‘Our successes can’t be taken for granted’ | Examining the post-Brexit landscape for British musicians

Last month, UK Music released its annual report on the strength of the UK music industry. Whilst there are many healthy figures, these contravene other statistics that suggest a challenging landscape for British musicians post-Brexit. We examine the data and speak to UK Music Chief Executive Tom Kiehl to find out more.

When the clock struck 11pm on 31 January 2020, British industries looked on with a precarious sense of what the future held, as the UK officially withdrew from the European Union. The music sector faced particularly unique challenges, and was unsure what lay ahead in the wake of arguably the most significant shift in trading arrangements in modern history.

With musicians and artists no longer allowed free movement to travel and work in its nearest international market, the consequences, especially on touring, would inevitably be severe and immediate.

In April, Best for Britain published research that suggested the number of British acts booked for European festivals in 2023 was down by a third (32%) compared to the average of 2017-19, before Brexit took effect. This was a bleak stat, although an improvement from the 45% decrease recorded in 2022 – the first year Brexit took hold and where Covid restrictions were eased.

UK Music’s Chief Executive, Tom Kiehl, has told whynow the issue is particularly pronounced for emerging acts. “You’ve got to recognise the fact that when it comes to post-Brexit EU touring, larger players will have the resource to find workarounds, and the smaller bands will find it far more difficult to navigate or just decide not to do that international touring,” he explained. 

“It’s probably quite premature to really assess the impact yet, but if you’re a band and artist at the early stage of your career, you’ll be wanting to tour all the time, and the European market is one you would have previously exploited positively, and built fanbases and learnt your craft.

“Because we’ve only left for two or so years, the legacy issues still need to be worked out, but we’re particularly concerned from the smaller-scale artist’s point of view, and just how potentially difficult it is.”

Photo: Leon Neal

Whilst life on the road for aspiring bands is proving challenging, the data suggests it’s less of an issue for DJs, many of whom pack-out such festival lineups and play into the early hours of these festivals.

In fact, the research from Best for Britain (a campaign group initially formed to try and keep Britain’s membership of the EU) doesn’t paint the whole picture, only accounting for three major European festivals – Benicassim (Spain), Sziget (Hungary) and Lollapalooza Berlin (Germany) – and only assessing the raw number of acts on line-ups. In 2022, a lot of lineups diverged from usual on account of lingering Covid restrictions or some acts carrying over from cancelled years.

Our own research, doubling the sample size to add Primavera (Spain), Roskilde (Denmark) and Open’er Festival (Poland), and calculating the number of British acts on the lineup as a percentage, shows a more mixed result.

Whilst Sziget and Lollapalooza achieved a lower percentage of British acts on their bill in 2022, before a small rise this year, Benicassim and Open’er saw a rise in the number of British acts between pre- and post-Brexit. Primavera and Roskilde, meanwhile, also placed an increasing number of British acts on their lineup, albeit with a downward trend between last year and 2023.

In effect, though, this really highlights the issue around carnet (a ‘passport for goods’) and cabotage requirements (the rights to operate transport services within a particular territory). These are especially required for bands who bring lots of equipment into the EU, and can be less of an issue for DJs who can travel more lightweight.

These difficulties are one of the main reasons why UK Music are calling for a UK Cultural Touring Agreement with the EU, to help reduce bureaucracy. They also want to establish an export office to offer more logistical support for bands who need it; and to redress the rule which limits work to 90 days within 180 when in The Schengen Area, which is especially crucial for performances that require rehearsal, tours or extended runs.

As Kiehl has explained: “Even for more established gigging musicians, you’ve got this 90-in-180-day rule around Brexit, which is a big issue. So if you work with a particular artist, or have a particular relationship with a country, within three months, you’re already hitting the deadline for how long you should be in that country.

Festival crowd

“[UK Music is asking] for a settlement or some kind of exemption on that, which takes cultural workers outside of that problem, because that’s a very clear immigration issue. Unfortunately, we’ve been captured within that when really the nature of touring musicians is very different.

“So there are some quite unique characteristics of touring and being a musician that need to be taken into account more. Obviously, it was very regrettable that when they did the [Brexit] deal, it didn’t have a specific agreement in relation to [these] issues.”

The situation bodes much worse when reported from those dealing with the issues firsthand. In August, the Independent Society of Musicians (ISM) reported their survey findings, with the headline statistic that almost half of music industry workers had lost work in the EU since January 2021.

The survey asked 408 respondents with a variety of roles from the sector. Other notable figures included the fact that more than a quarter (27.8%) said they had no work at all in the EU since January 2021; 40% had work cancelled within that period; and 2% even had EU grants revoked, with one person losing £10,000 as a result.

Meanwhile, two-fifths (40%) of respondents reported having to turn down work, citing the 90-in-180-days rule as an especially prominent issue.

And whilst these stats don’t cover everyone, less than a fifth (17%) of those surveyed reported facing no additional costs when working in the EU; either as they didn’t require a visa, travelled with portable instruments without the need for a carnet, or weren’t transporting merchandise.

Yet these fears come while, paradoxically, the UK music industry is continuing to grow apace.

British festival
The number of British acts on festival lineups might have varied in recent years, but you can always count on some mud at a British festival.

Since 2011, UK Music has produced 11 annual reports, each documenting the strength of the sector, and has observed near-constant growth – albeit weakened most prominently (and unsurprisingly) by Covid, when tours and live shows were effectively frozen for two years.

Despite the inevitable dip during 2020 and 2021, the sector as a whole recovered to reach new peaks last year, with £6.7 billion in GVA (Gross Value Added) – the value of a sector’s goods and services to the economy – and £4 billion in exports.

Much of this was aided by a flourishing music publishing exports and streaming market, but there was also a post-Covid boost to live shows with an all-time high of 37 million people attending live music in the UK in 2022, as people flocked to make up for what they’d lost in previous years.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) in fact ranked the UK as the third best music market in the world in 2022, behind first-placed USA, and second-placed Japan.

Of course, Britain has plenty of success stories to boast about. From Paul McCartney rolling back the years during his headline set at last year’s Glastonbury, to Harry Styles’ ubiquitous earworm ‘As It Was’ being the most-streamed song of 2022, ahead of Oxford outfit Glass Animals’ slowburn hit ‘Heat Waves’.

Kiehl, however, is cautious when it comes to an industry patting itself on the back, especially in light of long-term decisions post-Brexit. 

“We are one of the biggest music markets in the world at the moment, and we need to maintain that position,” he says. “We’re home to some of the world’s best studios, best festivals, best events, but I don’t think we can be complacent on that… Otherwise the kind of success we’ve had over the last 50, 60 years or so can’t be taken for granted.”

“Yes, we’ve been successful, but increasingly countries like Australia, Canada and South Korea are investing in their sectors too, in an increasingly globalised world.”

Photo: Leon Neal.

As an example of tailored measures other countries are taking to increase their music market opportunities, he cites one studio built in Vienna, which prompted the Austrian government to establish the first direct flight from L.A. to the area.

His example draws a stark contrast with results from a joint ISM, Musicians’ Union and Association of British Orchestras survey of musicians in 2021 which found that 42% of musicians had lost work on account of St Pancras in London not being a CITES-approved Point of Entry and Exit (PoE).

What’s more, whilst the UK industry has seen impressive post-Covid growth despite Brexit-related challenges, this was in the context of a global recorded music market that saw a 9% growth in 2022, and in which the UK was by no means the fastest-growing market. 

According to the IFPI, the UK recorded a 5.4% increase, less than Europe’s 7.5% as a whole. Music markets in Canada and Australia, meanwhile, were also higher, with an 8.1% growth in the year by comparison.

There are also signs of major emerging markets, with China recording a 28.4% growth (breaking into the top five global music markets for the first time), and Mexico enjoying a growth of 24.3%.

Sub-Saharan Africa was the fastest-growing region for recorded music revenues in 2022 (34.7%), bolstered by a strong 31.4% growth in South Africa, where the Afro-house genre amapiano originated and had a significant year (Spotify data shows amapiano had a 143% increase in streams in 2022).

Of course, whilst music has long-been hailed as the universal language, and it’s hard for listeners to fathom the success of Taylor Swift, Bad Bunny or BTS being of detriment to British acts, the industry remains “an international-based industry and a growing market”, Kiehl adds.

“Particularly if you think about the long-term view of the sector and the talent pipeline… We need to make sure we can continue to develop new and talented artists for the future, and if we don’t put that kind of investment in, then it’s going to be a big, big challenge.”

“On one level, the government’s strategy has identified five sectors for growth, and the creative industries are one of those five; so there is a recognition of the importance of sectors like music and their contribution to the economy.

“I think part of our job is to get beyond that and get politicians to realise that, yes they might like music, but actually it’s not something that can purely sustain itself on its own. It’s a sector that has been successful, but has some underlying challenges within it. Its success is based on three or four threads being in place, and if one of those gets tangled up or breaks away then that has a really big impact.”

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