The UK’s live music industry is in rude health. Valued at more than £1 billion for the first time last year, more people are spending more money to watch more shows than ever before. But cheers from fans in the packed auditoria are drowning out the worried sighs of industry players and investors backstage.
Visa policy concern
Uncertainty over the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union are causing tour managers, production companies, venue owners and artists alike to fret over their futures. They increasingly depend on income from live shows as sales of CDs and downloads slump. Unless a deal is done on the contentious matter of Britain’s post-Brexit immigration arrangements, the industry fears artists’ ability to play overseas – one of their main cash earners — will suffer.
“This is a time when we should be celebrating, but nobody is,” said Joel Stanley, production manager at Production Value, which has staged shows for such pop heavyweights as Rhianna, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. “If immigration becomes an issue, artists will start thinking very hard about where to book a show. That could have a very detrimental impact on the industry.”
At stake is a £4.4 billion industry. Exports of music and merchandise, which accounts for a £2.5 billion chunk of that, will be affected by whatever trade deal emerges. Meanwhile, the fate of royalty collections will depend of whether Brexit talks delay the passage of a Europe-wide copyright and intellectual property directive.
But it’s the impact of any settlement will have on live music that’s causing most concern. Live music is the second-largest employment sector within the industry, after the artists and creatives. It provides work for more than 28,500 people and is growing at three times the rate of the UK’s broader economy, according to the BPI, which represents record labels.
Free movement across borders
By and large the sector depends on the easy and free movement of artists, crew and equipment throughout the European Union.
“We’re not talking about the Ed Sheerens, who book a European tour months in advance and have lawyers to deal with this. This will have an impact on the vast majority of musicians who are operating on very, very low margins,” said Michael Dugher, a Member of Parliament and CEO of Music UK, an umbrella trade group putting the industry’s case to Brexit negotiators.
“It might be a heavy metal band going over to Belgium to do one gig. Or at relatively short notice, a band being able do a couple of gigs in France or Germany.”
The worst outcome would be a Brexit deal that requires artists to seek visas to play in Europe or demands they obtain similar paperwork for their equipment, licences known as carnets.
“There is a real fear that we will go from freedom of movement, where people can just go over and do a gig, to a situation that piles on bureaucracy and costs and makes playing across the EU simply unviable,” Dugher added. “That’s a huge issue.”
Whole lotta love for UK pop
In pop parlance, British music is hot right now. Four of the top-10 biggest grossing live artists of 2016 were British – Coldplay, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Adele – according to Music UK. Coldplay’s four-night stand at Wembley Stadium alone raked in $30 million, Pollstar figures show. And the Stone Roses earned $20 million for four arena concerts in Manchester.
But the impressive headline figures hide a grim reality for the vast majority of UK artists: most of them earn little more than a couple of hundred pounds to play in the bars and small clubs that make up the bulk of performance spaces.
With CD sales declining year by year – in 2012 they plunged 20 percent — and streaming services likeSpotify contributing pennies to a smaller artist’s earnings, regular low-paying live shows are a performer’s bread and butter.
“The model is usually that you have musician entrepreneurs – small businesses, essentially – whose lifeblood comes from them being able to travel and play for their fans, often on a European basis,” said Kevin Brennan, an MP who sits on a UK parliamentary cross-party group that monitors the music industry.
“If you start adding costs into that process through applying for visas or carnets or work permits — or anything that makes that freedom of movement no longer available — that’s going to be problematic.”
Too expensive to visit
Sussex-based now has a following big enough to put the days of struggling with one-off gigs behind it. But the metal band still has to watch the pennies. Just back from a month playing shows throughout the US’s underground bars and clubs, drummer Matt Unsworth is in no doubt that visa restrictions would take a toll on bands like his.
“In the US, the visa situation was horrendous – time consuming and very, very expensive,” Unsworth said. “If it was introduced in Europe I could see many bands just wouldn’t go overseas, unless it was a very lucrative tour. The finances just wouldn’t justify it.”
The same applies for overseas artists playing in the UK. Venues and promoters fear American artists will abandon UK legs of European tours if they have to pay substantially more in administration costs.
“More paperwork will result in fewer touring opportunities as some acts just won’t come to the UK,” said Pete Dutton of STS Touring Productions, which has provided sound, lighting and other services for International promoters including Live Nation.
Demoralised but still fighting
The music industry is not sitting back.
Music UK has begun a major lobbying campaign of the government and opposition parties, proposing a passport scheme to allow easier movement for musicians should borders close after Brexit. Meanwhile, the Musicians Union and PRS Foundation, part of the Performing Rights Society, have met EU officials to ensure the other side of the negotiating table understands the industry’s position.
Music UK has also taken steps to ensure EU public funding of music projects and venues under the auspices of Creative Europe are matched by the UK government after Brexit.
With a divorce settlement as much as 16 months away, there’s little optimism in the industry.
A Music UK survey of industry figures after the vote found only 2 percent were positive about leaving the EU; more than 50% were negative. Even the pound’s devaluation after the Brexit vote failed to generate much of a boost.
“Brexit presents significant issues and threats that we need to work through,” said Dugher. “There’s lots of work to do.”