Brexit Reality Check: ‘The Current Arrangements Are Proving Disastrous’

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Pro-EU activists and musicians highlight the lack of post-Brexit touring agreements outside the Royal Albert Hall in London, ahead of the 2021 Proms last September. (Picture by Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing/Getty Images)

When the White Lies arrived in Paris on April 7 to kick off their 2022 European tour, the band’s equipment didn’t turn up – detained by Brexit legislation on its way out of England, “along with countless other trucks,” according to a White Lies social media post on the day, which concluded, “We’re devastated to say that without our equipment we do not have a show, and tonight has to be cancelled and rescheduled. It’s heartbreaking to be here in this wonderful city, and unable to perform due to such a trivial issue.”

Just a day before that, Northern Irish band New Pagans, who supported Skunk Anansie on tour, posted an honest “reality check” on social media, stating: “This is my [Claire Miskimmin, bass] first European tour since 2018, and I can confirm Brexit and COVID have truly done a number on small bands. To break even on a tour, or even come home with a little profit was always the goal…to come home from a tour having accumulated massive debt is now the reality for many small, independent bands in 2022.”

The UK live business has been warning of a “perfect storm” created by the effects of both COVID restrictions and Brexit for a long time. Since officially leaving the EU in the beginning of 2020, Britain hasn’t sorted out a streamlined visa process with Europe’s member states. A March 29 session held by the UK’s department for digital, culture, media & sport (DCMS) addressed this.

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The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee held a session dubbed ‘Promoting Britain abroad.’ Speakers included (from left) Geoff Taylor (CEO, BPI), Jamie Njoku-Goodwin (Chief Executive, UK Music), Jessica Koravos (president, Really Useful Group), and Kash Bennett (MD, National Theatre).

Testimony from some of the UK’s leading executives in music showed that it was currently easier to bring an Asian tour into Europe than it was for a UK production to tour the EU.

Jessica Koravos, president of the Really Useful Group, which promotes the shows of Andrew Lloyd Webber around the world, spoke of the complexities of staging British productions in the European Union following Brexit. Koravos revealed that she had just decided to take a production of the Phantom of the Opera from China into the EU as it was “more straightforward and less expensive” than touring with a British production.

Touring a theatrical production through the EU, which may feature hundreds of artists, can be even more challenging than touring a band, “just the volume of fees involved is enough to make it uneconomic,” Koravos explained. She said, “under the current circumstances I would not dream of sending a UK production to Europe.”

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The revelation that it was both cheaper and easier for a Chinese production of the Phantom of the Opera to be staged in the EU than it was for a British one, “means that the mask has well and truly slipped on the true extent of the problems faced by the UK arts sector,” according to DCMS committee chair Julian Knight, who added “The current EU visa arrangements are proving economically disastrous for our cultural industries by forcing them to play second fiddle to their international competitors.”

A Chinese production can tour Europe under a Schengen visa covering the entire region. Making the same possible for tours from the UK, allowing promoters to purchase “a show visa rather than a series of individual visas,” would be a “relatively easy fix,” Koravos said.

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New Pagans bassist Claire Miskimmin said it’s never been harder for an independent band to break even on a tour.

Touring across both Europe and the UK has become more expensive. Taking care of all the paperwork in time, being able to pay the new customs charges, falling back on a network of professionals that can overcome supply chain shortages and turn events around on short notice may be feasible for the big names, as ongoing tours confirm daily. But these artists have an operation around them that’s been so well-oiled over decades that two years of non-activity won’t make the engine fail.

It’s different for up-and-coming artists, of course, the headliners of tomorrow. In addition to new costs for visas, tolls, and carnets, they are also facing Europe’s fuel costs, which skyrocketed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

What is more, as Claire Miskimmin of New Pagans, wrote in her social media post, “everyone has their hand out at every available turn, 20% here, 25% there, 15% over here, etc. Begging for scraps of funding here and there is demeaning, especially when music plays a huge part in everyone’s life on a daily basis.” In her mind, in order to work for independent artists, the music industry had to be “rebuilt from the ground up.”

Allowing tours to move through countries seamlessly and quickly again is a first step in the right direction, particularly if the UK wants to maintain its status as the second biggest exporter of music in the world. The trade body LIVE has been negotiating with government around Brexit since its inception. At the end of 2021, a major victory was achieved when Spain waived its short-term visa requirement for artists.

As Craig Stanley, chair of the LIVE Touring Group, pointed out at the time, “That is still only one small part of a very large problem affecting our ability to tour in the round. We are calling on the government to follow our lead and urgently work to fix the rules with the remaining member states so that we can continue to tour across the entirety of the European Union.”

Music merchandise specialists Backstreet International, headquartered in London, whose current client list includes Idris Elba, Placebo, Franz Ferdinand, Jessie Ware, War Child, Andrea Bocelli, The Kinks, DJ Shadow, and many more, just announced the opening of an office in the German capital Berlin. The new operation has been created “to alleviate the significant trade issues created by Brexit and will provide artists touring in Europe with local production giving a faster turnaround, no VAT restrictions, no customs challenges, lower shipping rates, faster delivery times, lower carbon emissions and chart registration in multiple EU countries,” according to the press release announcing the new office.

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Backstreet International founder Andy Allen

Music industry veteran Andy Allen, who founded Backstreet International in 1989, said “trade issues surrounding Brexit have caused chaos to artists touring in mainland Europe, and our mission is to help alleviate those problems while providing that badge of honor that a fan can wear to demonstrate a strong connection with artists, who have real meaning for them. The clients we work with now have an experienced team on the ground in Germany who they can deal with directly.”

David Frost, who was the chief negotiator for leaving the European Union under UK prime minister Boris Johnson, admitted in a recent interview with The Independent, that his Brexit deal failed touring musicians by inflicting an excessive amount of red tape. He confessed he had been “too purist” when making the deal, and that he now thought Britain should try and get a new one, without the “excessive paperwork and process requirements.”

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