The UK government has rejected the EU’s proposal to allow touring musicians to travel to Europe without a visa – artists weigh in on how the decision will impact their livelihoods
Although it’s been almost a year since the UK officially left the EU, it’s been less than a month since a deal was finally agreed. This means certain elements of what Brexit means are only just coming to light, including the detrimental impact on our cultural industries.
One group particularly affected by the changes are touring musicians, who can no longer enjoy freedom of movement around Europe when embarking on shows abroad. From the beginning of this month, UK nationals will need a visa for stays of longer than 90 days in a 180-day period. While three months may cover a European tour, different EU countries have different rules, with Spain, Denmark, and Italy, for example, requiring additional work permits.
Last month, the UK government claimed that it “pushed for a more ambitious agreement with the EU on the temporary movement of business travellers” – including musicians – but that its “proposals were rejected by the EU”. However, on Sunday (January 10), the EU pushed back against these accusations, telling The Independent that the UK was responsible for the decision, due to the fact that the UK government insisted on denying visa-free travel for EU artists.
“It is usually in our agreements with third countries that (work) visas are not required for musicians,” an EU source told the newspaper. “We tried to include it, but the UK said no. The UK refused to agree because they said they were ending freedom of movement. It is untrue to say they asked for something more ambitious. There has to be reciprocity.”
Obviously, there was outrage. Addressing the news, Thom Yorke called the government “spineless fucks”, and a petition calling for Europe-wide visa-free work permits for touring professionals and artists amassed over 256,000 signatures (and counting).
In the days since, the government has been doing serious damage control. Speaking to NME, a government spokesperson denied the EU source’s allegations, calling them “incorrect and misleading”. In another interview with NME, a spokesperson doubled down on the claims that the EU rejected the UK’s proposals, and said the government’s “door remains open should the EU change its mind”.
The UK’s culture secretary Oliver Dowden has also backed the government, telling NME in a third article: “We sought a mutually beneficial agreement that would have allowed performers to continue working and performing across the continent without the need for work permits. Musicians, artists, entertainers, and support staff would have been captured through the list of permitted activities for short-term business visitors. This was a straightforward solution for our creative industries which would have benefited all sides. But the EU turned it down, repeatedly. It did not propose, and wouldn’t accept, a tailored deal for musicians and artists. I’m afraid it was the EU letting down music on both sides of the Channel – not us.”
Given the government has a history of lying, we may never know exactly what happened during those ill-fated Brexit talks. What we do know is: if musicians lose the ability to tour Europe without the need for costly visas, it could signal the end for many artists, particularly up-and-coming and independent musicians, many of whom make the majority of their money through touring.
Here’s what UK-based artists Sega Bodega, Nimmo, WARGASM, Sports Team, and more had to say about it – they also address how the pandemic has impacted their work, and reveal their hopes for the future of live music.
“I’m not surprised (at the government’s rejection of visa-free travel for touring musicians); any chance they seem to get to be somewhat ‘good’, they go the other way, so I didn’t expect this to be any different. Right now, (the future of live music) seems pretty bleak. With an extra layer of difficulty for artists travelling and doing shows – even without a pandemic – yeah, bleak. In terms of creativity, (the pandemic hasn’t impacted my music). I was actually pretty excited about being faced with something to work around, and collaborating almost became easier because everybody was home and itching to do stuff. I’d love to do some shows though.”
“For independent artists in particular, the requirement of visas is such a daunting prospect. Looking back at the past two years, we can’t imagine how it would have been possible to release our album independently without the revenue we received through touring outside of the UK during that time. Europe was a great way to showcase ourselves in a way that America or Australia weren’t due to the visa costs. We’re not really surprised (that the UK government rejected the visa-free travel proposals); they’ve upholded a complete disregard for culture and arts throughout the pandemic. At this stage, we’re expecting them to continually tear down our opportunities and we’ll have to keep fighting for ways around them.
For us, the pandemic has been a major financial hit – we had a tour cut short in March – and it’s a shock to not be able to see an end in sight nearly a year on. However, 2020 was a massive year of growth for us. Like many artists, we just had to focus on the music again and let go of any plans we had. We’re lucky that we’d just begun self-producing a few months before this all kicked off, so we’ve been able to use some of this time to write and produce our second LP. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not always the most natural thing to do when you’re unable to get out and experience anything new, or run around and let off some steam. We’re chipping away, though, and trying to stay positive. We’re looking forward to being in a room with strangers, dancing, and feeling safe and free. The rest will follow!”
Sam: “Potentially increased border checks and mounting visa costs are going to make touring Europe almost financially unviable. Fortunately, we have a small, multinational crew, so we might be some of the more fortunate small artists. It’s not even a feeling of betrayal anymore – we know what to expect from this current government. It’s insulting; they should be hung as traitors. (The pandemic) is an ongoing trial by fire. It’s forced us to change the way we write music. It’s also forced us to embrace social media more than we already did. Silver lining? Perhaps it’s helped us show a more pure and distilled version of WARGASM to you all. I’m not sure it’s wise to pass comment on when the return of live music could be, but when it does come back it’s going to be the moment of all mother fucking moments. Honestly what I’m looking forward to the most? Feeling like a human again; feeling like myself.”
Milkie: “Thankfully I’m Irish, so I might have dodged this English fuckery (needing a visa to tour Europe). (During the pandemic), we’ve lost UK tours, foreign tours, major festival performances, plus all the income that comes with that – all with little to no help from the government. It’s hard to motivate yourself to create something that will be released into such an uncertain landscape. The first thing I’m going to do (when live music returns) is jump into a mosh pit of bloody, sweaty music fans and kiss someone on the lips with loads of spit… and tongue.”
“It’s fucking ridiculous that (the government) rejected the offer from the UK in the first place, let alone denying the reasons why. They have no reason to have done this considering how much the music industry contributes to the UK’s economy. It’s clear they don’t care about the arts at all. It’s so disappointing that they’ve done this now after the backlash and embarrassment they received from the ‘retrain in cyber’ campaign they tried out last year. (Giving musicians visa-free travel around Europe) would positively contribute to generating money for the economy, yet they turn down the offer? Stupid.
(Over the last year), we’ve all had to learn to adapt and focus on ways you can make money from home. Live shows haven’t been happening, and that’s been a let down, but it has to be that way until everything changes. I actually played a digital tour with Yungblud recently, so not all live shows are off, just adapted. I feel as hopeful (about live music returning) as everyone. I think we’ll have a clearer judgement once everyone has been vaccinated and the disease rate drops. That’s the most important thing. I hope when that happens, we can get back to (performing live). People will definitely appreciate live music more.”
Alex Rice: “(Touring Europe) is going to be prohibitively more complex and costly for a lot of acts, especially in the context of the new requirement for carnets (instrument passports). Any artist who’s gone through the visa process in the US will know the time and financial commitment that involves. Add that to the fact that you’ll need a separate visa for every country you visit and you’ve something which is going to make touring unviable for smaller acts. The original lies from the government annoyed me, (and the decision) shows how zealous a lot of Conservatives have become about immigration and free movement. I feel a real sense of loss about it now. Clearly musicians will still tour in Europe, but the idea that it won’t feel like a natural next step for people worries me. Artists in this country have always been at their best when they’ve thought with ambition and broad horizons. I hope people don’t start to internalise the idea that music doesn’t cross national borders.
At first, when the longevity of the pandemic wasn’t clear, it was an opportunity to get ahead with writing and recording, but we’re starting to feel the financial strain like countless others. For a band like ours – our album went to number two (on the UK charts) – about 80 per cent of our income comes from playing live. The unexpected bit, though, has been the emotional pressure it puts you under. I had no idea how much my identity and sense of self-worth was bound up in being someone who gets on stage 200 nights a year. It’s hard not to seek those short periods of real ecstasy in normal life. Efforts to suggest artists retrain and total uncertainty of the situation really haven’t helped. If we want to have any kind of live music infrastructure left when this ends, venues and artists need more support. You can’t just remove the foundations and expect it to continue to thrive.”
“It’s likely that the cost of a visa, set against the fees we receive for performing, will mean that shows in many countries in Europe may become financially unviable (some have offered visa-free access). Either they won’t be worth many British musicians doing, or European promoters won’t take the hit on covering visa costs. I’m unsurprised that the government lied and blamed the EU. They’re a load of anti-cultural charlatans who’ll happily decimate an industry if it means they can shut the doors and keep their – frankly evil – restrictions on the freedom of movement ideologically intact. However, it’s strange that, for a group of people who were born with pound signs in their eyes, they don’t even seem to recognise the economic impact of culture – as of 2019, it contributed £10.8 billion to the UK economy.
Music has been a real escape for me during the pandemic. We lost income on shows we didn’t do, cancelled parties we were planning, plus TV and film production ground to a halt, so our music being used on stuff also wasn’t happening in the same way. It’s been tough, but we’ve still been able to write. I’m unsure if we’ll see (live music return) this year; can I see 500 people together in a room in 2021? I don’t know. There’s been a lot of talk about ‘the new normal’, and evolving ways of performing online and connecting with audiences, but, let’s be honest, none of it compares to the real thing. Regarding music returning with Brexit restrictions, while I think it’s gutting that less people will come here and vice versa, I hope that it strengthens regional UK scenes and makes things less London-centric. I’m looking forward to that, if it happens.”
“It’s incredibly frustrating to hear that the government has rejected the EU’s offer of visa-free travel for musicians. The government clearly doesn’t give a fuck about music, but I know for most people it’s one of the most important and special parts of their lives to see their favourite artists perform live. As an emerging artist, it’s horrible to know that we may not ever be able to tour Europe without a cost that makes it impossible unless you’re an established artist. It’s been a lifelong dream, and it’s kept me motivated to know that, one day, I can travel and do live shows. I’m desperately hoping we can make a change to this – the whole industry has had enough difficult times this year.”