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Don’t Mention The ‘B’ Word

Don’t mention the ‘B’ word!

Brexit: What effect could it have on live music, touring bands and merchandising once the UK is no longer part of the EU? The Punk Lounge tentatively pokes the bear in a bid to make sense of it all.

An Article by Wayne Reid

“Brexit means Brexit!” whatever the hell that was ever meant to mean. Other than the rallying cry of a political party eating itself alive, it made no sense to anyone outside the baying circle of careerist, political dogs, yapping at the Prime Minister’s heels. In an attempt to make some sense of things, I’ve been in touch with musicians, old and new, to find out what they think may lie ahead for them once the deadline passes.

It struck me that to look forward, we would have to look back, to the time before integration, to see if the future may look like the past once did, a time when touring bands were required to clear customs when entering or leaving the UK, what did it mean, and how was it done?

Prior to EU integration, people travelling between states may have been required to produce a visa at the frontier. The type of visa would depend on whether they were tourists on holiday, or if they were actively employed in some way, whilst in the country they were visiting. Along with this, touring musicians would also have to provide an ATA Carnet. This is a document that lists all of the equipment they are bringing into the country, instruments, tools, gaffer tape, merchandise, every single item down to the last screwdriver and spare guitar string. Everything had to be listed, checked before departure, and again on entry/exit of all states, the goods travelled to and through. There were big fines for discrepancies, failure to produce corresponding documentation such as receipts could cause long delays and even cancellation of events.

Fast forward to the modern age: Following the eradication of EU borders in the early 1990’s, an aspiring band in London could finish work early on Friday, jump in the van and be in Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam or a whole host of other cities across the continent, in time for breakfast, or lunch or even just in time to set up and soundcheck before their gig, dependent purely on the distance they have to drive. No controls at the border, no visas, all the merch and equipment they can carry, safely in the van to turn into valuable cash at the show. Once the gig is over, back in the van and home in time for Sunday lunch or a pint in the local, bragging about the success of the show and selling the cheap tobacco they’d invested the merch money into on the way back, win, win, win.

Two scenarios, two different times and sets of rules. One was the past, the other is the status quo, but about our third? What is it going to be like after Brexit?

Mince, former guitarist with The Sect, Annexe UK.

“ I remember fondly the couple of European tours The Sect played. The UK was tough in th’90s, you could get gigs but you were lucky to get paid. At the time, we were fairly well known on the Indie scene -being championed by John Peel, Mick Mercer and Steve Lamacq. That didn’t pay for tours though. We got in touch with some Indie promoters in Germany that were fans, from there it all changed. We got a tour booked, got in a van we’d just bought for £500 and loaded up. Straight on the ferry, easy as that. It was a breeze, we got paid in cash at all the gigs and had a fair bit of merch that paid our way. I’ll never forget coming home with cash in my pocket. At last, we could do what we loved without it costing us anything but time.”

So touring in Europe is easy, but what about leaving Europe, going to a non-EU country, like Switzerland for example?

“Switzerland was the only exception. We needed a Carnet and all our merch got confiscated until we left the country. We were also taxed on our fee.”

Pauline Murray, Penetration, had similar thoughts.

“I don’t think anyone knows what the repercussions of Brexit will be. We haven’t toured Europe since the late ‘70s. Back then it was stricter border controls, you had to list all the people travelling, and all the items of equipment on something called a ‘Carnet’, so there could be more bureaucracy involved. We don’t even know how it will affect things financially, it’s already costly for a band to tour the UK, and if prices rise(fuel, costs, etc) then it may become more difficult. Ticket prices are already on the increase to cover costs, this is happening now, and once we add Brexit into the mix-who knows? Only time will tell.”

Pauline is not the only person unsure of what may happen. I asked Roddy Byers (Roddy Radiation), The Tearjerkers, The Specials, Skabilly Rebels. “I’m not sure I know really!”

At the moment, none of us really do, because nothing was drawn up prior to the implementation of Article 50, remember, the little piece of paper that Theresa May gave to the EU? It said something along the lines of;

‘I like you, but you’re just not my type.’

Not knowing is a big point, put over well here by Andy Emm of Die Kur.

“I really do not know what will happen yet, as does nobody else right now. What I don’t like is a lot of the mindless speculation that is being bandied about, and in particular, all the scaremongering. My feelings regarding all things Brexit are generally the same, in that, I just don’t have a clue what will happen, and whatever does, may be good or bad or indifferent, but until it happens, and the terms and conditions in which it happens are fully understood, then nobody fucking knows. I am not the sort that blindly believes what I hear, simply because it fits in with my own personal mindset and opinions. At the moment, Brexit is a very polemic subject, but all I am hearing is complete speculation from both sides, no facts, just speculation at best and a lot of hysterical overreaction. I think that the people voted for Brexit in the first place because of perceived scaremongering by the powers that be, and even now, there is a huge element of that happening, which only serves to undermine the whole process. Anyway, let’s see what happens, if it ever does happen.”

‘If’ it happens, a sentiment echoed by Spizz Energi, Spizz Energi, Athletico Spizz 80, The Spizzles. “Won’t know until it happens, if it happens. Either way, it’s an annoyance.”

According to Xavier Green, Fear Incorporated. “Brexit isn’t going to be good for touring bands, full stop!”

Someone who knows a lot about touring and seems never to be home is Will Crewdson (The Selecter, Adam And The Ants, She Made Me Do It, Rachel Stamp, Flesh For Lulu, Scant Regard, Bow Wow Wow).

“Obviously the implications are huge with this as lots of bands, at different levels, already struggle to make ends meet, even when touring in their own country. It’s possible that promoters will have to fork out more to cover Visa fees for UK bands to be able to play in Europe, and this will probably deter them from taking chances. For any industry to survive there must be the option to take chances, but unfortunately, in this one, it looks like these are being taken away. This would have a knock on effect on the artists themselves in the end, and increased financial worry is not what these people need. The only positive I can see is, the harder the times get, the more great music tends to be made. But this isn’t enough to warrant what looks like a complete deterrent to UK band’s freedom to take their live shows overseas.”

So maybe there is some hope, a spark, because as Will said, ‘More great music’ could be coming our way.

Louise Crane, The Eden House. “I’m in the process of recording my 1st solo record, the chances of Brexit causing issues when it comes to touring are high. Trying to put a European tour together will be negatively impacted.”

New music maybe, just not live, unless of course, like Kirk Brandon, The Pack, Theatre Of Hate, Spear Of Destiny, you feel all will revert to how things used to be done.

“This may very well end up like the bad old days at the border. I remember border guards taking apart parts of the engine and every single piece of luggage. A lot of time wasting. This combined with getting the Carnet signed off, took a lot longer than anyone wanted. Also, if it is, in fact, true, they’re building giant car parks for vehicles to park up before getting on ferries, this will not be helpful on a practical front. If they introduce tariffs on top of this at European borders, it again all adds to the cost. It’s all very well people shouting ’Let’s leave the EU!’ But the costs may well turn out to be prohibitive for a lot of bands and businesses. It should have been explained before the referendum.”

What about these costs everyone keeps mentioning? Most bands are happy to leave that to the management, or promoters.

Shaun Histed-Todd organises and promotes Alice’s Wicked Tea Party, an independent, annual, alternative festival in Dorset.

“My main concern is cost. It’s going to stop small bands from touring Europe if they have to apply for visas for every country they visit. So no combined Netherlands, France, and Germany tours if they have to apply for 3 visas. This also applies to European bands coming to England- and I already feel we are seeing this effect, just at the time when the internet is giving us free access and exposing us to European bands. Will we see a return to the Carnet? How will it affect UK bands selling their merch and albums in Europe? So, in a sense, fewer dates in Europe and bands having to focus only on the big cities there, and here, which will cut off a lot of fans unable to travel. Festivals will be hit, and only be able to book UK artists, especially the small independent festivals like Alice’s Wicked Tea Party.”

Lynne Skevington, the name behind 2 Drunk Punks, organises bands for the Elephant and Castle pub in Ramsgate. I asked for her thoughts on the matter and found a similar response to Andy Emm’s.

“It’s totally subjective, to be honest, I’d rather see what deal is made and look at it’s ramifications than try to work out the different scenarios, as people always latch on to the worst case and run with it.”

A sensible approach, even if it does mean leaving things to the last minute. However, that’s not how everyone is seeing this.

Fred Previous played bass for Vertical Hold, way back when neither of us needed to shave. He now promotes and has his own take on the situation and opportunities.

“I started promoting in London, in the ‘80s, and have been an in-house for both major venues in the city as well as in the South West of England, and more recently in the USA. I’ve worked with acts from Joss Stone to Coldplay, down to the guy with a guitar on the street corner. I voted to leave the EU despite having an idea it may impact what I do. I work with a lot of American based acts and booked UK events for them.

A work visa is required and seen as a matter of fact, just as ensuring that artists have passports. Visa applications are always covered by the artist’s management, and they are seen as a miniscule added expense when you take into account flights, accommodation and all other financial pressures a tour brings. As a general rule, a visa is mandatory, and I did hear of a Detroit based group being refused entry into the UK without the correct paperwork.

Will that have an impact on touring EU artists playing in the UK? Yes, and no.

The bigger bands will not even notice, management will deal with it. Smaller acts from Europe generally want to play to British audiences and after an initial transition period, will get used to the work visa system. The industry, as a rule, has bigger problems. With smaller venues closing down and the effects of social media diminishing the numbers of people going out to enjoy live acts.”

According to Fred, we just need to accept it and adapt. But did he miss something there? After all, he said himself it was the smaller acts that would notice, and as the smaller venues are already closing down, is there a link, already?
Rat Scabies, The Damned, Professor And The Madmen, was equally laid back about things when I spoke to him on a pretty unreliable Skypeline.

“I remember what it was like before the EU, all the borders and that, we got through alright. I think it’s all to do with Tax though, to be honest, trying to reclaim what they can here and there, all over Europe, but leaving it, it’s a bit like finishing your set, packing up your drum kit and going home when the other acts want to borrow your gear. But they are just trying to put the fear of God into people, really.”

Someone else I knew would have a good insight is Lu Edmonds, Public Image Limited, The Mekons, Shriekback, Spizz Energi, Yat-Kha, I asked Lu what it may mean.

“Who knows what Brexit means? Hard, soft, poached, fried – it’s all seems to be swimming in a dirty fog of conflicting propaganda (lies & counter-lies). When I ask about it within my circle of pals we can’t even get a sensible informed discussion started because there appears to be no information coming out either from the industry bodies or form our much vaunted UK Academe. Maybe nobody believes Brexit will happen?
Having said that, nobody I know thinks Brexit will be good for the Music Biz – nobody sees it as an Opportunity or a way to save £350m a year. Rather we all recall the bad old days of filling out carnets without having any of the old advantages of the UK occupying pole position in European Music Biz.

As for the big UK-based PA & Lights firms, I find it hard to imagine what they will do because the EU has plenty of similar businesses that will definitely see an Opportunity to freeze out the UK-based rivals. Presumably once Brexit happens (if it happens, depending how it happens etc.) there could be plenty of backdoor-deals to help the UK keep some degree of their businesses going; I mean, all the mega-equipment that sits in warehouses here will be used in the UK, but in the EU – they will all have to adjust, no?

As for us humble bog-standard touring musicians, we have no idea what will happen – will we need working visas to play in the EU/EEA? Will EU/EEA artists have to go through a similar process as we do to get into the USA with the P1, CWA (central withholding agreement) etc. all of which slaps an extra $10k on each tour in bureaucratic expenses. It wasn’t like this 15 years ago.

As for the (already complicated) situation with EU Social Security A1 forms (formerly e101) which allow workers/artists to perform in Italy & France without getting hammered for ±30% withholding-tax – nobody knows. Presumably, the PRS/neighbouring rights will stay the same as these are independent of the EU/Lisbon Treaty. I Dunno.

Let’s recall that Brexit was meant to be about getting back control of borders/ currency/ legal system etc. but apparently, little thought was given to itinerant performing UK-based businesses in music/art/theatre. This is not really a surprise as the UK government has never given much credit to the £billions earned by their creative industries for the last 50+ years (e.g. Beatles, Stones and onwards). Just think of the net inflow of global cash that lined the coffers of the state that resulted from all the hits/compositions.

“It’ll be chaos, and we will find out how much.”

Lu’s sentiments were shadowed by Beki Bond, Vice Squad.

“I very much hope that all the negative things I’ve heard about Brexit are ‘just scaremongering’ but if not it looks like a ‘Hard’ Brexit will make it impossible for many UK bands to tour in Europe.

A carnet will need to take guitars and backline into Europe, these cost up to £2000 per year, and safety tests may be required for equipment. Drivers will need an international driving permit and work visas will also be needed. All this means a lot more expense and paperwork and will cost far too much for many bands, especially those playing for door splits who are in no position to work out costs versus guaranteed income.

Rather than driving across open borders and occasionally being stopped by customs officials you can expect to be stopped at every border and face potentially long delays. European tours can be arduous at the best of times due to the general indifference of booking agents to the band’s basic human requirement of sleep and any delay on a long distance drive could mean missing the show and not being paid.

Many bands part-finance their tours via merchandise sales but once the borders are closed you will no longer be able to just take a box of CDs and t-shirts across borders for free.

Brexit is starting to look like a disaster for many small businesses, and we have the economic genius of the hunt-supporting-disabled-people-killing-offshore-asset-stashing Conservative party to thank for it. Why have a referendum and not have a Plan B in place just in case Plan A (Remain) doesn’t work out??? Why assume you’ll get the result you want when you hold a referendum? I knew it was a potential disaster when David Cameron legged it.”

All politics aside, there does seem to be a recurring feature here, and that is that Brexit will cost touring bands money. Not a problem for bigger bands, but for the guys in London, Birmingham, Bruges or  Rotterdam, with their rented van and a few boxes of merch squeezed in between their equipment, it could well be the end of the line. £2,000 for a Carnet puts any dream of one day being noticed or hitting the right audience, a little too far beyond their budget.

None of us really know the true effects, because we don’t know how it will pan out, what sort of deal we will end up getting, but what is clear, is that most musicians and promoters seem to think there may be a price to pay. Pete Finnemore from Grooving In Green gave me his take on the subject.

“In my opinion, it will be an unmitigated disaster for GIG and me personally. It is madness and makes no sense. Flights and road travel will both be affected negatively.”

I asked American band The Droogettes about Brexit. “We love the British Punk scene, we love British Punk. We’ve loved the times we’ve been overplaying Rebellion Festival.”  I got the impression nothing would get in their way of coming again, and neither should it.

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