‘Whatever the situation currently, we can’t stand still': Ways out of the musicians' visa touring crisis

Andrew Green
Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden recently chaired a meeting with music industry representatives, looking at the much-discussed post-Brexit touring issue. Andrew Green reports

Oliver Dowden heard representatives from the industry express their concerns
Oliver Dowden heard representatives from the industry express their concerns

Eagle-eyed readers will have noted this column’s failure to fulfil a stated intention at the dawn of 2021. Namely, that of speedily providing tidings of meaningful developments in the search for new post-Brexit bureaucratic arrangements enabling UK-based artists and orchestras to work with minimal hassle in EU territories. Well, as midsummer approaches, anyone working in artist management will confirm that ‘meaningful developments’ are still thin on the ground.

However, I can at least report on a high-level airing of the issues when (in late May) classical music industry representatives joined a much-deferred video link meeting with DCMS Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden MP. The occasion was facilitated by music-loving senior Conservative MP (and prominent Brexiter) Sir Bernard Jenkin.  Among those present, representing the International Artist Managers’ Association, was Donagh Collins, chief executive of the Askonas Holt office.

Who exactly said exactly what is being kept firmly under wraps, but the outline of what took place is conveyed by Collins. ‘It wasn’t a case of the Minister being unaware of the issues, rather that he welcomed the opportunity to hear about them directly from those working at the rock-face. We genuinely felt he was listening and appreciated the amount of preparation we’d done before the meeting. He clearly wants to make a difference to the current situation.’

Yes, the same-old-same-old problems were outlined. How to handle the bureaucratic nightmare of navigating individual visa/work permit arrangements with each of the 27 EU countries. How to circumvent the stricture that artists may not work in the Schengen area for more than 90 days in any 180 — a particular problem with opera engagements. Then, how to enable orchestras to continue touring in the EU given the Brexit legacy of cross-border hurdles — for example, the EU regulation whereby support transport vehicles may not service more than three performance locations before having to return to the UK. Strange, but true.

At the meeting, Collins continues, ‘we stressed that the Covid situation — appalling though it has been — has at least offered breathing space in which, hopefully, the ramifications of Brexit for the music industry could be worked through. But if there’s no sense of momentum towards solving these problems as we emerge from the Covid crisis, we have to be seriously concerned. Yes, the visa/work permit situation has settled down as far as most EU countries are concerned, but there are still territories like Italy, Spain and Portugal where there are serious difficulties. Often it’s caused by confusion over what the new arrangements should be, leading border officials to play it safe and make life difficult.

" The visa/work permit situation has settled down as far as most EU countries are concerned, but there are still territories like Italy, Spain and Portugal where there are serious difficulties "

‘An interesting idea on the table for dealing with certain areas of musical activity is the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ proposal for some kind of EU/UK visa/work permit waiver for musicians’ short term visits to the EU. Hopefully the government will look at this.’

Among a select group of musicians taking part in the Dowden dialogue was Dame Sarah Connolly. While not divulging the precise nature of her contribution, the distinguished singer makes clear her over-riding concern — the shrivelling of opportunities in EU territories for younger UK-based artists. Already, she says ‘there are stories of EU opera houses discounting the idea of engaging UK singers because of the likely difficulties. There are over 200 fully-contracted opera houses in the EU. Only five in the UK. So clearly it’s vital for younger singers to have access to Europe — that’s how stars of the future are nurtured. It was clear that ultimately Lord Frost [the UK’s chief negotiator with the EU] is the key player in all of this. I’ve no idea if he has any sympathy for classical music, but at least he should be able to recognise the income the music industry delivers to the UK’s GDP.’

Also at the Dowden session was Association of British Orchestras director Mark Pemberton, who has long worked closely with IAMA over shared Brexit-related concerns, not least given the involvement of artist managements in orchestra tours. The government’s position, he observes, is that it will certainly not be seeking to re-open the trade agreement. ‘However, within that agreement there’s a provision for re-visiting individual areas as issues arise. The problem here is that the UK government, via Lord Frost, appears reluctant to initiate such negotiations.

‘Whatever the situation currently, we can’t stand still. We’ve used this time during the Covid crisis to at least clarify points of detail regarding existing regulations. For example, we can confirm that while carnets are required to cover the contents of an orchestra support vehicle when it crosses into the EU, this doesn’t apply to individual musicians in respect of their instruments. We have to get on and urge the music industry people we work with in the EU to lobby their own governments to make moves towards tackling the issues.’

Pemberton pronounces himself ‘an optimist’ — confident that touring will continue post-Covid/Brexit, that ways will be found to make things work. ‘But it may be that at least in the short term, orchestras will end up touring at a loss, instead of being able to rely on profits made in EU countries to subsidise their work in the UK. Ideally, the government would come up with emergency transition funding to offset such losses.’

Donagh Collins also hopes that some way can be found to tide over artist managers as they cope with the substantial amount of extra admin work currently required to see an artist across an EU border. ‘The real headache coming down the road is that as we all recover from Covid and our businesses begin to grow again, the Brexit-related problems will get dramatically worse. The present situation is rendering UK artists uncompetitive and eating away at the always narrow margins of artist management.

‘There’s no point in complaining. All of us just have to work at solutions. We can’t look back, so what do we do? It’s a depressing situation to be in, nonetheless. If we’re clobbered by Brexit on top of Covid-19, we might as well all pack our bags and move to the Continent.’