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Two Years Post-Brexit: UK bands touring the EU continue to suffer through government inertia

Optimism and opportunity for UK bands in Europe post-Covid continues to be thwarted by the on-going shadow of Brexit touring restrictions. Two years on, and the UK government continues to do nothing.

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Bruno Figueiredo on Unsplash

In October 2021 I wrote a piece covering the fact that 18 months of Covid-related lockdowns, tour cancellations and Brexit-related red-tape travel restrictions had devastated a music industry that contributed £5.8bn to the UK economy.

Although Covid is very much still with us, the vaccine roll-out across Europe, aligned with the simple acknowledgement that we have to manage our lives alongside the virus, means that for bands and artists alike, opportunities for touring in both the UK and Europe have grown significantly in 2022.

But has there been any progress regarding the well-documented EU touring restrictions resulting from - what was essentially - a "no deal Brexit"?

In a word - no.

The music industry continues to be hamstrung by the effects of the UK government failing to negotiate visa-free travel and EU work permits for bands and crew alike, and in year two of the post-Brexit world, artists continue to find the path of EU gigs, exposure and sales thwarted not only by costly administration or red-tape but the worst of all reasons - UK government inertia.

The latest, very real example of hardship came in April, with the NME reporting that White Lies had been forced to cancel the opening show of their 2022 European Tour in Paris through Brexit-related legislation which resulted in their equipment being delayed for two days. The P&O ferry dispute accompanied by 25-mile M20 queues added unwelcome additional delays, leading drummer Jack Lawrence-Brown to describe the situation as "incredibly frustrating".

Of on-going and future concern is the long-term damage being caused by visa rules and paperwork logistics that create a financial and viability ceiling which will inevitably prevent the development of new and emerging talent.

Indeed, while artists with prior experience of touring countries such as the US have infrastructure, network capability and carnets already established, and are equipped to address European tours, those fledgeling bands and artists simply don't have the financial base or outsourced support from record labels to even get started.

A recent example is the band Fatherson. NT spoke with Thom Williams at Sonic PR who disclosed via a tweet from the band that their planned European Tour will no longer go ahead. Band members Ross, Marc and Greg said, "We’re gutted to let you know that our tour this autumn will no longer be able to go ahead. The rising costs of touring, from fuel to new costs and complications caused by Brexit have made it impossible for us to make it work."

Further feedback from bands who have already experienced the red-tape nightmare of EU touring suggests there is some level of engagement and support that can be provided. Lawrence-Brown is quoted in the NME encouraging artists to seek out government funding and check advice from bodies such as The Musician's Union.

Get yourself in order before you go, otherwise you'll be sure to have a painful time. Try to stomach the horrors of getting across the border, because the best venues are often found in Europe.

As if the bureaucratic rules themselves weren't bad enough, there's also the issue of legislation to worry about. Varying degrees of rule interpretation have resulted in a lack of consistency that is of major concern to Annabella Coldrick, the Chief Executive of Music Managers Forum, a body which represents managers across the UK.

"We keep hearing strange things from bands, such as being told they're not allowed a passenger ticket on a splitter van and that they have to buy a freight ticket instead - which is three times the price". She told the NME, "Musicians have been told that if they're carrying portable instruments, then they'd be ok without a carnet, and then the Musician's Union told us that one of their members had been fined £150 at the French border for not having a carnet. It's very uncertain".

Further examples of Brexit-enabled bureaucracy include a band who filled out their paperwork correctly and sent their merch to Germany in advance of their tour, only to find it had been stopped for transfer at Rotterdam. Said merch subsequently arrived at the venue after the tour had ended, meaning it couldn't be sold and caused the band to incur a huge financial hit.

On a rare positive note - and as reported in a previous article - visa-free touring for artists in Spain was agreed last year after an industry-led campaign successfully lobbied for UK trucks and larger buses to have dual registration and be able to switch to EU number plates when crossing the border.

However, since that step forward there's been a marked lack of urgency or appetite to address the litany of problems that still exist, so that the widening gap between legislation and practicality means the industry is mired in obfuscation, with the outlook for this year - and beyond - looking increasingly tough.

As Annabella Coldrick explains:

The government doesn't seem to get the small to mid-end of the market. All the working groups that we had where we were sitting down with government every few weeks to try to work through this stuff [have stopped]. I just feel like they really lost interest. We've had one meeting this year and the minister didn't turn up.

With the recent defenestration of PM Boris Johnson and the subsequent ministerial turmoil inevitable with the creation of a new administration, it's odds-on that any realistic engagement with either the hapless existing Culture Secretary [sic] Nadine Dorries or her successor will be a long way off, and that the prevailing situation will prevail for some time yet.

Labour MP and DCMS Select Committee Member Kevin Brennan has been a long-standing campaigner for a better Brexit deal for the music industry, alongside his - so far unsuccessful attempts - to bring in a bill that ensures fairer distribution of streaming revenues.

Brennan's solution is ultimately to secure "an agreement to ensure that UK musicians can tour freely across the EU and vice versa" without added red-tape and financial penalty. However, he admits - somewhat with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek - that this is unlikely given the current stance of Home Secretary, Priti Patel.

The Home Office thinks that Britain would be invaded by hordes of musicians coming over here, entertaining our people and settling in the UK.

Against this backdrop it's difficult to find any glimmer of hope that the situation will improve given the inertia and directional vacuum offered by the UK government. Brennan is split over future developments. "Most of the progress has been made by the industry itself, rather than the government, while the government tries to steal the credit for it. I'm optimistic that the issues can be overcome, but I'm not optimistic that the will exists in government to really take this on.

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