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For UK Bands, touring Europe is now a highway to Brexit hell

New rules mean that a British tour van carrying audio and lighting equipment, or merchandise, can make only three stops in mainland Europe before it must return home

By: New York Times | London |
July 20, 2021 10:30:47 pm
Two Door Cinema Club began playing shows across Europe a decade ago. (Source: New York Times)

Written by Alex Marshall

When the British rock band Two Door Cinema Club began playing shows across Europe a decade ago, the group’s three members would jump in a van, throw their instruments in the back and drive from their then-hometown, Belfast, Northern Ireland, to sweaty clubs in Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris.

“We did that hundreds of times,” bassist Kevin Baird said recently by phone. “Everything was at a moment’s notice.”

Now, it’s not so simple for Two Door Cinema Club — or any British act — to tour Europe. On July 9, the band headlined the Cruïlla music festival in Barcelona, Spain, playing to an audience of 25,000 screaming fans. But because of Britain’s 2020 departure from the European Union, known as Brexit, the band spent weeks beforehand applying for visas and immersing themselves in complicated new rules around trucking and exporting merchandise such as T-shirts.

Visas and travel within Britain to apply for them cost 7,500 pounds, about $10,400, for the band, two extra musicians and an eight-person crew, Baird said. New rules mean that a British tour van carrying audio and lighting equipment, or merchandise, can make only three stops in mainland Europe before it must return home.

“It’s proved a headache when there was never a headache before,” Baird said. “If we were a band starting out, we wouldn’t have done it.”

Before British left the E.U., The Door Cinema Club would head off on tours at moment’s notice. (Source: New York Times)

For much of this year, Brexit has been an even bigger talking point in Britain’s music industry than the coronavirus pandemic. Since Jan. 1, when a trade deal between Britain and the EU came into force, hundreds of British musicians — including Dua Lipa and Radiohead — have complained that the deal makes touring the continent more costly for stadium acts, and almost impossible for new bands.

The new rules are “a looming catastrophe” for young musicians, Elton John wrote on Instagram in June.

“This is about whether one of the U.K.’s most successful industries, worth 111 billion pounds a year, is allowed to prosper and contribute hugely to both our cultural and economic wealth, or crash and burn,” he added.

Even musicians who supported Brexit have complained. Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, told a TV interviewer in June that, although he welcomed Britain’s departure from the EU, he found the new rules unreasonable. He then addressed Britain’s government: “Get your act together.”

The furor over the regulations has led to a blame game between Britain’s government and the EU over which side is responsible for the new barriers, and who made viable offers when negotiating the trade deal.

Regardless of who is responsible, the issue has become an embarrassment for the British government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said his government is working “flat out” on the issue.

“We must fix this,” he told lawmakers in March.

Yet so far, there hasn’t been enough progress to appease musicians. In June, Britain agreed to new trade deals that the government said would allow musicians to tour easily in Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This was met with disdain.

Two Door Cinema Club band’s equipments. (Source: New York Times)

“Ah those infamous tours of mountainous Liechtenstein with its total lack of airport,” Simone Marie of the band Primal Scream wrote on Twitter.

“We’re all becoming increasingly despondent,” said Annabella Coldrick, CEO of Music Managers Forum, a trade body.

In June, she helped launch Let the Music Move, a campaign for the government to compensate artists for the new extra costs and renegotiate the tour rules.

“The problems are only just starting to become clear,” as the coronavirus pandemic eases and bands start booking tours, Coldrick said. The biggest sticking point was the regulation that vans and trucks can stop only three times before they must return to Britain, she added.

Several British music trucking businesses have already moved some of their operations to Ireland to get around the rules. But Coldrick said this was not a viable solution: Trucks would also have to make longer journeys to pick bands up, increasing costs. It also seemed like a poor outcome for Britain, she said, because the country was losing companies and workers.

For Two Door Cinema Club, the main issue was visas, said band manager Colin Schaverien. In June, a member of the band’s crew was rejected for a visa on a technicality related to his job title, so he had to reapply. Another band member, based in Belfast, was told they had to fly to Scotland for a visa appointment.

Despite the band’s problems before traveling to Spain, Two Door Cinema Club’s show July 9 went off without a hitch.

“All the things we were worried about didn’t materialize,” Baird said.

Brexit was the last thing on his mind during the gig, he said, but it reared its head the next day when the band and crew headed to the airport to fly home. Members of the group with Irish passports, which everyone born in Northern Ireland can hold as well as a British one, breezed through passport control; those with British passports only were stuck in line for an hour.

The band was pleased with the trip, but Baird was worried about how a more complicated schedule would work.

“We’re all well aware this was a one off concert,” he said. “What we’re apprehensive about is next year when we’re playing three different countries in three days. I expect that will be a lot harder.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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