Exclusive:Brexit: UK music industry will ‘eventually die’ unless artists get access to EU, Mercury Prize winner says

The European Movement UK has launched the Face the Music campaign, which is calling on Rishi Sunak to negotiate visa-free travel for British artists within the EU.
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The UK music industry may “shrivel and eventually die” unless the government gives musicians more support following Brexit, a Mercury Prize-winning band has told NationalWorld.

The comments came on the back of the Face the Music campaign, by the European Movement UK, which is calling on Rishi Sunak to negotiate visa-free travel for UK artists within the European Union, and vice-versa. Since Brexit, musicians and bands have been hit with a multitude of admin and extra costs to tour on the continent. 

A report by the Independent Society of Musicians found almost half of UK artists say they have had less work in Europe since Brexit, and more than a quarter have had no work at all. Gus Unger-Hamilton, from No1 hit band Alt-J, told NationalWorld that he backed the campaign, saying: “It doesn’t feel like it’s [Brexit] leading to the UK making the best of its amazing cultural assets. We’re a pretty small country but one thing we do have that people seem to want around the world is our culture, and music is a huge part of that.

“It seems like the government doesn’t seem bothered about it, or they think it’s going to sustain itself without any help, despite things getting harder and harder. It’s all very well and important to focus on maths and science in schools, but one of things the UK punches well above its weight in is in culture. Some of the biggest pop stars in the world are British, and that is something that doesn’t just happen by accident. It’s going to shrivel and eventually die if this government doesn’t eventually give musicians a bit of help.”

Road to nowhere: NationalWorld front page 6 February.Road to nowhere: NationalWorld front page 6 February.
Road to nowhere: NationalWorld front page 6 February.

The European Movement UK says that Brexit has caused a talent drain on British music, from up-and-coming stars leaving Britain to live in Europe, to jobbing musicians who face being shut out of freelance work because they no longer hold an EU passport. It’s calling on the government to negotiate a bilateral agreement, which guarantees visa-free travel for UK artists in the EU and vice versa. The UK previously rejected a proposal from Brussels to exempt performers from the 90-day rules.

Sadiq Khan backs campaign

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has backed the campaign, and says we “urgently need to build a closer relationship with the EU”. A spokesperson for Khan told NationalWorld: “The inability of the government to reach an agreement with the EU on visa-free work for artists, performers, and staff is a prime example of the unnecessary bureaucracy that Brexit has brought with it, causing increased expense and a loss of business for UK performing artists. Ministers must urgently work with the EU to create a simple and less bureaucratic system that prevents long-term damage to our world-leading music industry.”

While Alyn Smith, the SNP’s Europe spokesperson, added: “It can and should be easier for our creative industries to engage with friends across the continent. Yet when the EU put the offer on the table, the UK government rejected it in an act of vindictiveness against our creatives, because they did not want inward travel to come to us.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

“I fully support European Movement UK’s campaign to get visa-free travel for musicians to the EU and UK but it is only by being a fully-fledged Member State can we get rid of these barriers for good.”

Culture Secretary wants 'to go further'

The Department for Culture Media and Sport told NationalWorld that Secretary of State Lucy Frazer wants to go further in supporting musicians. A spokesperson said: "The overwhelming majority of EU Member States, including the biggest touring markets such as Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands, offer visa and work permit free routes for UK performers and other creative professionals.

"We are supporting the UK's brilliant artists to adapt to the new arrangements and continue to perform in the EU. The Culture Secretary has been clear that she wants to go further to support musicians to tour and we are working across government and with European partners to make further progress."

The website of UK Music, the industry trade body, said that the actual amount of visa free touring differs per country and is often far below 90 in 180 days. It added: "Individual countries may also have additional restrictions, such as France requiring musicians to be employed by a registered venue."

EU touring used to be hassle free

Unger-Hamilton remembered how easy it was for Alt-J to tour around Europe when the band was starting out. “Whenever we travelled outside the UK we did it ourselves,” he explained. “All we had to do was book a hire van and drive from wherever we were living and just go into Europe that way. That meant we could do it without any hassle, without any extra costs and it was amazing. Little did we know it was something we should have been grateful for.”

The Mercury Prize winner, who had a No1 album with This Is All Yours, said he was “really worried” by the barriers for new acts, adding: “It must be so much harder for smaller artists to do that for themselves, it’s costly, it’s a lot of admin. 

Gus Unger-Hamilton of Alt-J performs onstage during day two of the Boston Calling Music Festival. Credit: Mike Lawrie/Getty ImagesGus Unger-Hamilton of Alt-J performs onstage during day two of the Boston Calling Music Festival. Credit: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images
Gus Unger-Hamilton of Alt-J performs onstage during day two of the Boston Calling Music Festival. Credit: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

“Touring is most musicians’ biggest source of income, by far these days. If the government did want to help people in that position, it would be to do something like this - to try to make at least one thing slightly easier in this very hard industry.”

'I was forced to choose between my job and my country'

Up and coming musicians have told the European Movement UK about the burdens Brexit has put on their career. James Henshaw, a rising star among conductors on the UK classical music scene, was forced to move from London to Germany in 2020 over Brexit.

“I was forced to choose between my job and my country,” he said. “I knew that if I wanted to continue working, I couldn’t stay in the UK. I felt shut out. About 15% of my work before Brexit was in the UK, and the rest was from around the world – a lot from the EU. But after 2020, I could see that EU work drying up. So I had to move. I had to, to keep working.” 

James Henshaw. Credit: Pablo StrongJames Henshaw. Credit: Pablo Strong
James Henshaw. Credit: Pablo Strong

Rachel Nicholls, a freelance British soprano in opera and concert, currently starring in The Handmaid’s Tale in London, said since leaving the EU her whole career has changed. “I used to do three or four jobs in the EU every year,” she explained. 

“Since Brexit, I’ve done just one EU job in seven years. Those jobs are still there, but now they’re going to artists who aren’t from the UK. The 90-day rule, and the visas you need, just mean UK musicians are not considered any more. 

“It’s too difficult to employ them. I know so many people leaving the  industry.

"We are doing severe, irreparable damage to the UK music industry, and it is the younger people I feel so, so sorry for.” 

Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.

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