The Day the Music Died?

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Music-making – Source: Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

When Big Ben rang in the New Year at midnight on 31 December 2020 it sounded the death knell of the transition period, the end of the UK’s membership of the Single Market and the start of the hard Brexit most were dreading. The first few months of 2021 have been quiet, grim ones – mainly due to Covid restrictions but, with the government’s road map in place, can we look forward to the days ahead filled with fun, laughter and, above all, music? 


Covid has inflicted lasting damage on the UK’s £5.85bn music industry through cancelled tours and festivals but, even when the pandemic has passed, the future looks bleak for musicians, especially those who do international gigs. As of 1 January 2021, they have no automatic right to travel and work freely across the EU, and regulations regarding visas and work permits vary from country to country. A system of carnets listing equipment inflates the cost and adds complications to what was previously a simple, flexible system.  Aliye Cornish, CEO of the Irish Baroque Orchestra, gives a detailed explanation of the new process in her article published in West England Bylines in January, which concludes ‘the days of touring through several countries in the space of a week or two without difficulty are firmly behind us.


A quick Google search using the phrase ‘Brexit Deal and Music’ reveals the extent of the problem. At least two petitions have been circulating asking the government to negotiate with the EU for reciprocal visa-free travel for musicians and their crews. One of these was launched by Tim Brennan, a multi-camera vision director who has worked with artists such as Madonna and Lady Gaga. He is typical of those in the music and performing arts industry who now find themselves unemployable. A US company with whom he’d worked said they wouldn’t be able to use him in the future because his availability to travel would be far more limited and problematic than that of someone from the EU.

Although Tim’s petition attracted over 285,000 signatures and cross-party support in the ensuing debate, it was given short shrift by the government as was the EU’s offer of a broader visa-free travel agreement for a range of sectors, which Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Digital and Culture, claimed was not ‘consistent with the manifesto commitment to take back control of our borders, and it wasn’t consistent with the idea of Brexit that the majority of people in this country voted foras reported by Music Week. So, ultimately it all came down to immigration.

Concern about the impact of Brexit on the music scene made Bath MP Wera Hobhouse host ‘Brexit: When the Music had to Stop’, a community conversation with a panel of local musicians and those involved in the industry. Bath is a city that pulsates to many different beats: buskers strumming outside the Abbey, live gigs chalked up on pub boards, concerts in the Assembly and Pump Rooms, the prestigious Bach, Mozart and International Bath festivals, as well as the more local 119 year-old Mid-Somerset Festival.


 One of the liveliest venues in non-Covid times is Widcombe Social Club where Nod Knowles, one of the leading figures of the Bath music scene, has regularly hosted national and international musicians at his mainly folk or jazz gigs. So, as a panellist, he had plenty to say about a musician’s life pre-EU, pre-Brexit and now. In the ‘old days’ before the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), Nod said life was complicated for musicians touring Europe. Carnets needed to be purchased, listing every piece of equipment ‘down to the last drumstick and guitar string.

During the years the UK was in the EU and enjoyed freedom of movement as part of its membership of the Single Market, Nod recalled how musicians could move around easily and accept gigs at short notice. Although there were slightly different tax and contractual laws, the process was basically straightforward. Working in countries outside the EU, such as the USA or China, gave a foretaste of what might happen post-Brexit: a more complex and costly experience and Nod added ‘We are now weighed down with bureaucracy.’


Fellow panellist Charles Daniels agreed that the Single Market ‘was immensely helpful and [the process] became seamless.’ He explained how his booking engagements in the EU had dropped tenfold between 2016 and 2019. Before the referendum, this classical tenor would perform at 40-50 concerts a year but anxiety over Brexit caused promoters to wonder whether it was feasible to book British musicians and he managed just five concerts in Europe in 2019. Luckily for him, engagements in Canada picked up much of the slack but, according to a survey by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), around 44% of British musicians earn half of their income in the EU.

The situation for EU musicians planning to perform in the UK is also fraught with complications, as explained in this report from the Free Movement group. Although they can stay for up to 30 days to carry out Permitted Paid Engagements (PPE’s), they have to prove they are professional musicians and have been invited by an established UK business. This is likely to discriminate against young performers at the start of their careers if promoters are unwilling to do the extra paperwork and finance the costs of an unknown entity. Before Brexit, Nod would regularly organise over 100 gigs across the country for Dutch jazz musicians; now, he said, that would be ‘physically and bureaucratically impossible.’ The upshot is that EU musicians could well be discouraged from coming over here just as UK musicians will struggle with obstacles to perform in the EU.


So, was 1 January 2021 the “Day the Music Died”? Once the music scene in the UK begins to emerge from its Covid cocoon, the focus could become more regionalised and relevant to the local area, as Simone Harris, General Manager of the Bath Philharmonic, suggested in the community conversation. Some see this as a ‘positive’ though most, like Nod, would mourn the cross-cultural richness that has been enjoyed for so many years. He said:

‘If there is not the touring, the public will be deprived of hearing the range and wealth of European performers and musicians.’

To maintain this transfusion of talent, there is much to be done. A willingness by the UK and EU to keep working towards a better arrangement is vital. Labour MP Harriet Harman’s ten-point plan to allow reciprocal visa-free arrangements for UK and EU musicians touring in each other’s territories is highly promising. It’s backed by the Musicians’ Union who, with the ISM and high-profile performers such as Elton John, Sting and even the pro-Brexit Roger Daltrey, need to keep up the pressure, having voiced their concerns publicly.

Most of all, the persistence of the music-loving public is key in persuading politicians to make this issue a “Top Ten” priority. 

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