Brexit stormclouds

UK Government has wilfully thrown the live music sector under the big red Brexit bus

With its tunnel-visioned dogma of ‘taking back control’ of borders at all costs, the Tories’ handling of artist access after the UK’s departure from the EU shows an unacceptable level of contempt for the music profession. Musicians on both sides of the Channel deserve better

At the same time as a House of Lords sub-committee was discussing the cataclysmic impact of the Brexit agreement on the cultural sector, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden was telling the media he would not attempt to renegotiate performance artist access to the EU.

Just days ago, Dowden had either mis-stated, or lied, that the EU had blocked UK attempts to give musicians and other performers free access to perform in EU nations. This week, his junior minister Caroline Dineage conceded this was untrue. She argued that the EU had offered open access to musicians to visit and work for 90 out of every 180 days but that it ‘made a very broad offer which would not have been compatible with the Government’s manifesto commitment to take back control of our borders.’

All mention of cultural entertainment touring was omitted from the agreement

In fact, the EU has published the offer it made, which was anything but broad and, despite the UK’s substantial trade advantage in music touring, was a completely reciprocal offer. The UK government, on the other hand, has so far refused to show the details of its counter-offer. But as Musicians’ Union head Horace Trubridge told the Lords committee, the UK insisted on restricting musicians to 30-day visitor permits and the right unilaterally to impose further restrictions at its own discretion.

This was unacceptable to the EU and against the principles of the level playing field set out in the Transition Agreement. So, as neither side could agree on a compromise, all mention of cultural entertainment touring was omitted from the agreement. For the sake of the government’s obsession with immigration, it threw the British live music industry under its big red Brexit bus.

For years, impassioned lobbying by UK Music, the Musicians’ Union (MU), the Incorporated Society of Musicians and other industry bodies fell on deaf ears. Time and again, the DCMS (the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport department) gave assurances to Horace Trubridge and others that there would be frictionless access to the EU market, and that there was no need for protests or petitions because they had everything under control.

They didn’t.

‘Up until the end of December we were told everything was going to be fine,’ Trubridge told the House of Lords committee. ‘I guess we should have had a plan B to get us round all the things we’re now facing, but we just didn’t think it was going to happen.’

In the days since the trade deal came into effect, MUSIC:ED has contributed background evidence to the Lords discussion in which Lord Tom McNally quoted us on the 1000 specialist UK tour trucks that will no longer be able to travel the EU each summer.

The MU’s Horace Trubridge gave a passionate submission, pointing out to one or two doubting peers that there was no up-side to the Brexit deal other than the vain hope that HMG might create stronger copyright protection laws than even the EU. This is some hope.

We can’t move our equipment to the EU, so we might as well move everything to Germany and employ locally

MUSIC:ED has spoken to numerous tour suppliers, audio, lighting, health and safety and transport companies – collectively worth hundreds of millions of pounds. We will publish more on this soon; meanwhile, we and these firms have submitted evidence to the on-going House of Lords enquiry. To say the music industry representatives are angry is an understatement.

As John Penn, founder of the 45-year-old, £40 million turnover audio rental firm SSE Audio told us, ‘There’s really no point investing in this country anymore. We can’t move our equipment to the EU, so we might as well move everything to Germany and employ locally.’

The industry didn’t choose this

His company supplies PA systems for Coldplay, Rammstein, Robbie Williams and many other arena and stadium tours – but he says they’re effectively locked out of Europe by the trade agreement.

Dave Ridgeway of Neg Earth Lights agrees. ‘The industry didn’t choose this. I do a lot of work in Europe, concert touring and rental to other people and when they want something big done, we get the call. But I fear that work will go away.’

‘We’re a major export industry,’ he says. ‘We’ve done seven Beyonce tours with ten sea containers full of our equipment. Many American bands come to us and say here’s the spec, we need crew, we’re going to do a big tour of Europe. If we go out with Green Day and the Rolling Stones, they’ll do a couple of dates in the UK and dozens in Europe. But now, what is to stop the Americans taking the easy route and going to an EU company?’

For all the apologist comments from some music industry figures, there is nothing about the Brexit deal that is positive for British music

It isn’t just huge tours that will be made unviable. Small bands playing a dozen summer festivals in a splitter van could make reasonable money before Brexit. Now, the rules bar them from using their own vehicles or drivers and make it almost impossible to see a profit from merchandise.

For all the apologist or at best diplomatic comments from some music industry figures, there is nothing about the Brexit deal that is positive for British music. As it stands, the humidity- and temperature-controlled trucks of British orchestras will not be able to make more than two stops in the EU before having to return.

At his press conference, DCMS Secretary Oliver Dowden implied that government financial support might be made available to cover the costs of work permits and carnets. It’s a tacit admission of guilt, but Dowden dug his heels in to questions about government going back to Brussels to undo the mess. Horace Trubridge responded to the news by saying his members would appreciate any help but that taking taxpayers money to pay for something that should have been happening anyway was not the way things should be done.

Since the content of the trade agreement was published, the government has pushed back against comments that it hadn’t read what it signed. If that is so, they must have taken this course of action deliberately, and lied to the creative industries in the months before.

Whatever the backstory, it is clear that dogma over the ‘take back control of our borders’ mantra has threatened the very existence of a self-sufficient, highly motivated, genuinely ‘world-beating’ industry – and the thousands of jobs it provides.

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