Why musicians complaining about Brexit are creating a storm in a teacup

The visa kerfuffle is a ‘solution without a problem’ – though that doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road for future music tours

110 leading artists have signed a letter saying that touring will be far harder for musicians after Brexit 
110 leading artists have signed a letter saying that touring will be far harder for musicians after Brexit  Credit: Telegraph

Some of the UK’s biggest music stars have written to the Government demanding action to ensure visa-free touring in the European Union. Sir Elton John, Ed Sheeran, Sting, Liam Gallagher, Robert Plant, Radiohead and The 1975 are among 110 artists who signed an open letter claiming to have been “shamefully failed” by the government over post-Brexit travel rules for British musicians.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden agreed to meet with representatives of the music business to discuss their concerns. But not everyone in the industry is quite so convinced that visas are the problem. “I’m hearing a lot of musicians complaining, but musicians have never had to sort it out for themselves,” points out independent promoter and music business consultant Chris Pleydell.

A key point made by agents, promoters and tour managers I spoke to is that there has never been a one-size-fits-all solution to touring in Europe. Germany and the northern countries are relatively simple places to set up tours, but certain Mediterranean countries have more complicated local ordinances, and France has always been a nightmare of bureaucracy.  

“You need someone on the ground, a local partner in every country, and that’s always going to be the case,” according to Pleydell. “The local promoter will send any forms to fill in, and tell you if there’s a fee to pay, which there usually isn’t. It’s one or two pages, bog-standard touring stuff, passport numbers, dates of birth, purpose of visit. You don’t need a working visa. This is the kind of thing road managers deal with all the time. It’s a storm in a backstage teacup.”

The letter is the latest salvo in a simmering row over whether the British Government rejected an EU offer of 90-day visa-free tours by musicians to EU countries, with accusations and counter-accusations going back and forth. In a Liaison Select Committee parliamentary session on January 13, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted there was no cause for concern. “Before everybody gets worried about it, what I should stress is that what we have is the right for UK musicians to go and play in European countries, EU countries, for 90 out of 180 days.”

That seems pretty unambiguous. “At the moment, our industry is focused on the visa and work-permit issue, but it’s trying to find a solution where there’s no problem,” according to Craig Stanley, an agent with UK promoters Marshall Arts, whose clients include Sir Paul McCartney and Celine Dion. Stanley also heads a Brexit and touring sub-group for the trading association LIVE, who have commissioned a survey of the 27 EU member states. “Early indications are that the majority of European states are not going to introduce onerous or expensive requirements on travelling musicians and their entourages. Most nations are going to welcome our musicians with open arms.”

The LSO's Sir Simon Rattle has recently said he is departing Britain for Germany because of Brexit Credit: Robbie Jack

Paul Fenn is an agent with Asgard Promotions and co-founder of the Entertainment Agent’s Association. Asgard’s clients include British artist The Waterboys and Ray Davies and American acts such as Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits and Alison Krauss. Fenn pointed out that under the new post-Brexit agreement, EU countries will treat British people as third-country nationals, subject to the same rules that apply to Americans, Canadians and Australians.

“Americans don’t need a visa, in most cases. The promoter will file paperwork locally, and it all goes on behind the scenes. When I bring an American act over for a European tour, they will go to six or seven different countries, the office will send out a spreadsheet to promoters which breaks down all their passport information, and normally that’s all they need. It works smoothly, there’s no payments and no delays."

“I think there will be another level of paperwork, and you have to factor in those fees and costs, and they are going to be passed on to local promoters, venues and ultimately audiences,” cautions Neil O’Brien, an agent and promoter for artists including British reggae stars UB40 and American blues rocker Joe Bonamossa. “At the moment, I’ve got a spreadsheet that tells me about every single country in Europe and what their tax arrangements are for foreign artists.

“It’s got Estonia, for instance, and it will say what percentage tax they charge, and this document changes every year and it's updated by us. I have resigned myself to it becoming a bit more involved. But we’ve all got a bit of breathing space to work it out, as there’s very little happening at the moment, and I don’t see touring returning to Europe until the fourth quarter.”

But this doesn’t mean there are no potholes in the road ahead. The real problems lie with the haulage trucks carrying musical equipment around the continent. “As with other haulage businesses, you’ve got to declare your goods,” points out O’Brien. “In the case of music, it’s your equipment. You’ve got a long list of what you’re transporting from venue to venue, and that either gets checked manually or another way, and you have to have the paperwork. That’s a carnet, and up until now Switzerland was the only European country where you had to have that in place, and you paid a small tax for it. Now that’s being proposed all over Europe, so we would have to factor in the cost of travelling to each country, and that goes into the cost of the tour. So all of a sudden, the UK acts that might be charging a £10,000 fee to play, that might go up to £12,000. Ultimately, that’s going to find its way to the ticket price.”

The Who perform during the 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony  Credit: CHRISTOPHE KARABA

Craig Stanley suspects there may be more devastating issues around cabotage rules, restricting how many stops a truck can make before it has to return to Britain. This is currently limited to three, which would make for a very short tour. “So what happens if a UK registered rock ’n’ roll truck loads up in England with gear for a tour, and then has to go back to Britain after the third concert?” Stanley asks. “If the trailer stays, you then have to have a European tractor cab to pull the trailer around Europe.

“But there aren’t enough trucks and specialist drivers in Europe to satisfy demand, because the UK haulage industry accounts for 80 per cent of the European market. Plus, you’ve got orchestras with their own vans, and specialist drivers who know how to look after their instruments. It’s a truly existential risk to international touring, but nobody’s talking about it, because they are all focusing on the passport issue, which isn’t a big problem at all.”

So far, Stanley’s discussions with the Department for Transport, and the Department for International Trade have proved frustrating. “I’ve heard the suggestion that British trucks simply go and register in Europe, which is a bit bizarre. Do we really want to risk the major sound, lighting and video companies relocating to Europe?”

Europe remains a huge key market for British music. As recently as 2019, it was estimated that almost a quarter of all albums sold in Europe were British. UK acts have always been among the leading live attractions on the continent. Post-Brexit, it certainly appears tours could get more complicated to organise, although it does not appear that visas and work permits are the most pressing issue. “Of course, we would love a European-wide visa arts-passport system,” says Neil O’Brien, “but it’s probably wishful thinking to imagine Europe’s going to say, ‘OK, well, let the musicians and actors and dancers all sail through, but we’re going to restrict the accountants and cheesemakers.’”

The consensus amongst those who actually put gigs on is that as long as European audiences want to see British musicians, promoters will find a way to keep the show on the road. And, whether we like it or not, there is a window to iron out problems, because right now, there are no gigs on the horizon at all. “This might look like a big problem any other time,” says Neil O’Brien. “But in the light of the pandemic, it seems like we’ve got time to work things out.”

Will you be impacted by the post-Brexit travel rules for British musicians? Has the reaction to the new rules been overblown? Tell us in the comments section below