TAITMAIL The day the music died

Was it February 3, 1959, when the headline mourned the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper in a plane crash? Or was it December 31, 2020?

That might seem melodramatic, something politicians have always accused artists of being when it comes to funding, but it is that serious now: touring for actors, theatre companies, dancers, exhibitions and especially musicians, and their technicians, is vital if they are to stay solvent and maintain the high standards that make them popular at European venues. Covid has been financially catastrophic, the £1.6bn Cultural Recovery Fund has no forward planning in it, and without the prospect of touring it’s hard to see a way out of the path to Armageddon.

If we’re in a funeral procession the pall bearers are not the EU but the DCMS on one side and the Home Office, with its inexplicable blindness to culture, on the other. But this is not about culture, it’s about not letting unwanted aliens in, and any movement deal for creatives would be a two way street.

The Brexit trade agreement was eventually signed on Christmas Eve, and on December 29 it emerged that a clause giving touring artists, notably musicians again, free movement had not been agreed and a petition was got up which got 250,000 signatures because the deal would “affect tens of thousands of people in the UK’s creative industries, including film-makers, technicians and models as well as performers”.

The deal with the European Union on Short Term Business Visitors specifically excludes the creative industries - musicians, artists, entertainers, film and audio producers and their accompanying staff. What’s left is a whole mess of red tape, visa applications to individual states, work permits, the mounds of paperwork beloved by bureaucrats and despised by artists, and ballooning costs.

British and EU negotiators blamed each other. This week Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said Britain had rejected an offer of exemptions for artists; the Brits said the EU proposal would not have allowed support staff to tour.

But that looks negotiable, doesn’t it? The signatories of a letter to The Times on Wednesday, including Elton John, Judith Weir, Nicola Benedetti, Ed Sheeran, Simon Rattle and Liam Gallagher, thought so too. “British musicians, dancers, actors and their support staff have been shamefully failed by their government” they said. “The deal done with the EU has a gaping hole where the promised free movement for musicians should be… We urge the government to do what it said it would do and negotiate paperwork-free travel in Europe for British artists and their equipment”.

The government was not moved. Culture minister Caroline Dinenage high-tailed it into the Commons the same day to declare that HMG would not be pursuing a waiver scheme for touring British artists. According to an EU official talking to The Guardian the UK had turned down its standard proposal of 90 days’ work in a 180-day period, a standard arrangement normally covering musicians, sports people and journalists that could have been expanded to include technical staff had the UK been willing to negotiate on freedom of movement, the official said. “Would we have had an issue with it? Not necessarily. We were proposing our standard list [of exemptions]. If we had begun discussions in [mobility], maybe that would have been different. But the UK refused to engage in our discussions at all. That’s the most important point” they’re quoted as saying.

Our symphony orchestras in particular depend for a large part of their income on touring to Europe. Popular as they are with audiences abroad, they are notoriously under-subsidised in comparison to European bands so they have to charge accordingly, and in the inevitable post-pandemic cutbacks they will find themselves needing to be extra competitive.  

The government has been resisting lobbying from all quarters of the creative sector, with The Musicians Union campaigning for a two year “musicians’ passport” encompassing all EU member states. That is not being pursued, reiterated Dinenage.

Deborah Annetts, CEO of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, is bewildered by the whole thing. “It is hugely disappointing to see that musicians and other creatives will not be covered by visa-free short-term business trip provisions” she said. “After everything that the sector has been through over the past ten months, how has this happened?” 

Caroline Norbury of the Creative Industries Federation chose a more diplomatic turn of phrase in a letter directly to Boris Johnson, gently reminding him that the sector has been worth £46bn in exported goods and services, and had been growing at four times the rate and creating three times more jobs than the economy as a whole. “However, the outcome of the UK’s trade deal with the European Union on Short Term Business Visitors means that delivering these services, when possible once again, will now come at a higher cost in both time and money, impacting those on low incomes and with small margins the most” she wrote. 

Impasse. Dinenage stands by the claim that the EU rejected a “tailored deal” that would have allowed performers and support staff to tour the EU with ease which the EU, she said, decided was not fit for purpose. The EU counter proposal would only have covered “ad hoc” performances and would exclude essential technical and support staff. 

So are we hearing the scream of twisted steel being mangled and the roar of a dying engine in a cultural plane crash? Well, while the politicians are acutely aware, as ever, and have taken to heart that artists as a body have been stubbornly opposed to Brexit, those working beneath the ministerial crust have not quite given up.  

Not all the 27 EU states are hostile to British box office possibilities and I gather the DCMS is quietly looking at ways in which it and our creatives could work with specific states, Germany, France, the Netherlands might be in the frame, to find ways of making individual arrangements with governments within a recognised framework. 

And then, it’s difficult to square all this with the government’s promise that “Musicians and performers are a valued and important part of U.K. culture. The U.K. attracts world class artists, entertainers and musicians and that’s not going to change under the new system". 

That’s a quote from the Home Office back in 2019 when people like the MU were expressing concerns about the impact of Brexit. But isn’t this the same Home Office that has form here? Only in 2018 the Edinburgh Festival was turned upside down when officials barred a dozen overseas writers from attending; then there were the prominent Egyptologists from, all of places, Egypt, banned from attended an academic get together at Swansea University; musicians from Nigeria and Ghana were refused permission to attend the Womad Festival of World Music; and, if you can credit it, African medical experts on Ebola virus turned away after arriving here for a conference on... Ebola. 

The logic of the government’s position is unstated but obvious. Writers and musicians from “shit countries”, as the unlamented ex-President Trump liked to term them, don’t really come to our shores to do what they are trained for, entertaining and enlightening audiences. The penpushers and the politicians who instruct them think that these so called “artists”, just like eminent Arab academics and virologists from Africa, are here to sneak in by the back door.to live in our marvellous country 

The only way to stop this kind of carry-on is to “take back control” of our borders by leaving the EU and so put  an end to free movement and thus lumping European musicians in with their counterparts from the rest of the world. Seen through this prism, and it’s the only world view that the Home Office will countenance, the idea that European musicians could wander in and out past our borders is anathema and if that means that UK performers are sacrificed on the altar of “take back control”, so be it. 

It’s significant that in the commons debate Caroline Dinenage kept on referring to the ending of free movement as a manifesto pledge. That’s not the DCMS talking – that’s the Home Office. If there is progress to be made on this issue, the negotiating needs to start with Priti Patel, not Dinenage’s boss Oliver Dowden.

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