It’s time to face the music – four years on from Brexit

Meme by Anthea Bareham

Four years on from Brexit and I’m taking a look at how various industries have been affected by the realities of our decision to leave the European Union (EU). I’ve already looked at How fishing was gutted by Brexit, and how Brexit has impacted farming. In this article I want to look at how Brexit has impacted the creative industry, focussing mainly on the music industry.

Despite UK music being a £5.8bn industry which supports 200,000 jobs from creators to record labels, music publishers to crew and venues, the Brexit deal negotiated by Johnson completely failed to provide any support for the music industry. UK Music says that the industry generates £2.9bn in exports, and that the EU is a key market in those exports. With artists making less money, in the days of people streaming rather than buying, touring and live gigs form a big part of their revenue.

In a recent survey of musicians, almost half reported less work in the EU, with a quarter reporting that all EU work had dried up for them. Cancelled work, increased costs, problems with visas, equipment, and merchandise, have made touring hugely problematic for all but the biggest names.

This has hit musicians, sound engineers, promotors, conductors, agents and so many others in the industry, across the board from pop to classical, RnB to musical theatre. UK British musicians have lost an average of £11,545 of income since the UK left the EU.

Before Brexit, British musicians could play a gig in Berlin or Brussels with exactly the same level of paperwork as they need to play in Birmingham. But all of that has changed.


Where once visas were not required, artists and their crews now need to navigate up to 27 different countries’ requirements, especially if planning to tour multiple countries. Some allow visa free touring for visiting musicians, but some do not, and adding to the complications, there is an overall limit on the number of days you can spend in the EU as a whole each year. Then there are the particular requirements in each country, such as the need for musicians to be employed by a specific venue in France.

Understanding the rules, sorting all the paperwork, and paying all the associated costs make working across the EU so much harder than it used to be. Applications often require additional paperwork and expenditure such as multiple copies of documents, translation of documents, certification of documents, police certificates, and proof of higher education qualifications, income and health insurance.

Tours involving large groups of people, such as an orchestra, or tours of several different countries are simply proving unworkable. This is because costs and paperwork increase the more people and locations there are involved. Furthermore, this not only includes the artists themselves but also members of their support staff.

Carnets and cabotage

Unfortunately, the costs and red tape don’t end with just the people themselves. Musicians bringing instruments into the EU require a customs document, known as an ATA Carnet, and if the instrument contains materials from endangered species such as ivory, tortoiseshell or Brazilian Rosewood, then a further Musical Instrument Certificate is required. This requires a declaration of all the material used, including the Latin subspecies name, with people being asked to provide DNA evidence if they don’t know which of the six species of tortoiseshell the 18th century violin maker used! And still the hassle continues. To bring such an instrument into the EU, you are required to travel through a Designated Port to get your certificate stamped at the border, and yet places like St Pancras Eurostar do not have those facilities.

Since Brexit, UK hauliers are restricted on the amount of travel they can undertake within the EU, known as cabotage. This restricts the numbers of countries they can drive through in any given period of time – not ideal if you’re transporting equipment for a multi-country tour of Europe. These restrictions are not faced by EU drivers, meaning they are far more likely to get the contract for work than a British driver.


As if restrictions on people, travel, equipment, and logistics weren’t enough, selling merchandise has also become much harder. Items such as CDs and t-shirts brought into the EU for sale need to have new import duties on them, paid upfront by the artist. Anything unsold then needs more paperwork to reclaim that import duty on return. Bands selling merchandise online to the EU are also hit with import duties, sometimes doubling the cost to the customer.

Of course, all of this cost and admin can be absorbed if you’re an Ed Sheeran or an Adele, but if you’re an up-and-coming artist, or even an established small to medium band, this simply makes playing in the EU no longer viable.

EU musicians

It’s not just British musicians who are suffering. The need for visas, carnets and time limits on days, are all applicable to EU musicians working in the UK.

While the number of British musicians scheduled to play across European festivals in 2023 had fallen by 32 per cent compared to 2017-19, European musicians scheduled to play at major festivals across the UK had fallen by 40 per cent compared to the same period.

Non-European musicians, such as US bands have also found that the additional admin and expense for entering the UK while touring the EU, simply isn’t worth it.

The music industry is one that has always thrived on cultural exchanges, and Brexit is making this so much harder. A form of soft power for the UK, the music industry is now fearful of losing our status as the cultural hub we used to be.

Personal experiences

While I can provide all the facts and figures, I’ve found it really powerful to hear from the people directly affected by these changes. So, I am including their words to highlight the reality of Brexit on their livelihoods.

Ian Telfer, musician in folk rock band, Oysterband (in interview with me):

“If you are a hit act, your record company can probably pay people to do the extra paperwork. If you’re just starting out, the paperwork is extremely daunting and alarmingly expensive. A carnet not only takes a long time to compile, listing the brand, weight, replacement value and country of origin of every last cable and guitar pick, but there’s a substantial fee attached. Brexit hasn’t just increased costs and decreased profit, but because there’s no way to know how long our band bus might be detained at customs to have the carnet stamped on the way out, both in UK and in France, I have to buy flexible tickets instead of fixed ones, at twice the price. It all adds up.

“I’d say Brexit has added about £1,500 to the costs of touring in the EU – making one-off festival shows impractical. But imagine the case of a young band offered, as we were out of the blue in the 1980s, a tour of tiny venues in Italy – little money but great excitement and valuable experience. Could you afford now to go, with the added carnet expense?

“Brexit feels like another step towards making the arts the preserve of the already comfortably-off. More broadly, I’d say the suppression of freedom of movement has a deadening effect on all performing arts.”

A Greek guitarist/composer (in an interview with me):

“I have been living in London for over 20 years and I have seen how things were before and after Brexit. I’ve noticed that after Brexit most festivals and venues have switched from a mix of international and local artists to mostly local (British) artists, especially for emerging and upcoming artists (big names are of course not affected by this).

“After Brexit a lot of European artists left the UK. What this means for me is that there is a smaller international scene of musicians and artists in London to network, perform together and collaborate. I think that London is not as international (or European) and artist-friendly as it used to be, quite the opposite nowadays, and that other cities (Berlin, Athens) could be a more suitable long term solution for me.”

Singer/songwriter, Katie Melua has said:

“Having recently toured Europe both on a headline tour and a series of summer shows I can testify that touring post Brexit has created certain challenging side-effects felt by my team as well as my crew. Our costs of touring, especially for transport and accommodation, has risen by approximately 25-30 per cent on previous years. In addition, there remain vague protocols around taxation and compliance which has generated increased accountancy fees.”

Blur frontman, Daman Albarn:

“Before Brexit you could be a young band and go over to Europe and play bottom of the bill at festivals. You could camp and you wouldn’t be paid hardly anything, but the experience would be life changing. But that kind of creativity has been curtailed for people on this island because its expensive now and it’s not straightforward. Brexit has been a travesty.”

Maxïmo Park lead singer, Paul Smith:

“I’ve seen the situation from the viewpoint of a larger touring band, where Maxïmo Park’s European tour costs have rocketed across the board, and with my folk duo Unthank: Smith, where our single Irish show became very stressful due to a lack of clarity over what merchandise, or even which instruments, we could bring with us. Cultural exchange is vitally important to a forward-thinking country, and our specialist industry requires a more bespoke approach from the government in order to enhance both economic and artistic output for UK musicians.”

Everything Everything bassist, Jeremy Pritchard:

“Young and developing artists benefit immeasurably from playing mainland Europe. Not only does it broaden your audience and horizons, but it makes you a richer person and artist, which in turn goes back into the work itself. I used to see artists from the USA and Canada base themselves in the UK for whole summer festival seasons in order to take advantage of our then enviable access to Europe. It was a privilege, as was the economic dominance of UK music on the European live music scene. We cannot expect that to continue under current conditions. Excellent lower and middle tier UK artists are now excluded from European shows by the associated costs, admin and man hours implied by Brexit, which simply make European touring unviable. At the higher end, headline artists in Europe are fewer, as it’s more onerous to book UK acts, which is yet more loss to the UK public purse.”

Steve Barney, a drummer wrote a great open letter about how the limit on days spent in EU countries meant that he lost his job of twelve years, as there was no legal way for him to extend his time in Europe. The band simply replaced him with an EU drummer.

An Independent Society of Musicians survey received some of the following views:

“It’s been impossible to be heard/audition in European opera houses since 1 January 2021. European opera companies are reluctant to audition UK singers since the changes.”

“An extra day of travel is required to go in and out of the EU. This means the vehicle has to leave a day early for an EU tour, adding an extra day of van hire, extra day of backline hire, extra day of wages for all crew and extra day of wages for all musicians.”

“Many of my clients have fallen foul of the 90-in-180-day travel restrictions. Some have lost out on tens of thousands of pounds of work as a result.”

Other creatives

It’s not just touring musicians, their road crew and technical support facing these issues – other creatives such as fashion designers are finding the paperwork and costs prohibitive. Where, once, they could nip over to Paris or Milan with a case full of clothes, now they need visas and customs declarations, and risk hold-ups at the border, damaging both their reputations and pockets.

Fashion Photographer, Bettina Struff says;

“I’m a fashion photographer and I’ve had no work in the EU since Brexit. The paperwork and costs involved for a one-day gig are literally impossible to justify unless you’re a big name with a dedicated admin team. If I did a gig in the EU now it would be at a loss. So I don’t.”

Industrial Photographer, Charlie Fawell says;

“I’m an industrial photographer working in the corporate sector. For a four or five day job in the States or other assignments further afield, the client would wear the cost of a carnet but for a quick jaunt over to Europe it’s just no longer cost effective”


The upshot of all this added red tape and expense is that British musicians just aren’t worth the hassle, when EU venues and festivals are looking to book. Brexit has put an end to the common industry practice, whereby musicians are asked to fill last-minute vacancies in a festival line up, for British artists.

The cultural importance of mixing and collaborating across the continent has been all but wiped out for many British musicians, not just in Europe but for foreign musicians coming to the UK too.

Brexit has been, in Daman Albarn’s words, a travesty for the music industry. Better solutions need to be found by the next government to ease the restrictions and costs for those within this multi-billion pound industry.

And it’s important to remember these issues are faced right across the creative sector – a sector where Britain is known for being a global powerhouse. Our reputation has been diminished by Brexit, and it is heart breaking to know that for the next generation of artists and musicians, their horizons are far, far smaller than those who came before them.