Brexit stage left: British band tells of farcical barriers encountered on EU tour
Night after night, the Beatles honed their harmonies in the clubs of Hamburg.
But now, British bands trying to fine-tune their sound by playing in Europe are struggling to make ends meet – or giving up entirely – because of the barriers created by Brexit, a charity for musicians has said.
Walt Disco, an up-and-coming goth-glam band from Glasgow, have told of the near farcical barriers they faced on a recent tour taking in gigs in Ireland and the Netherlands.
The first challenge was to complete the customs forms to get an ATA carnet, or instruments passport, to get a waiver for their van at border control.
For Walt Disco’s lead singer, Jocelyn Si, 24, this meant buying their first bathroom scales and weighing themselves with and without each instrument to notify customs of the weight of their temporary exports.
The next challenge, on arrival in Belfast, was to work out how to get clearance to travel across the border into the EU and on to Dublin.
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“You think you get off the ferry and all you have to do is hand over the paperwork. But no … you have to find the customs area, which isn’t in the ferry port. You have to drive around Belfast to find it,” said their manager Hamish Fingland, a reference to the lack of implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
After their gig in Dublin they took a ferry back via the UK to go to the continent, but had to take a more expensive “freight” route as their equipment was now a declarable item.
In Schiphol airport in Amsterdam there was similar confusion as they left for a further gig in Texas.
“We allowed ourselves three hours so we could go to customs on each side of the airport, well in advance of a show, but it was so hard to find anybody in the airport who knew where we were to go. We’d go to one customs bit and they’d say, ‘No, you need to go to the other end of the airport,’” said Si.
At £570, the ATA carnet for the instruments eats into the marginal income small bands look forward to in a world that is already proving more expensive because of the price of petrol.
Live performances can account for 90%-95% of a band’s income, according to Help Musicians, but Brexit has cut into one of their most important revenue streams, restricting them to £1,000 worth of merchandise before they get into a higher taxable bracket.
For Walt Disco this is not good, equating to just 50 vinyl records at £20 each, a fraction of what they would hope to sell after a performance to a typical 500-strong crowd.
“Genuinely we were getting to the stage where you’re thinking, ‘Is it worth going to that place to play at the moment?’” said Fingland.
“This is about careers. It’s not about a selling a box of spanners into the EU. It’s about whether careers in music can be sustained for 10, 20, 40 years.”
Walt Disco’s experience was typical for small bands trying to forge their careers with EU tours in 2022, said James Ainscough, the chief executive of Help Musicians, which established a £250,000 fund this spring to help young musicians deal with Brexit.
“The time the Beatles spent performing in Hamburg before their record contract was formative to their sound,” said Ainscough. “It’s where they learned their harmonies and learned how to play incredibly tightly and come together as a band. You only get that from the act of performing live frequently and seeing what works and what doesn’t before a crowd.
“The barriers Brexit has put up means these types of careers are being held back, possibly even curtailed as some musicians will give up.
“Most musicians are freelancers. They are small businesses. They’re exactly the kind of people that the Conservative party ought to be cherishing. These are people who, in Norman Tebbit’s terminology, got on their bikes and went off and found work.
“One of the cool things they ought to do is take the shackles off the music industry and allow UK music to get back to the global stage.”
Si has another view: “They probably know that musicians and creative people are not Conservative voters. Why would they appease us? From a Scottish perspective, a lot of Scottish musicians can’t wait to vote for independence because that feels like our only way back to the EU.”