UK musicians say Brexit is killing their European careers
Jim Drury

With a European fanbase built up over nearly two decades, Erik Stein of UK-based musical duo Cult With No Name ought to be happy. But the ongoing fallout from Brexit means he's anything but content.

Stein told CGTN: "We've had no offers to play Europe since Brexit, and it's not for want of trying. We were looking to make inroads into the European festival circuit but the rules are now so complicated for UK citizens, particularly because there are different roles in different countries."

As a dual national, due to having German parents, Stein has an EU passport but bandmate Jon Boux doesn't. So the pair find themselves stuck.

"If you've got one person in the band without an EU passport there's immediately a barrier," said Stein. "Personally I've been able to work at a music conference in Dusseldorf where I interview musicians, but the contacts I make there don't lead to the band being brought over because of Jonny's status.

"I know lots of musicians who have secured Irish passports to facilitate touring in the EU. Jon has some French heritage but hasn't got anywhere in sourcing an EU passport."

Cult With No Name's Jon Boux (left) and Erik Stein (right). /Andrew J Davis
Cult With No Name's Jon Boux (left) and Erik Stein (right). /Andrew J Davis

Cult With No Name's Jon Boux (left) and Erik Stein (right). /Andrew J Davis

Music business veteran Ian Smith runs two sizeable music agencies, Frusion and Fizzion, and says Stein's story is far from unusual, particularly among the vast majority of acts who are not established stars. 

Their difficulties revolve largely around two issues, both of which are a direct result of the UK government's refusal to agree a bespoke post-Brexit deal exempting performers from visas, work permits, and carnets – the paperwork required for instruments and equipment.

One particularly intractable problem surrounds the 90/180 Day Rule, which restricts non-EU citizens to staying in the Schengen area for no more than 90 days during every 180-day period. Smith says it's affecting all musicians wishing to tour – and is even worse for technicians and road crew who work for multiple artists.

Smith told CGTN: "When you go into the EU, you always have to count back 180 days from your point of entry and include all holiday and transit in that total. A band with, say, five musicians and one sound engineer will each have used different amounts of time. On a big tour you might have 10 crew and five musicians, so the poor tour manager must work out which of those 15 people has enough allowance to do the tour, which is a bureaucratic nightmare."

Some EU countries, including Bulgaria and Lithuania, also demand visas or work permits from musicians – an extra expense and bureaucracy that makes touring too problematic for many musicians at the lower end of the earnings scale.

"The artists that are not so well established are those most disproportionately affected by all this, particularly the young," said Smith.


Equipment and borders

The requirements of carnets – customs permits allowing vehicles to be taken across borders carrying instruments and equipment – also adds to the costs facing musicians, along with adding bureaucracy and time. An extra day can sometimes be required to enter and leave the EU.

According to Smith: "If you've got a lot of gear, it's recommended you have a carnet or you won't be allowed entry. A carnet for, say, £10,000 [$12,000] worth of equipment costs £360 [$434] per year, but you must pay a deposit of 20 percent of the total value of the equipment, which would cost £2,000 [$2,400]. And most bands' equipment would be worth far more than that."

He added: "Carnet books can be two inches thick and all must be checked in and checked out. Before Brexit none of this was required."

In addition, the regulations include 'cabotage' rules, which restrict UK lorries to stopping in three EU countries while touring.


Visa-free tours by musicians to EU countries were on the table when the UK was negotiating the post-Brexit trade and cooperation agreement (TCA). The UK reportedly rejected the offer, refusing to reciprocate the arrangement for EU musicians.

Within months, a parliamentary culture committee said this failure had "created barriers affecting both the movement of musicians and their supporting ecosystem." Smith hopes the matter could yet be revisited.

Smith said: "I'm praying that one day the UK will revisit the reported offer given to [UK Brexit negotiator] Lord Frost about freedom to work for short periods of time. The creative arts bring a vast amount of money into the UK and are a great export."

Smith runs, a non-commercial pro-bono advice site for all creative professionals, but says he found himself compelled to also co-chair the 'Carry on Touring' campaign. The pressure group was set up to secure cross-party support for Tim Brennan's petition asking the UK Government to negotiate a free cultural work permit.

He said: "It's grown massively. A lot of crew and management companies and musicians use our website for advice in both the UK and mainland Europe because it gives advice on how to do things in both directions."

Despite his views – "I fought Brexit long and hard" – Smith has a new financial sideline, one that makes him smile at the irony. "I'm a UKVI-registered licensed sponsor. I am now doing a lot of work which I would prefer not to be doing, although it's a good income stream, arranging certificates of sponsorship [for EU musicians] because of the different methods into the UK."


'Humiliation' and lost earnings

Musicians from EU countries also face challenges. German punk band Trigger Cut recently spoke of their "humiliation" after being denied entry to the UK for a planned seven-date tour due to post-Brexit rules.

The band attempted to enter the UK with a free Permitted Paid Engagement exemption, allowing them to tour for one month if they could show formal proof they were receiving payment from a UK-based company and proof of funds.

"When they got to the border an immigration officer said they needed sponsorship, which was not true," said Smith. "A few weeks later a second band came over on the Eurostar and the officer dealing with them relied on one word in the advice – 'expert.' You must be invited to the UK in your main job as an expert in your profession, so immigration officers can define 'expert' themselves because there is no definition.

"The immigration officer asked Jeffery, the main guy, 'are you an expert in your profession?' He said yes but the officer said 'I don't believe you are. If you don't leave now, we're going to stamp your passports with denied entry,' which would cause a lot of trouble down the road.

Smith added: "A flamenco dance teacher I know, who has been coming to the UK for years, was held at Bristol Airport overnight and put on a flight the next day to nowhere near where he lived. This is the impact on our European brethren."

Smith spends much of his time dealing with post-Brexit fallout. /Handout
Smith spends much of his time dealing with post-Brexit fallout. /Handout

Smith spends much of his time dealing with post-Brexit fallout. /Handout

In August a survey conducted by industry body UK Music found that 80 percent of UK musicians say they have lost earnings because of Brexit. Both Smith and Stein said that even merchandise sales, a large chunk of musicians' earnings, was affected – firstly because of the Rules of Origin, with T-shirts being made in countries with low production costs and then over-printed in the UK, and secondly because of customs regulation.

According to Stein: "We were selling T-shirts and CDs before Brexit without any problems. But filling out the customs declarations forms is so time consuming and has put us off selling directly to the EU. Most musicians use the Bandcamp platform but this doesn't calculate customs payments country by country."

Smith says the poor post-Brexit situation is reflected in other creative industries, such as theater, film, dance and fashion. "A ballet professional told me when you go to audition in Europe to be part of a company, or you're an actor, that takes part of your 90 in 180 as well, so you run out of allowance to actually perform. Ballet companies in Europe are proactively avoiding UK dancers."

He added: "When you look at the amount of GDP that the creative arts create it should be a priority for the government to fix this. But it might take a change of government for this to happen."

In response to a request for comment, a government spokesperson replied via email: "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 we continue to work across the EU to support our musicians to tour.

"The Government provides export support for the UK's creative industries through a range of export support programs, including the successful Music Export Growth Scheme, the International Showcase Fund and the Department for Business and Trade's Internationalisation Fund. In October 2021, the Government also launched a new Export Support Service, where UK businesses, including touring professionals, can get online support."

Smith dismissed the Export Support Service as a "joke," although he called the Music Export Growth Scheme "welcome" – despite it "merely sugar-coating the reality which is that we have huge barriers to working now in the EU since Brexit."

He added: "It is far more important and an imperative that government engage with the EU to find solutions that really work."

UK musicians say Brexit is killing their European careers

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