And Finally Artist News Beef Of The Week

CMU Beef Of The Week #206: Gary Barlow v The Tax Man

By | Published on Friday 16 May 2014

Gary Barlow

Two years ago, a music investment organisation called Icebreaker was accused by The Times of being little more than a tax avoidance scheme.

Though Icebreaker itself – which invested in various music projects, often with artists looking to work outside the traditional label system – argued that it’s reason for existing was to invest in innovative music projects, it just made use of tax breaks available to cultural ventures in order to encourage more people to pump money into the fund (as do various other music-focused investment vehicles).

However, last week a judge ruled that Icebreaker was primarily being used as a system for wealthy people to avoid paying tax on their earnings. And now various celebrities are facing demands from HM Revenue & Customs that some of that unpaid tax be handed over, most notably Take That’s Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Mark Owen and the group’s manager Jonathan Wild.

Barlow has come in for the most criticism though, because he’s the only one with an OBE. And a lot of people think that people with OBEs shouldn’t go around trying to avoid tax. Which is, of course, true, though if anyone thinks Gary Barlow is the only one, then they’re only fooling themselves.

But because of this, a lot of people started shouting about Barlow giving back his OBE. Shouting, shouting, shouting. “He might want to show a bit of contrition by giving back his OBE”, shouted Labour MP Margaret Hodge. “People who have seriously abused the tax system should be stripped of their honours”, screamed Conservative Charlie Elphicke, getting all red in the face and that.

Of course, you might say that more important than giving back a meaningless badge would be for Barlow to pay his fucking tax bill. But maybe that’s just me.

Actually, David Cameron agreed with me, which isn’t usually a position I like to be in. He went on ‘Good Morning Britain’ and said these words: “I don’t think [giving back his OBE] is necessary, frankly. Gary Barlow has done a huge amount for the country, he’s raised money for charity, he has done very well for Children In Need. The OBE was in respect of that work and what he has done. Clearly this scheme was wrong and it is right that they’re going to have to pay back the money”.

Now, you might argue that, in addition to all the charity work, Gary Barlow partly got his OBE for all the work he’s done promoting the Conservative Party. “There’s no one more with-it than David”, the singer once claimed to an audience of children in Nantwich. Which I’m sure is what eventually swung the 2010 General Election. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the meaningless OBE initials should be struck from Barlow’s name because of the dodgy tax thing.

Whatever, it’s an open and shut case for Cameron. His celebrity buddy did something wrong, but now he’s going to fix it. He’s going to hand over all of that money that should have gone to that tax man in the first place. Or he will if and when Icebreaker’s appeal against last week’s ruling fails. Probably. I mean, if Vodafone can negotiate its way out of paying billions, then Barlow can surely have a good go at negotiating any demand downwards. After all, with all that extra money sitting in his bank account, he can afford some pretty good lawyers and accountants to help.

But maybe it’s unfair to suggest that Barlow might be some kind of horrible, greedy money hoarder. After all, in his 2006 autobiography, ‘My Take’, he notes that finance has never been his strong point, writing: “My financial affairs were chaotic [in the early days of Take That]. As a band we were well advised, but personally things were a mess. I wanted someone to look after everything, from negotiating and buying my houses to ensuring my electricity wasn’t cut off if I was away from home for six weeks”.

You may have noted earlier that Jason Orange did not join the rest of his bandmates in signing up to Icebreaker. Many have wondered if his refusal to adhere to the same financial advice as Gary et al was something to do with foresight, or good moral standing. Though it may just be family loyalty, his brother Simon being a financial advisor.

In his book, Barlow reveals that he eventually got his early career affairs in order by handing over control to Simon Orange, even though this was something the Take That sibling was not keen on doing in the long term. “[Simon] was still reluctant to take the responsibility and advised me that I shouldn’t give him or anyone that much power”, wrote Barlow. “But I explained that’s exactly what I needed and I was a good judge of character”.

Let’s just take a moment to remember that Gary Barlow is friendly with David Cameron. And was involved with a tax avoidance scheme that has just been deemed illegal. I’m not sure he’s even a good judge of his own character.

Maybe moving forward he should stick to taking advice from his old mate Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Even though the last time that happened they wrote ‘Sing’ together for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But it was the musicals man who stood up to defend Barlow this week, saying that when you’re as wealthy as the Take That star you “just do what you’re advised [with your money]”.

Still, he said, there are risks in just doing what ‘the man’ tells you to do, as he learned first hand back in the 1970s. “The only tax scheme I ever got involved with was years ago when income tax was 98 per cent and the only thing you could possibly do was go into forestry”, he told The Independent. “Forestry was a tremendous thing and I was very pleased with my forest in Glamorgan somewhere”.

“Then I got a call – and we were in the middle of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ – and it was the army”, he continued. “Why do I want to talk to the Army? There was silence, then they said ‘Your forest is on fire’. After that I thought I’d be better off just paying the tax”.

So take heart Gary. Even if they did force you to return that OBE medallion, at least your forest didn’t burn down.