This month would have been an ideal time for singer Emily Barker to embark on a new tour. With an album to promote, she would normally be preparing a three-month itinerary for her band, manager and support act to head to Germany and across Europe.
Instead the singer — who plays between 150 and 200 shows a year — streamed her “world tour” from the Brunel Goods Shed in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where she lives.
Barker has no idea when she will be back out on the road as the continued lockdown restrictions and new post-Brexit visa issues for musicians mean any plans to organise a tour would likely be wasted energy. “I’m not expecting there to be any gigs [this year]. It is a sad place to be,” she said.
Thousands of musicians, road crew workers, venue operators and music promoters have been left high and dry by the closure of venues to stem the spread of coronavirus. The cancellation of the Glastonbury Festival this year — the second year it has been shelved — has added to the gloom, dashing hopes of a summer rebound.
A further blow has come in the form of new regulations regarding the movement of musicians and their instruments across Europe. The regulations and additional costs that come with the need for visas and carnets, or passports for goods, have made touring Europe unaffordable for most British musicians and, with the EU and the UK government pointing fingers at each other, a sense of bitterness has emerged.
Binker Golding, a jazz saxophonist and Mobo Award winner who regularly tours Europe, is livid. “I’m angry. It’s bad decision making and I can’t fathom the level of idiocy involved. It shows how much disrespect they have for the arts,” he said of the government’s decision not to agree to a visa waiver scheme and the failure of unions and trade bodies to prevent it.
“If you connect the dots from the pandemic to Brexit, we are in a tight spot. Most of my income comes from Europe. I’ve been touring with a quartet — that will [now] be very difficult,” he added.
The ISM, the trade body for professional musicians, says that 44 per cent of British musicians earn half their income from touring in Europe.
For John Smith, a folk singer, the European situation has potentially undone 10 years of work building up a fan base in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands where he regularly sells out shows. “It’s game over for someone at my level,” he said of the visa issue, which could wipe out a third of his income. He described it as a financial catastrophe for the industry but also “artistically devastating”.
The collapse of live music has also removed the financial sticking plaster for many musicians who cannot survive on the small amount of money they receive from streaming services such as Spotify and royalties. The government’s inquiry into the economics of streaming has highlighted concerns that many artists can only afford to remain in the music industry if they play live concerts.
Steven Adams, who has fronted various independent bands including the Broken Family Band, said the live music shutdown has proved that the distribution of money from streaming is not feeding down to the grassroots. “Covid has stopped people in their tracks. It has definitely shown the cracks in the music industry,” he said.
The lack of live music has had a potentially more severe impact as it leaves musicians “feeling purposeless” said Barker, who was nonetheless optimistic that the triple whammy of Brexit, the pandemic and the streaming economy will somehow be sorted out.
The crisis facing the UK music business is all the more difficult for artists to accept given the “golden goose” political status the industry enjoyed in the run-up to Brexit.
The success of artists such as Ed Sheeran and Adele — who have dominated the music streaming era — has underlined the financial success of the sector.
The UK Music trade body has highlighted that the sector employs almost 200,000 workers and contributed £5.8bn to the UK economy in 2019, up from £5.2bn in 2018. It generated total export revenue of £3bn that year, a 9 per cent rise on 2018. The BPI, which manages a government-backed export scheme, says that about £12 has been generated for every £1 invested.
To try and build on the success, the export growth scheme was launched in 2014 to help independent musicians pay for tours and promotion overseas with grants of up to £50,000. Some 272 acts, many of them esoteric, have shared £4m in grants since.
The government has also been praised for last year’s £1.5bn cultural recovery fund, which helped save dozens of British music venues.
Debbie Clare, an agent with LittleBig International, said it was “embarrassing and ridiculous” to have undercut that success by adding bureaucracy and cost. “It’s hard to stomach what we’re going through in terms of how Covid-19 has impacted the industry and then the self-inflicted wound of Brexit is so hard to deal with on top of everything else,” she said.
To try and resolve the crisis, the UK government has called on musicians to use their “star power” to lobby the EU over the visa issue. Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, said he held a “positive call” with Elton John about the visa problem but the musician later told the BBC that the likelihood of a visa-waiving “musician’s passport” being agreed was “not on the cards”.
The music industry is also lobbying for government-backed insurance schemes to help reduce the risk for promoters and events that want to start planning for shows to reopen. There have also been calls for the creation of an “office for touring” to help musicians with the new regulations around overseas tours, not only Europe but the world. The government is discussing with the sector what the best policies would be to restore confidence in the live sector including financial support measures.
Yet the combination of industry backbiting, Brexit and a lack of live music could deter young people from pursuing their musical dreams.
Mr Golding, who is also a music teacher, expressed concern that the next generation of musicians could be lost.
“I fear for the scene. It was meant to be someone’s year, someone’s time. If you’ve just left music school then you might turn your back on it. It’s a perfect combination for someone to say ‘maybe my parents were right. I should have become a therapist’,” he said.