Keep calm and carry on rocking. British musicians can still tour Europe. That was the message coming through from agents, promoters and tour managers today.
A speculative news story broke over the weekend in the Independent, asserting that the UK rejected an offer of visa-free tours by musicians to EU countries. The paper quoted an "EU source close to the (Brexit) negotiations" as saying "It is usually in our agreements with third countries, that (work) visas are not required for musicians. We tried to include it, but the UK said no." The Independent suggested that Britain did not want to give European musicians reciprocal rights to tour Britain.
Many within the music industry have reacted with outrage and alarm, calling it "a betrayal", and expressing fears that Brexit might make it all but impossible for British musicians to play in Europe, tying them up in fees and red tape. The Musicians Union (MU), Music Managers Forum (MMF), UK Live Music Group and Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) have been amongst those calling for "urgent clarity" from the government. Angela Coldrick, CEO of the MMF called it "utter insanity."
Online the reaction from musicians has been, shall we say, even less polite. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke branded the government "spineless f___s". A petition demanding visa-free tours for musicians has been signed by over 236,000 people, well over the 100,000 needed for Parliament to consider for debate.
A government spokesperson denied the story to the NME, calling it "misleading speculation from anonymous EU sources." However, I suspect you'd be hard pressed to find many people in the music business (or possibly the rest of the country) willing to take Boris Johnson's government on their word at the moment.
Nevertheless, a quick ring around of experts who actually work in the field suggests the Independent has got its facts in a twist. "The story doesn't make sense," according to Paul Fenn, an agent with Asgard Promotions and co-founder of the Entertainment Agent's Association. "European musicians can still come into the country for 90 days under the new rules, so what is supposed to have been changed?"
The French Government confirmed today that UK citizens travelling to Europe to work for up to 90 days would not require visas. It also confirmed that temporary work permits would not be required for "sporting, cultural or scientific events."
Fenn pointed out that under the new post-Brexit agreement, EU countries will treat British people as third country nationals, subject to the same rules that apply to Americans, Canadians and Australians. "Now, I make a living sending American artists around Europe and, with one or two exceptions, it's easy, we have no problems. On the surface there doesn't appear to be any changes for British acts going into Europe in 2021."
Asgard's clients include British artist The Waterboys and Ray Davies and American acts such as Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits and Alison Krauss. "We have been examining the (Brexit agreement document passed into law on December 24th) and asking our partners in Europe what differences they are aware of, and so far we've heard nothing. There are no issues."
Neil O'Brien, an agent and promoter for artists including British reggae stars UB40 and American blues rocker Joe Bonamossa was similarly baffled by the story. "It has always been a slightly complicated procedure touring in Europe. Even within the European Union, every country has different rules about taxation, work permits and carnets (customs declarations covering musical instruments). There's a huge amount of paperwork involved already. I'm not looking forward to it getting more complicated, but because of the pandemic we've got time work out what permits might be required. My understanding is that you can still tour for quite a lengthy period visa free. Switzerland is the only country in central Europe that still operates a carnet system, but bands still go there, although it can be a pain in the arse. Where there is money to be made, you make the effort. To be honest, it's more complicated touring in France. There are local rules wherever you go, so you have to have good local connections, and then things get much simpler."
"The story is just fearmongering," according to Chris Pleydell, an independent promoter and music business consultant. "For large promoters, it won't change anything. I know of not one band to ever spend 90 days touring Europe, its absurd. Fourteen days in Europe is about the average. As for small artists, they have always taken a risk. Quite often they are self-promoting, or operating guerrilla touring schedules (without visas). The EU doesn't have a one size fits all rule for every country, and never has. In my experience, free movement has always come down to who you know. But as long as you have some local assistance, its as easy as pie."
Europe is a huge market for British music, where (as recently as 2015) it is estimated almost a quarter of all albums sold are British. Export revenues from all parts of the UK music industry were £2.7 billion in 2018, according to a Music By Numbers study by UK Music. Meanwhile music tourism into the UK contributed £4.5 billion to the economy, many of those tourists coming to festivals that have been the envy of the world. The understandable concern is that all of this is put at risk by a complicated Brexit deal in a post-pandemic world.
"Artists in Europe need the UK if they want to break into the States," according to Pledyell. "Britain is still a great market for musicians and a stepping stone to the rest of the world. And UK musicians are probably the leading artists that people in Europe want to see, so it's quid pro quo. The truth is, venues need artists, and they go out of their way to help. I can't see the industry making that difficult. The only people who might make it difficult are politicians grandstanding on immigration. But we all have bigger issues to address in the age of Covid. This is a storm in a backstage teacup."