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Music insiders warns of ‘en masse unemployment’ unless Brexit-related travel restrictions are urgently addressed

Recent industry representations to the House of Lords have warned that touring Europe has become unfeasible for UK musicians.

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This year's Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona.

Degleex on Wikimedia Commons.

There have been new developments around Brexit-induced visa and travel challenges facing the music industry, which is battling for a resolution to a host of restrictions resulting from the ongoing failure of the UK government to negotiate Europe-wide work permits for musicians.

I wrote recently of government inertia in addressing the long-standing issues that have effectively created a stranglehold on both established and fledgling bands touring the EU, both from a logistical and financial perspective. Some bands – White Lies and Fatherson are recent high-profile examples – have had to pull out of gigs or cancel tours altogether.

So what’s new?

Industry insiders, the NME and the #CarryOnTouring campaign were invited to a hearing at the House of Lords on 9 September to give evidence on the impact of post-Brexit touring rules on musicians and crew. Although a number of MPs and peers attended, press reports suggest not one Conservative MP bothered to appear – all of them seemingly rendered mute by the stranglehold of Brexit ideology.

While the roll-call of obstacles was once again laid bare – work permits that create additional red tape for UK crew, expensive carnet requirements and the dearth of clear information and guidance – the hearing focused on the impact of being limited to only being in the Schengen area for 90 days in any 180-day period unless you have a 'special' visa. This rule results in either non-hiring per se, or the embarrassment of staff being sent home from tours to comply with the regulations.

A real-life example of this ruling came from drummer Steve Barney. Steve's CV reads like an entry in the rock-and-roll hall of fame, with 25 years’ experience playing with the likes of Annie Lennox, Jeff Beck and the Sugababes. So after losing two years' work with Italian artist Gianna Nannini through Covid, he was understandably delighted to be asked to tour with Anastacia, having previously drummed for her for over twelve years.

However, the 90/180 rule ended those plans abruptly once Barney discovered he'd already spent 78 days in the Schengen area.

"Despite the best efforts of the production manager, Anastacia's manager and myself to obtain a visa extension, we were unable to do so as it turned out such a thing does not exist,” he told the hearing. “Once management came to the conclusion that there were no legal means by which I could spend another three months in the Schengen area, my offer of work was withdrawn, and I lost my job of twelve years. Ultimately, I now feel like I’m being penalised professionally, simply for being British."

A recent study by Best for Britain found that the number of UK bands and artists scheduled to appear on this year's European festival circuit had fallen by a staggering 45% compared to 2017-19 levels (pre-Brexit). Barney's testimony suggests large swathes of the UK music industry will find that they are simply – despite worldwide admiration and respect – impossible to recruit.

"I'm absolutely devastated, frustrated and angry,” Barney continued. “The loss of a place in this band is a massive blow to me financially, mentally and creatively. Today, this is my sob story. However, it will soon be that of every British touring professional, if it's not already.”

Lest we forget, the UK industry generated live income of circa £5.8bn in 2019 – a phenomenal success story that you’d expect the market-led UK government to wholeheartedly support. However, while they still cling to the carcass of a failed Brexit ideology, Barney's words should send shivers down the spine of any professional musician when he says: "Without change, Britain's world-leading touring artists and crew are going to find themselves unemployed, en masse, because it is easier and cheaper for touring productions to employ foreign personnel who are not subject to the same restrictions."

Barney went on to call for “a single Schengen-wide visa, restoring British touring professionals' ability to work.”

It’s worth reflecting on the opportunity missed by unelected Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, as exposed in this written response from the EU to Carry On Touring's Tim Brennan: "In the negotiations on Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCS), the UK refused to include a chapter on mobility in the TCA, despite the EU offering to do so and despite both parties' agreement – ahead of the negotiations – in the joint Political Declaration to establish non-discriminatory 'mobility arrangements'."

Brennan's question is simple: "Why did Frost refuse this deal?"

The answer is best summed up by LBC's James O'Brien following his recent on-air discussion with Steve Barney, who tweeted: "An area in which we can truly claim to be world-beating and Frost senselessly sabotaged it. Presumably because it would have highlighted the ludicrous lie that abolishing our own freedom of movement somehow made us more free.”

There is action we can take to keep this scandal in the public, and political, eye.

Nobody wants a future without music. Nobody would want their hopes, dreams and aspirations crushed at the first hurdle as shrinking streaming incomes align to restrictive EU touring rules, fatally restricting opportunities for UK artists. So please take a few minutes to download #CarryOnTouring's 'Write To Your MP' template letter and send it to your local MP.

And while you’re at it, why not sign the petition to save The Leadmill? Add your voice to the call for 30 years of independent music in Sheffield to be preserved and cherished.

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