If the coronavirus pandemic does not critically damage the British and European music industry, the effect of Brexit may finish it off. This is the message from stars and business groups who are warning that concerts, festivals and touring, all under threat from COVID-19, will face further dangers from extra bureaucracy.
Trade talks started remotely this week after both the chief negotiators, Michel Barnier and David Frost, recovered from virus symptoms. Cultural leaders had made warnings before the virus made headlines, but their comments got a little swamped in the news flow as Europe entered lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus.
Smaller venues and rising stars could suffer the most by restrictions on freedom of movement with Brexit, the Incorporated Society of Musicians and others said. Industry groups are stepping up their campaign following the lead of Bob Geldof. The singer-songwriter and activist declared two years ago that music would be “critically damaged” by Britain leaving the European Union. He coordinated an open letter also signed by musicians such as the conductor Sir Simon Rattle and stars such as Ed Sheeran, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker and Sting, all warning that Brexit was potentially “serious madness.”
Howard Goodall, a composer of choral, stage, film music and more, also argues that recent British government proposals will undermine freedom of movement. He supports the Musicians’ Union campaign for a passport for all performers.
While the immediate concern of some musicians has shifted with coronavirus necessitating even more stringent restrictions on movements, all sides have to agree exact details of the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union. The creative industries in Britain alone are worth more than $140 billion (£111 billion in local currency terms), about the same size as construction and finance. The value of culture is therefore some ten times larger than the controversial area of fishing which is worth about £14 billion and yet gaining far more headlines. The creative sector has also been growing at more than five times the rate of the wider U.K. economy.
On the one hand, cultural campaigners say that there is a lot to lose. On the other hand, some industry sources are hopeful that the business is strong enough to survive and too big to fail. The British government has repeatedly promised that its new points-based immigration system that is still due to effect at the start of 2021 will be effective and supportive of artists.
Nigel Adams, the British former culture minister, said this year that he would assist freedom of movement between Britain and mainland Europe because “touring is absolutely the lifeblood of the industry.” Weeks later, he was replaced by Caroline Dinenage at the Department of Culture. The larger and more powerful Home Office also announced its tougher new rules on immigration.
Potential immigrants to the U.K. will need to get enough points to be able to apply for entry, awarded for factors such as a job offer from an approved sponsor, a “required skill level,” ability to speak some English and a certain salary level, which can be as much as $39,000. A short-term visa will cost more than $300, and applicants will need to show 90 days in advance that they have at least $1,300 in savings.
Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, wants a simpler two-year, multi-entry visa and access to “broader unsponsored routes.”
“Those stars who’ve made it will just be able to get their agents to fix things,” Annetts said in February. “But the smaller bands who are just coming to the U.K. to start their career off by performing in North London pubs, for example, are the ones we’re worried about. There are lots of issues around things like tax and social security and the transportation of instruments.
“The current rules don’t work well so you just can’t extend them. We haven’t had any clarification from the government. That is concerning because tours are put together many months in advance.” Excessive bureaucracy on one side could well encourage “tit for tat” from the other, potentially keeping British musicians out of mainland Europe too.
Separately, JD Donovan, who is artist manager and creative industries liaison at the London College of Creative Media, also called for action: “We now need to move on as an industry and make sure our voices are heard. We back the Musicians’ Union campaign for a Musician’s Passport, which will allow the U.K.’s live sector to continue at full volume. Without this initiative in place, new homegrown touring artists will find performing across the EU almost impractical.”
The Musicians’ Union, which has more than 32,000 members, said on its website that its campaign was now more urgent than ever.
“There’s no doubt that tours and sales could become more difficult, and expensive,” according to Dr. Adam Behr of the University of Newcastle. “It’s not just a question of the logistics of moving acts across the borders themselves. Visas and paperwork like carnets, for merchandize and equipment, add time and cost to the whole operation. Stadium acts might be able to handle these but for those lower down the bill – who often deal with those matters themselves – it could make touring economically unviable.” Behr was speaking after a report last year by experts at three universities warned a drop in music tourism could cost the U.K. economy hundreds of millions of pounds. The Birmingham Live Music Project report was authored by researchers at Aston University, Birmingham City University and Newcastle University.
“Brexit can only bring limitations to the arts and entertainment industry,” said Eleni Sarla, CEO of Target Entertainment, part of Havas Group. “Artistic exchange and collaboration happen across borders. I can only echo the sentiments of those stakeholders voicing fears that Brexit will damage their relationships with international partners and reduce demand for work from the U.K.”
Raffaella De Santis, senior associate at the law firm Harbottle & Lewis, said: “The changes coming into force as a result of Brexit, and some domestic policies also, could have a combined and significant negative impact on sections of the industry, and even as a whole. We are talking about restrictions on European touring, the effect on artists making a digital living (how they get paid for use of their content online) and the U.K. government’s apparent decision not to enact Article 17 (formerly Article 13) of the EU Copyright Directive. Many artists and grassroots acts survive on the slimmest of margins already, and this will make it more difficult for them to sustain a living.”
The British government has repeatedly maintained that it expects both world-class and up-and-coming musicians to be strongly attracted to the country, which is the fifth-largest economy in the world.
This article is the first of two about Brexit and the entertainment industry. The next looks at those who are more optimistic and believe that the business is too big to fail.