LONDON — Amid a worsening coronavirus crisis, leading representatives of the British music industry hastily convened virtually on Jan. 20 with Oliver Dowden, U.K. secretary of state for culture, media and sport, to solve another looming problem: how Brexit and the recent European Union trade deal could keep U.K. artists from touring freely in countries like France and Spain — and European acts from doing the same in the United Kingdom. When live shows return, tours could face extra customs checks, higher costs and border delays — not to mention possible taxes on everything from T-shirts to vinyl. Crews and musicians could also need new work permits for shows in Europe.
The end of decades of unrestricted movement across the 27 countries in the EU means red tape and shrinking margins that could cause lasting damage to artists’ careers and the concert business on both sides of the English Channel.
The U.K. music community is pushing back. Over 100 acts, including Elton John, Ed Sheeran and Radiohead, signed an open letter on Jan. 20 saying the British government had “shamefully failed” them with the EU trade deal that was finalized Dec. 24. Classical musicians protested outside Parliament, while an online petition calling for a Europe-wide “visa-free” work permit for U.K. artists drew over 280,000 signatures, including those of Dua Lipa, Louis Tomlinson and the Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro. “If it wasn’t for the disaster of COVID-19, this would be playing out at borders and airports right now, with no one really knowing what’s going on,” says Paul Craig, Biffy Clyro’s manager and chairman of the Music Managers Forum. “What you’ve got at the moment is a total mess.”
Under Brexit’s existing terms, U.K. musicians are no longer entitled to free movement across European borders and are now classified as third-country, non-visa nationals subject to the same rules as U.S., Canadian and Australian artists. In practical terms, that means agents, promoters and managers will have to check the different entry requirements for each EU member state an act plans to visit (not including the Republic of Ireland, where free travel is allowed from the United Kingdom) and, where applicable, obtain work permits to perform paid gigs. The simplicity of the EU arrangement threatens to become a patchwork of confusion, with different regulations for each territory.
Already, Italy, Cyprus and Estonia require work permits for U.K. acts. Negotiations are ongoing, and rules for other European markets vary. But not all of them are so severe. France doesn’t require permits, as long as visitors don’t stay longer than 90 days, while Spain says U.K. acts can only enter with a C- or D-type visa, depending on the length of their visit. Germany is still reviewing arrangements for British musicians who want to perform there, although the country isn’t expected to put up any major obstacles.
“This idea that U.K. acts will now need separate visas to go to every European country is a total exaggeration. It’s a red herring,” says T&S Immigration Services managing director Steve Richard, who specializes in entertainment visas. “The ramifications at the moment are bigger for equipment than they are for people.”
Production costs are set to rise due to the need for carnets — essentially passports for goods — which cost £360 ($490) a year and are now required for transporting musical equipment and merchandise across EU borders. That means tighter security checks and a higher risk of delays and cancellations for tightly planned tours. EU acts looking to play the United Kingdom will also need to navigate new visitor or temporary work permit procedures and border controls.
“All of that may be survivable for a headline artist with the right infrastructure,” says Jarred Arfa, GM/executive vp business affairs at Artist Group International, which represents Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, Mötley Crüe and British singer-songwriter Frank Turner, who is scheduled to tour Europe this summer as part of NOFX‘s Punk in Drublic trek. “But it becomes a real nightmare for someone trying to establish themselves in those markets.”
For bigger tours that use multiple trucks, new “cabotage” rules require haulers to return to their home base in the EU or the United Kingdom after making three stops in either market. Given that many European treks begin in the United Kingdom, that will have far-reaching consequences for trucking and production companies. “You may start to see some [U.K.] production facilities move to Europe and more big acts rehearse and begin tours in Europe,” says Craig, “because they can pick up their trucks there and it will be more efficient for them.”
Live-music executives say it’s difficult to estimate how much touring costs could rise as a result of the changes, since so much is still unknown. And Brexit will likely prove problematic beyond touring. Since Jan. 1, U.K. music companies that export physical products directly to EU consumers have found themselves hit by extra charges, taxes and paperwork — fees that sometimes exceed the value of a T-shirt or vinyl record, and which threaten a much-needed source of income at a time when touring revenue has evaporated.
To mitigate the damage, the U.K. music industry is calling for the government to underwrite Brexit-related costs for artists and companies. It’s also pressing for ministers to renegotiate with EU officials and strike a deal that works for both sides. “It is strongly in the interest of the EU and the U.K. to find a way forward that will allow the creative industries to do business cross-border with the minimum of paperwork and cost,” says Geoff Taylor, chief executive of U.K. labels trade organization BPI, who attended the Jan. 20 meeting with Dowden. He says he welcomes the secretary’s announcement of a working group to find solutions.
“Nobody wins from the current situation,” says David Martin, CEO of U.K. artist trade group Featured Artists Coalition. “A solution has to be found soon. If it’s not, we’re going to lose so much.”
Additional reporting by Alexei Barrionuevo