How Brexit Has Destroyed UK Artists’ Ability To Tour In The EU – by Fish2nd February 2021
Multi-million selling British singer FISH has posted a detailed statement on his social media explaining how the new regulations UK musicians face to be able to tour across Europe as a result of the government’s Brexit deal are going to cripple the industry.
His examination of it, both as a solo artist with decades of success, and also as the ex-frontman of a global band – Marillion – makes for devastating reading.
THE FIRST WHAMMY – this is a long post but please read through before commenting
How Brexit Has Destroyed UK Artists’ Ability To Tour In The EU – by Fish (21 st Jan, 2021)
I’m still reeling from the new regulations revealed by the UK Government just over 2 weeks ago regarding touring in the European Union post Brexit. I’ve been trying to make sense of it all from all the sometimes contradictory and often vague information available on various websites that are constantly being updated and working out how this affects my own business and career. It’s quite frankly confounding.
I’ve grown tired of hearing “So what did musicians do before we joined the EU then?”.
In 1973 when the UK joined the EU I was 15 years old and the Global Music Industry revenues were around 5 billion US dollars. By the turn of the century they were around $25 billion and today worth around $21 billion with the UK music industry generating $7.5 billion. That is a figure that doesn’t even take in the vast independent network or all the ancillary workers and bolt on industries that contribute hugely these days to the International music business.
As an example, my album sales don’t even count as I’m not officially chart ‘registered’ and on unofficial figures I had a Top 10 album in the UK with over 10 000 physical mail order sales of my 11 th solo album, ‘Weltschmerz’ in the first week of release in October 2020. A purely independent release. A tree in the forest. And there are a lot of trees out there.
It’s a huge industry generating nearly 4 times more than the UK fishing industry which despite a loud lobbying voice has its own valid frustrations at this time as we deal with all this weight of bureaucracy now foisted upon us by Brexit.
To put things a bit in perspective ‘The Who’ between 1963 and 1973 played only around 55 shows in the current EU countries. I have 27 EU shows and 5 in Scandinavia rescheduled from last year going out across 43 days in the Autumn of this year. That is more than half of the 90 out of 180 days I am allowed to be in the EU under the new rules. If these shows had gone ahead as planned in 2020 I would have been booking further shows in the early part of this year, if the new regulations allowed. Taking into account any EU festivals which are normally a 3-day venture across a performance, plus any promotion trips which would also have to be added to my tally, as well as personal visits to my German family, and those 90 days in 180 fast disappear.
The visa/ permit situation has a major impact. From what I’ve discovered so far we now need permits for every country in the EU. In Holland for example the administration/ processing costs of a permit are around £250 per person not including the instigation and set up on our end. I carry a 10-person team; 6 musicians including myself, a back-line tech, a sound engineer, a lighting/projection tech and a production manager.
If the permits are for every individual country and of similar amounts then I have around £2500 in extra costs on permits alone for every EU country we perform in. This will rule out single shows in countries such as France and Belgium where I play medium club size gigs and put a lot of pressure on future shows in Spain and Italy where I normally have a brace of gigs of around 5-800 capacity. These shows are already squeaky as we work to minimum guarantees that cover only costs from promoters and the visa/ permit charge represents nearly 50% of those guarantees. Some shows will quite simply become financially unfeasible on potential permit costs alone.
Compared to many artists I operate with a very tight crew and I have to keep it lean to make the figures work and keep us on the road and earning a living for everyone concerned. I have learned to manage myself – thus saving 20% of my gross income, which can be used to finance touring – and have ‘assassinated’ as many middle men as possible to enable me to continue making music and perform shows. It’s a lot of work for someone who just wants to be an artist but if I don’t take on these responsibilities myself I couldn’t make a living. And I am an established artist! I’ve just been handed a live grenade with the pin pulled out.
My heart goes out to musicians starting out in small clubs and at the beginning of their careers who have to find that money in advance of tours. Artists signed to major labels have a better chance but for independents it’s a killer.
Crew members and session musicians have an added hit from the newly limited time allowed in the EU. Most techs and session musicians make a living by touring with a variety of artists throughout the year and they will now be unable, or find it very difficult, to juggle schedules to adhere to the new rules on travel. In short UK based touring personnel will be hamstrung and UK artists might have to consider taking on EU based crew and musicians to get around the restrictions – thus depriving their long-standing UK crew of being able to make a living.
We now have to have our passports stamped at every border crossing in order to officially document the time we spend in various countries as per the visas/ permits. At those crossings we must get a carnet stamped. This is a UK generated document that identifies and lists every piece of equipment carried out of the UK from guitars and amps to strings, drums and sticks and skins, keyboards etc. It is used to show that we take the equipment out and cross every border with the same manifest and return to the UK with exactly the same contents. The carnet basically shows that we haven’t exported anything for sale to another country and haven’t imported anything out with the manifest. It has to be stamped going in and out of every country and miss a stamp and you walk into a nightmare of bureaucracy and potential heavy fines. (I’ve had to fly someone to Switzerland with supporting legal documents to have a carnet stamped that was missed as there was no one available at that time in the morning at the border as we were gig bound on a tight schedule)
At the border crossings the customs officers are totally within their rights to ask for an entire truck or trailer to be unloaded and examined to see if it matches the carnet documents. Protests on time constraints are a waste of energy and the tour-bus drivers just have to wait while the digital tachographs count down their drive time available. And the drivers’ operating and rest time in these potential circumstances has to be taken into consideration.
Being stopped for a couple of hours during the night at a border check could take a driver out of the legal time allowed at the wheel. In order to make sure we get to places we are supposed to be, the only solution now is to take on double drivers, who would normally only come on board for long hauls such as in Scandinavia or occasional big drives. Having 2 drivers full time on an entire tour just keeps on adding to the costs with not only their wages but hotel rooms and catering. The risks of losing shows because a driver is out of hours aren’t worth taking.
Yes, carnets existed before Brexit but they were only needed up till now in Switzerland and Norway. It’s now across every European country and every border crossing where they will have to be stamped for the first time since 1973; 48 years ago, when amplifiers only had valves and ‘digital’ was a word in Science Fiction books. Legal drive time didn’t exist in 1973.
We pay tax in all the countries we play in Europe. For example in Germany it’s about 19% on the gross fee received from the promoter and unless you are represented by a German based company who can reclaim some costs such as tour buses at around £1400 a day, hotels for any day off at over £1200 a night for the team, and various other production costs which include a contribution to crew wages, the tax is taken from the top.
When you pay those taxes you receive a credit note from the respective tax authority and that is provided to HMRC to put against your UK taxes. It’s called a reciprocal tax agreement. I paid over £25k in withholding tax in the EU in 2018 on one tour after allowances for costs because I had a German agent.
Up till now I have not had an answer as to whether that still applies. Do we still get that allowance or will only a percentage of it apply if at all? At the moment my tax advisors don’t know. I’m supposed to be on tour in 8 months and don’t even know if it’s actually financially feasible. The contracts were signed in late 2019 and don’t take into consideration any post Brexit financial implications as no one knew what they were until 2 weeks ago.
We will now have to deal with the respective ‘national insurances’ in every country on top of the income tax. That applies to everyone in the band and crew and requires more paperwork and applications.
We will now also have to register for VAT in every EU country if we want to sell merchandise on the road and claim back VAT from costs. All taxes have to be paid in full before any merch leaves the UK and declarations could have to be made at every national border. If we are not registered then it’s near impossible to reclaim back the respective national VAT. As an example the German night liner tour bus on the next alleged tour has around £13,000 VAT we now become liable for. This means more accountancy bills, more middlemen, more bureaucracy.
Like most other artists, I need merchandise sales on tour to supplement my income and allow us to play shows in areas where the promoter’s guarantee from ticket sales falls short of the costs required to perform there. As an independent artist a large amount of my album sales are on the road at the merchandise stall. Streaming changed the ball game and as a result, physical album sales in traditional record stores have collapsed compared to when I started in the music business 40 years ago, so playing live has become the principal source of income for many musicians and bands. This comes through gig fees and direct-to-customer album and merchandise sales.
And I am a recognized artist with a loyal fanbase and playing decent size venues. I’ve managed through trial and error over time to find a model that works. I’m not in a new band making its first forays into Europe taking the big jump and betting on a chance to break into what is still the third biggest music market in the World, just a few miles on a ferry across the Channel. How are they supposed to find visa fees especially if they are an independent outfit? How do they front costs for that valuable merch that could be their only wages on a gig? The wages that pay their rent and the rehearsal rooms and fuel in the tank? How does the next young Iron Maiden, Simple Minds, The Cure or dare I say Marillion break into the EU market now? From where is the UK government going to replace those potential future tax revenues from successful bands? Do they care? It certainly doesn’t appear so, especially for the non-corporate bands.
These are just some of the razor wire hurdles I’ve come across so far since the new Brexit rules were published just a couple of weeks ago. Prior to that I’ve been discussing probabilities with fellow professionals, tour and production managers, accountants, and advisors for well over 18 months trying to discover how this was all going to affect us – but the government left it so late, none of us have been able to prepare. Tours are booked over a year in advance and there is a lot of detailed planning involved. I’m used to that. And still no one seems to be any clearer on what is happening.
Some have accused the live music industry of not facing reality after the Brexit vote was determined by the accumulative vote across the UK. That is most definitely not true. We have been trying to read the runes and the smoke for a very long time and being in an industry that has to continually adjust to outside factors on a sometimes-daily basis while on the road we are accustomed to extraneous demands. Taking a double-barrelled shotgun to our feet was not anywhere in the equation.
I’m not an accountant, never wanted to be. I wanted to be a creative artist and performer who could ply my trade and earn a living across borders, and especially in Europe, our closest neighbours and as I said the third biggest music market in the world next to the USA and Japan. It appears that the only sector benefiting from all these new regulations are accountants and advisors, and all those costs will percolate through to album and concert ticket prices.
And all of this during a pandemic that has crippled the music industry and put thousands out of work for an indefinite time.
I always look for silver linings with regards to my own situation and the only thing I can grasp on to is that my own postponed tour gives me preparation time to take on these seemingly constantly changing regulations and find a way forward. Some may say visa/permit costs, tax changes etc are negligible and part of the ‘cost’ of this current mess. For an arena level band, that may be so. It’s mostly an accountancy issue and they will usually have a wider organisation who can focus on paperwork, but for others at my level and below it’s the difference between having a tour and a career in the music business or not.
And now? Where am I?
A 32 date European and Scandinavian tour looming in September with rehearsals necessary in August; an increasingly raging virus, nationwide vaccinations still a long way off, no insurance for anything Covid related, promoters suggesting renegotiation of contracts for potential social distancing (impossible and refused), vastly increased merchandise commission of around 20% of the gross sales (plus VAT) expected as venues and corporate entities involved try to recover losses and all of the above previously mentioned.
Is it going to happen? I wouldn’t buy tickets and incur fees that are non-returnable until I knew for certain the tour was happening. I certainly can’t hold up my hand and say I will be on tour in September or at any point this year.
And now, take another step back on this and look from the other side. I am on tour, potentially unvaccinated. Our tour merchandiser faces the public every night. She contracts the virus and we have maybe 10 days before she shows symptoms, and we are all together on a bus every day. Meanwhile in 10 days we could be in 7 cities intermingling with house crews, journalists, promoters, members of the general public etc. One band, one bus – one potential travelling super-spreading Covid generator.
The tour is scheduled to start in just over 8 months, and we are still in lockdown here for perhaps another month and beyond. We should be looking at applying for visas/ permits by the beginning of summer latest to ensure we are regulatory compliable? And that means I will need to pay out £15k for work permits/visas we might not even need and in my opinion shouldn’t even be required in the first place?
The ‘bandwagon’ was already stalled by the pandemic and now bureaucracy has slashed the tires and thrown sand in the engine while laying a minefield on the road with no maps to trust.
All the info I’ve related comes from current valid and credible sources. It’s not ‘fake news’ or ‘Remainer bullshit’. This is what I have discovered so far and what is being revealed on a day-to-day basis – on government and official websites which are constantly updated – still remains vague and doesn’t address specific questions we genuinely need answers to. It’s all real and at the moment it’s all that we know now.
I genuinely despair at the current state of the music industry and the dreams that are being broken on these rocks. I’m 63 this year and immensely grateful for what the music industry and the fans of my music have given me over the last 40 years. I just can’t imagine what it’s like for a young artist in these present times. I planned to retire from live music in 2023 and have just lost 2 years on a road I seriously don’t know if I will ever revisit.
We, the music business, and industry of the UK are currently in a perilous state. After all we have given to the world over the last 50 years and more; the revenue and cultural recognition that has been provided to this country through the musicians and technicians and every ancillary member of the live music communities with their writing, creations, and performances. We deserve better than this from our elected government. We need a rethink, and we need it sooner rather than later as our future is in jeopardy