends and colleagues in Portugal had been supportive. She is now working towards obtaining Portuguese citizenship and aims to build a cultural bridge between her adopted country and the UK.
Peter Cook, a musician and author of Reboot Britain, is an incisive commentator on Brexit impacts and a close observer of grassroots opinion. He entertained us during the interval with a selection of his Brexit-related songs before recounting his experiences of talking to people during gigs in Kent and Sussex. Two-thirds of people believe Brexit has failed, but there is a general feeling of helplessness, made little better by what Peter described as ‘pay-as-you-go’ rejoin, with the UK government only gradually accepting the need for EU links, such as the U-turn on Horizon, the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation.
Take note Labour: how you could help
And solutions to the musical impasse? Some of speakers hoped for change under a Labour government. Labour itself has certainly called for closer EU ties, but it may overestimate the EU’s readiness to reopen the TCA. There are nevertheless practical steps that would help musicians, such as a cultural exemption from visa requirements, an easing of the 90/180-day rule, a cut in the cost of the ATA (temporary admission) customs carnet, a review of haulage arrangements and even making London St Pancras a designated hub for musical instrument imports. Proactive contacts are taking place with the Labour party, but an election is probably still a year off and, as we know, a year is an aeon in politics.
As I listened to the speakers, I was appalled by the damage caused to the livelihoods of musicians. Worse still, by rushing to sign a hopelessly thin trade agreement centred on goods, the government has effectively squandered the country’s soft power and cultural influence.
And yet the event revealed true signs of resilience as people with a passion for their art found ways to circumvent barriers and work in the longer term towards practical solutions. Unlock the Music? One day we will.