‘Your model of living is taken away from you’: How will Brexit affect touring musicians?


By Eleanor Taylor

Smaller artists will soon struggle to stay afloat and support themselves, as the UK government rejects visa-free tours to the EU.

On January 10th 2021 we were informed that the UK government rejected the EU’s proposal of visa-free travel for British musicians, as reported by The Independent. What followed was scapegoating and finger pointing from both sides of the negotiating table. After already being devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, the music industry needs security now more than ever. What does this new red tape mean for the music industry post-Brexit

The blame game

The original deal proposed by the EU during negotiations was a 90-day period of visa-free travel, every 180 days, for touring professionals such as musicians, engineers, tour managers etc. This was as part of the draft agreement in March 2020. The offer was rejected by the UK government as they were not prepared to allow the same arrangement for European artists coming into the UK. 

However, there was initial confusion in the press about which side had said what. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden stated to NME that the UK had argued for a “mutually beneficial agreement” and it was actually the EU who had turned it down. Dowden’s statement was, in turn, denied by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. It was only after this that Downing Street admitted that the rejection had in fact come from the UK.

As it stands, UK musicians now face different legislation for each one of the EU member states. This includes arranging carnets for every piece of equipment needed on a proposed tour; an extremely expensive and laborious process, especially when the vast majority of musicians don’t have the specialist admin teams accessible to the rich-and-famous. 

A petition protest

Having learnt that a potential deal had been turned down, there was an immediate and furious response from the UK music industry. Technician Tim Brennan began a petition in December 2020 asking the government to negotiate visa-free travel for touring professionals. The petition has since achieved over 280,000 signatures from musicians and fans alike. Knowing that the government was aware of the amount of support for a free travel agreement, makes the rejected offer all the more frustrating.

A government survey was then sent out to over 15,000 of the people who had signed the petition. 80% of the self-identified musicians that responded said they were “likely” or “very likely” to stop touring Europe if visa-free travel was not possible. 27% of participants also said that they would start recruiting local touring crew in Europe to limit the hassle of bringing over a UK team. This means fewer job opportunities for British citizens, which was supposed to be one of the main things a leave vote would prevent.

The petition was officially discussed by a Parliament committee on February 8th. All MPs who contributed to the meeting emphasised that the new red tape will affect smaller, upcoming artists the most. These are people who have had their livelihoods devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and are already struggling.

The reality for independent musicians

To understand the potential impact of the restrictions, I spoke to Maja Liv Groves, founder of Queers To The Front (QTTF). QTTF is a completely independent agency booking tours in the UK, Europe, and North America for marginalised bands. Maja started the Austria-based agency in 2018 after facing discrimination from the scene for being a trans woman. It is DIY artists like these who are least equipped to deal with the new bureaucracy, whilst also being the ones most heavily relying on opportunities across the Channel.

Because of the world’s rightful focus on the pandemic, she said that Brexit issues had ended up being “swept under the rug”. This means that there has been even less information for musicians on how they can prepare (if at all) for touring in the future. She was also angry that artists faced such expensive and convoluted processes when most music careers are so low-income, especially in DIY: “the whole thing feels like such a farce, when the margins of money are so small”. When the cost of a carnet for a single guitar is potentially more than the artist’s plane ticket, it is clear to see why many UK musicians feel it is simply not possible for them to continue touring in Europe. 

The actual logistics of organising the paperwork is a significant factor as well. Managing income from international sources is already messy, but these extra steps would make it “genuinely impossible” for a young band to sort it themselves. Then you need to add the cost of an external legal adviser to the bill – which requires money that smaller artists simply do not have. Maja said that it was this disconnect between the legislation made by negotiators and the day-to-day life of DIY musicians that was most frustrating: “your model of living is taken away from you by people who are so far detached from your reality”.

It is also crucial to understand that Brexit will negatively impact UK artists far more than their European peers. The comparative value of the EU market for live touring, with wealthy audiences like Germany and Belgium, dwarfs the British scene. This is especially true now that EU bands would need to prove they are “professional musicians” and be invited by a registered UK business before playing a single show. Many UK-based music businesses will either move to the EU entirely, or set up European sister companies. It is simply not worth it to continue hiring vans, a crew and gear from the UK when it is more cost-effective to work with local professionals.

Musicians are nothing if not resilient. But in an industry already wrecked by a pandemic, and now set to face more hardship, resilience may not be enough.