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How Brexit stopped the music for White Lies

Last year, Sir Elton John warned of a “looming catastrophe” for touring British musicians after we left the EU. His prediction came true for one London band

White Lies perform at the annual Goose Island LDN Block Party at Red Market in east London. Photo: David Parry/PA Archive/PA Images

Fourteen months into Brexit and artists continue to face the music of Britain leaving the European Union.

Last summer, Simon Rattle, music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, pulled off a logistical “miracle” by successfully getting the orchestra to the Aix-en-Provence Festival in southern France for their first international performance since the pandemic began. Moving nearly 100 musicians and all their instruments for this four-day residency was no mean feat at the best of times, but since Britain left the EU the number of bureaucratic headaches has soared.

Brexit caused British musicians to lose their guaranteed visa-free travel to the EU, triggering heavy costs and an administrative burden for touring. Orchestras, however, face the additional difficulties of transporting large amounts of equipment in heavy-duty lorries, which are now permitted just three stops in the EU.

Composer and broadcaster Howard Goodall summarised the issues being met by saying: “The barriers are multiple – visas, haulage and cabotage restrictions, carnets for equipment and instruments, VAT declarations in and out, special certificates for rare or animal-based materials, proof of contracts, health, repatriation and vehicle insurance, and so on”. Sir Elton John, more concisely, warned of a “looming catastrophe” for touring musicians.

Rock band White Lies have been one of the most recent acts to feel the effects of the industry’s icon’s prediction come to life.

Last month, the London-formed trio were due to perform in Paris but were forced to postpone as their equipment was detained by complex Brexit legislation.

“We were obviously devastated to have to cancel the first night of our tour in Paris after the truck containing all of our backline (instruments etc) and production became gridlocked in a thirty-mile traffic jam on the M20,” White Lies told The New European. The band felt the night should have been a celebration of the return of watching live music but, through no fault of their own, this was “ruined”.

They continued to explain that “post-Brexit all acts heading into Europe to perform need to have a carnet documenting every single piece of equipment they are travelling with”. This includes that item’s serial number and value. Previously, ATA Carnets, also known as passports for goods, were not required. Nor was insurance, visas and multiple equipment checks all of which equate to increased costs when touring.

Due to this, the Musician’s Union reports that nearly 80 per cent of artists have seen or expect their earnings to fall.

“The ATA Carnet is an incredibly detailed and daunting piece of paperwork, not to mention expensive to tackle without professional assistance,” said the band. “However we travelled with all documentation in order, and the trucking company allowed twice the usual amount of time for the driver to clear customs and get to Paris.” Essentially, the band ‘did everything right’. Nonetheless, they still found themselves in France without their equipment until over 30 hours later.

“The staggering lack of a workable system for trucks to cross into Europe at the moment is an outrage that the government seems to have absolutely no handle on – and we are now years after the Brexit vote itself.” The band continued to express their disgust at drivers having to wait for days on the motorway as a result of this, with no access to basic services. These were often the same drivers who were previously hailed as heroes by the government for keeping shelves stocked during the pandemic.

“If a band like White Lies, who have been touring at a decent level for nearly fifteen years, working with experienced companies and crew to make our shows happen can fall foul of this, then realistically it can happen to any artist running the gauntlet of leaving the country to perform.”

White Lies came into their European tour “well versed and prepared” for the new logistics of touring in a post-Brexit Europe. “But sure enough,” they said, “the first issue we encountered was in the UK.”

“We can just about ride it out but the genuine concern is that the smaller and more niche artists who make up the important majority of the UK music industry will not be able to cover the new costs and negotiate the risks of trying to play in Europe any more, and that will be a great shame.”

If the music sector had been included, or even considered, in the Brexit agreement, circumstances may be very different now. But it wasn’t and essentially delivered the sector a no-deal Brexit. In March, Lord David Frost, who mocked Sir Elton John’s concerns for the music industry last year, admitted that the deal is harming touring musicians’ livelihoods.

The former Brexit secretary has long been accused of making touring difficult with increased cost and paperwork but has only recently openly agreed with these accusations.

Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, chief executive of UK Music, an umbrella organisation which represents the collective interests of the UK’s music industry, expressed how this confirms “everything the music industry has been warning about for more than a year now”. He said it should serve as a call to action for ministers.

Instead, the man heading up the opportunities for Britain since leaving the EU, Jacob Rees-Mogg, maintains the argument that the best is yet to come. However, it seems more likely that more bars will be added to the Brexit bad news drumbeat.

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