Brexit: More misses than hits for British music in Europe

Experts believe Brexit barriers are not blocking all UK music work in EU but are squeezing it, clogging arteries of the sector, damaging its long-term health

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Sun 8 Jan 2023, 11:26 PM

Last updated: Mon 9 Jan 2023, 8:29 AM

‘You can’t always get what you want, But if you try sometimes, You just might find, You get what you need.’

- The Rolling Stones

It’s been a while since Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the lyrics for the hit 1969 album ‘Let It Bleed’, but many recall them today in the context of Brexit. The British music industry and performing artistes are popular across the world. Brexit has not exactly brought the curtains down, but has created new hurdles that have not received much attention. The key issues are: Brexit-related rules have created new complicated restrictions on short-term working in the European Union for British music workers; new bureaucracy and red tape for the movement of kit and merchandise; and the inability to use UK trucks on UK European tours.

Music and the arts are no longer seamless or free flowing as they were before Brexit. It is no longer easy for Elton John or other artistes to go across and perform in Europe. As the iconic singer told MPs holding an inquiry into the issue, “The heartbeat and future of our vibrant industry face finding themselves stranded in Dover through no fault of their own.”

The UK is one of the global leaders in music, particularly in the Anglophone world. Performers like The Beatles, The Undertones, Shirley Bassey, Annie Lennox, Adele and Stormzy have delighted, changed and challenged the world. In the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry Global Top 10 Album All Format Chart 2021 the UK was joint top on the number of artists alongside the US and Adele’s album 30 was number one globally.

The music industry described as ‘worldbeating’ was not covered in the Trade and Co-operation Agreement between the UK government and the EU that formalised Brexit. An all-party parliamentary group looking into its effect on UK music workers has found that while limited progress has been made, UK music workers face more costs, more complications, and get fewer opportunities after leaving the EU. Issues include visa restrictions, a range of new bureaucratic costs, difficulties transporting kit, and the exodus of the UK event haulage fleet. There has not been any compensation from improved access to other markets.

Other reports have shown how these issues extend across the cultural sector, such as The Artists Information Company and the Contemporary Visual Arts Network England report on the effect of leaving the EU on the visual arts. Elton John told the group that the barriers are particularly acute for less established and younger artists.

Apart from the joy of music and the arts, Brexit-related restrictions also threaten revenues, since the industry, given its relatively small size, is one of the high-performing export sectors. Pre-pandemic the sector added £5.8 billion to the UK economy and employed almost 200,000 people. Live music drives growth, attracting visitors to an area and encourages them to spend on other local businesses. The estimate is that even after the battering that Covid-19 inflicted, the music sector still employs more than the steel and fisheries sectors combined.

Noting that international touring is critical to the industry, the parliamentary group says that in 2019, the last pre-Covid year for such touring, the sector secured £2.9 billion in music exports. Four of the top 10 globally grossing tours of 2019 were by British artists. A key factor in the success was the powerful and profitable position in the rich, large, highly integrated and cheap-to-access European live music market. As the European Commission noted in 2019, “UK acts… dominate the European panorama,” and the Featured Artists Coalition calculated that pre-pandemic UK artists played four times as many gigs in the EU as in the United States.

The lack of specific provisions in the Brexit agreement means that UK performers have to comply with regulations in each of the 27 EU Member States, which often differ from each other. For example, a UK musician would need to apply for a work permit in order to perform in Croatia, but this would not be necessary in France if they take part in a cultural event and the stay is shorter than 90 days. Transport of equipment for tours, such as musical instruments, props, stage lighting, or merchandise, has to comply with the customs regulations set out in the agreement. Moving such goods may be subject to restrictions on road haulage movements introduced by the agreement. As a result of leaving the EU Customs Union and the single market for services, UK touring artists face additional administrative requirements and costs.

Currently, 24 out of 27 EU Member States have some time limited visa and work permit-free routes for touring. While EU artists must also comply with new administrative requirements in the UK, in practice the touring arrangements have an asymmetric effect, with UK touring artists facing more difficulties. This is not least because of a single set of UK immigration rules versus 27 sets of immigration and work permit regulations in the EU, as research by the House of Commons Library notes. Complying with road haulage restrictions within the smaller UK market may be easier while UK performers touring the EU may need to hire EU-registered vehicles.

The Brexit ship may have sailed, but stakeholders have been recalling Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ lyrics to demand seamless touring between the UK and EU. The parliamentary group has identified three key areas for improvement: The UK Government should work more closely with EU institutions and EU member states to improve the Brexit agreement (but it is not due for review until 2026); the UK Government should push for a comprehensive Cultural Touring Agreement with the EU, to liberate cultural touring from the bureaucracy that is holding it back; and the UK Government should work productively with the music industry to create and deliver a Music Export Strategy.

Industry experts believe the Brexit barriers are not blocking all UK music work in the EU but are squeezing it and clogging the arteries of the sector, damaging its long-term health by reducing growth opportunities, making the UK live music sector less competitive, and dismantling the talent pipeline. The issues have been highlighted by various groups and reports but the reality is that music and the arts – the vital area that enriches the lived experience – has been pushed to the sidelines amidst political turmoil in Westminster and other wider concerns such as the ongoing spate of strikes, cost of living, energy and health crises.

The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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