Britain’s music is being silenced by ministerial failure

Published by The Times (20th July, 2022)

Britain does not have many world-leading industries but our music business is most definitely one, relentlessly churning out hits and stars since the 1960s. It is built on the thrill of live performances, and in the year before the pandemic, Ed Sheeran joined older stagers Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones among the top ten grossing tours worldwide.

Stadium acts are at the apex of an entrepreneurial sector that fans out into clubs across the country, employing 200,000 people and adding almost £6 billion to the economy before Covid. Musicians who start out noodling on computers in bedrooms or strumming guitars in dingy pubs have helped make us the world’s second biggest exporter of music.

They develop their talent and build fanbases on tours, aided by highly skilled crew. But now there is discord thanks to the double whammy of Brexit and Covid. Two years without gigs during the pandemic forced sound engineers, lighting experts and tour staff into new jobs. As artists get shows back on the road, the frantic search for highly specialised crew has been the talk of backstage bars at festivals. Many technicians found they preferred the stability of work in shops or warehouses to their previous itinerant lifestyle. Even big acts are postponing or curtailing tours.

Then there is Brexit. Ministers promised that free movement for musicians would be protected. Their failure to deliver has been devastating. Artists and managers must navigate a complex, confusing and costly system, with strict limits on how long they can stay in the main touring market of the European Union.

An inquiry by the all-party group of MPs on music was told of cancelled tours, shows rejected due to red tape, expensive carnets restricting movement of instruments and gear, charges on merchandising. “It’s especially tough for those working in orchestras, musical theatre and opera,” says Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, chief executive of Music UK.

Throw into the mix the struggle to secure entry for visiting artists in our torturous visa system, especially from Africa or Latin America. One hotly tipped band hoping to make its British debut at the Womad festival next weekend is Comorian, from the Comoros Islands, but after two months it remains unclear if it will receive visas in time. Africa Express, a project I founded with Damon Albarn and Baaba Maal, has had to leave out some artists for our first show for three years, in Southend.

Britain’s music brings in billions for the Treasury and joy to millions. But if the government does not get its act together the curtain will fall on six decades of success.

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