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Music industry welcomes commitments from Boris Johnson on addressing the post-Brexit touring problems

By | Published on Friday 26 March 2021


Music industry groups have welcomed comments made by UK Prime Minister ‘Boris’ Johnson earlier this week regarding efforts to remove the post-Brexit barriers that musicians now face when touring Europe. The PM told Parliament that his government was working “flat out” to tackle this issue and that he was personally “passionate” about finding a solution. So there you go, Johnson is taking a personal interest in getting this fixed. Now we’re really fucked.

These problems all originate, of course, in Brexit itself and the last minute post-Brexit UK/EU trade deal that was agreed last December. That trade agreement did not include any provision for visa-free touring for British musicians. This means that – once COVID restrictions lift and touring resumes – UK artists seeking to play around the EU will need to deal with the visa, permit and carnet requirements of each individual EU member state.

In some cases that doesn’t actually involve any extra admin or costs, but in other cases artists will have to secure permits for themselves and their crew, and/or carnets for their equipment. The costs of all that could make many tours commercially unviable.

Trade groups from across the music industry, numerous MPs and peers in Parliament, committees in both the House Of Commons and the House Of Lords, and 285,644 signatories of a petition on the Parliament website have all called on ministers to do whatever is required to ensure those bureaucratic barriers are removed before COVID restrictions lift and touring resumes.

That might mean securing a bespoke agreement with the EU, or doing deals directly with individual EU countries, or possibly a combination of the two.

The government has repeatedly said that it recognises the problems created by its Brexit agenda and its Brexit deal for UK performers. In the main, ministers have blamed the lack of any provisions for performers in the big trade deal on EU officials, although they have said that they’re willing to return to the negotiating table with Brussels on this point at any time, and also to seek direct deals with individual EU states.

However, in recent weeks the music industry has repeatedly expressed concern that there is no sense of urgency within government on this issue, and that nothing is likely to be achieved before COVID restrictions lift.

Julian Knight MP, chair of Parliament’s culture select committee, raised this issue with Johnson at a Liaison Committee hearing in Parliament earlier this week.

“I want to say how strongly I share your frustration and the frustration of the sector”, the PM responded. “This is a massively important part of our economy. It contributes many, many tens of billions of pounds in tax revenue and employment, to the general joy and productivity of the nation. It is hugely important. It is also a massive export industry, so we must fix this”.

Passing the buck for the failure to fix this during the original negotiations for the post-Brexit UK/EU trade deal, he went on: “I am afraid that, in the course of the negotiations, the EU as a whole did not give us the deal that we wanted on this issue, although of course we are not placing any restrictions on people coming to the UK. We are very happy to welcome performers from around the world. That will always be part of our global Britain approach”.

“We do have some time” to sort out these problems, he then noted, because COVID restrictions mean “there is not a great hubbub of travelling musicians and theatre companies and so on doing gigs around the rest of Europe. That has been on hold for a while. We are working flat out bilaterally with each individual government, and some of them are much, much better and more forward-leaning than others. With some of them, it has been absolutely fine; with others, we still have progress to make”.

Asked by Knight for solid information on when these bilateral talks with individual EU governments would formally take place, Johnson waffled on: “Actually, there are plenty of conversations already happening at national capital levels between the UK and our partners. [Chief Brexit negotiator] David Frost is in overall charge of making this happen”.

Knight then suggested that relevant ministers should get hands-on involved in these talks to speed things up. “I am passionate about this”, Johnson insisted. “I think it was in 1620 that the group called the English Comedians performed ‘Hamlet’ in German, as far as I can remember. This is something that has been going on for hundreds of years, and we must get it properly ironed out. It is a two-way street, and we need to make sure that we get this thing totally sorted out and that our greatest cultural exports can continue to flourish”.

So worry not everybody, Johnson and his team are on the case. They are going to iron it out. They are going to fix this. Which presumably means every single British performer can expect a free Union Jack-branded guitar case and a plectrum bearing the slogan “respect the will of the fucking people” as soon as international touring is back on the agenda. Good times.

Though various music industry trade groups have found enough optimism in their respective back pockets to assume that this might be one of the few Boris Johnson commitments that doesn’t turn out to be total and utter bullshit. It does happen. Sometimes. Occasionally. Or so I’m told. And at least the boss has gone on the record as saying that this is an urgent priority.

“It’s very welcome to hear the Prime Minister highlight the importance of the UK music industry and promise to resolve the huge challenges musicians and crews are now facing when it comes to working in Europe”, says UK Music CEO Jamie Njoku-Goodwin. “It is also good to hear that the government is ‘working flat out bilaterally with countries’, and we look forward to hearing of more progress on this front soon. We stand ready to support government in these negotiations with different member states, which must be an utmost priority”.

Deborah Annetts, CEO of the Incorporated Society Of Musicians, adds: “The Prime Minister’s commitment to fixing the crisis for the creative industries is fantastic news for a sector facing a mountain of red tape and huge new costs to tour in Europe. It is extremely encouraging that the Prime Minister is working ‘flat out’ with individual EU member states to address issues with visas, work permits and moving goods”.

“With musicians unable to work for most of the past year and now finding it virtually impossible to work in Europe”, she goes on, “we urgently need the Prime Minister to deliver on these commitments and sort this mess out. This can only be achieved by negotiating a bespoke visa waiver agreement with the EU and bilateral deals on work permits with key EU Member States. With the sector now looking beyond the pandemic, UK musicians are already losing work so negotiating a solution cannot be delayed any further”.

And Musicians Union General Secretary Horace Trubridge states: “The MU is greatly encouraged by the PM’s response to questions from Julian Knight MP regarding the plight of musicians looking to tour in the EU post-Brexit. We are hoping that his words will enable ministers to achieve a relaxation in the regulations that will enable frictionless touring for musicians sooner rather than later”.

“After the misery of COVID which has brought about the cancellation of all live performance, musicians desperately need to feel that there is some light at the end of the tunnel and we welcome that the PM has signalled that a light might be shining from the EU side. Now that the PM has spoken, we will be looking to hold the government to deliver on his promise”.

So fingers crossed, everybody. Maybe there will now be some movement on all of this. I wonder if it would help if every British artist committed to include some translated Shakespeare in their shows, and maybe an unedited rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’, and then always place an unvandalised statue of Winston Churchill at the back of the stage?

I mean, arguments based on the massive economic, social and cultural significance of the British music industry are all well and good, but we all know that – in the era of Brexit and Johnson and all that nonsense – nothing has more political currency than some good old fashioned patriotic bullshit. God save the Queen!

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