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Touring Musicians Aren’t Just Being Misrepresented By MPs. They’re Misrepresenting Themselves Too.

Isn’t it odd that with all things pandemic pervading the news this year, Brexit almost feels passé by comparison. The aftershocks of Brexit are, however, continuing to threaten musicians’ livelihoods like almost nothing else ever has. The recently launched #LetTheMusicMove initiative, in its own words,

…invites all artists, music professionals and fans to call on the UK government to do more to support the future of the music industry, and mitigate the Brexit-related impacts of restrictions, costs and delays on European touring.

If, like a quarter of a million other people, you signed the government petition ‘Seek Europe-wide Visa-free work permit for Touring professionals and Artists’ then you may have received an email today proudly declaring that on June 29th the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee met to question the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost and the Minister for Digital and Culture Caroline Dinenage about, well, what the hell the government has actually been doing. I (William) watched it, I read the transcript and I found that answer is: not a lot. I’m not sure I could put it much better than Welsh Labour MP Kevin Brennan’s scathing rebuke of Frost’s blatant apathy:

We have been trying to talk to you for several months. I recently read a reply to a letter that was sent to you by the Carry On Touring Campaign, who presented a petition to Parliament with 286,000 signatures. But the reply to them did not come from you, but from someone called ‘Olly’ —there was no surname supplied on the response— from a correspondence officer in the Cabinet Office. Why would any reasonable person working in the industry not conclude from your demeanour and inaction on this subject that you do not give a fig about the creative industries?

I’m not here to rant about how little the government cares about our creative industries. We know that already. What staggers me afresh is how, alongside the level of flippancy with which Frost fields some of the committee’s questions, he’s also making surreptitious attempts to actually absolve himself of responsibility:

I think it will be extremely helpful, if I may say so, if the representative bodies of the industry, musicians and touring performers more generally, could support us in that, could use their networks and their relationships with similar bodies in other EU member states to encourage those governments to be less restrictive. We would very much welcome that. I said that to Elton John, in fact, and I will say it to others. We welcome all the support we can get.

So the government needs our support. And there we were thinking it was the other way around! “What does that mean, ‘move it on’?” counters Clive Efford of Labour. “Are we going back to getting the ambassadors to lobby and Elton John to get his mates to ring people up, or is something substantial happening from the Government’s side?”

An an interesting point, though. How much are we musicians lobbying for our own rights? Are we actually taking any action to save our jobs or are we happy to leave it to Lord Frost and ‘Elton John and his mates’? Because the musicians Frost is calling upon are in fact also guilty of misrepresenting the issue. You may remember an open letter signed by the likes of Elton, Liam Gallagher and Ed Sheeran, wielding their clout as significant cultural and economic contributors to the UK and calling on the government to secure musicians’ touring rights. A great step, make no mistake. While it’s a great thing for these high-profile artists to use their platforms to draw attention to such an insidious threat to musicians, though, one particular statement in the letter stands out, and not in a good way:

The extra costs will make many tours unviable, especially for young emerging musicians who are already struggling to keep their heads above water owing to the COVID ban on live music.

On the surface, it’s a good line. It’s great to make it known that it’s not just worldwide pop stars who are being affected by the bleak post-Brexit landscape, and everybody knows that usually you need a household name or two for people to take notice. The first problem, though, is to do with proportional representation. While any tour of Ed Sheeran’s or Elton John’s will both cost and make millions of pounds— an economic impact equivalent to that of dozens of small tours by indie artists— this does not offset the fact that even with a big crew he is still just one person, one artist with one career among thousands of touring artists with thousands of careers. And a vast majority of those artists play in mid-size theatres, bars, venues on boats (there are many), DJ club nights, do in-store performances in record shops, stay in Ibis hotels and so on. They do not tour in a convoy of trucks, play stadia and travel by escort to five star accommodation. In this very real sense, Ed Sheeran and Elton John are in a tiny minority of artists. And when a few speak on behalf of the many, whose experiences are not the same, it is misrepresentative. Which is slightly ironic, is it not, considering how that exact dynamic is essentially what got us into this Brexit mess in the first place. Don’t get me wrong: globally famous artists need supporting through this time as well, very much so. Playing music is not an easy ride nor a financial slam dunk— at any level. But here smaller tours are a footnote in a letter about huge tours. Should it not be the other way around?

This segues somewhat into a second issue, which I suppose is symptomatic of the first. Here it is: it’s absolutely not just ‘young, emerging’ artists who are struggling to keep their heads above water in this time. This statement is quite simply misleading. Many, many of the artists who tour small or mid-size venues and audit their accounts to the penny are hugely experienced musicians with numerous records to their names. This is the shape of their career, not just a stepping stone toward a dream to play arenas. They are not simply green-horned popstars who aren’t world famous yet. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life was Vashti Bunyan at London’s St. Pancras Old Church. She played two nights, both sold out. There can’t have been more than 150 people at each show. Vashti Bunyan is an iconic musician who began her career in the 60s, has collaborated with bands from Animal Collective to the Avalanches and is a canonical name in the British folk Revival lexicon. When she tours again, it’ll mostly be playing venues like St Pancras Old Church. The margins will be small. Her crew will be paid modestly. Her engineer will probably also be her tour manager as well as her drive, as is often the case. ‘Young and emerging’ she is not. She has been a renowned songwriter since before Ed Sheeran was a glint in the milkman’s eye.

Fennesz is another example, a pioneer of ambient music since the 90s who I saw not long ago in London at a packed Jazz Cafe. Fennesz is Austrian, which reminds me that I haven’t even mentioned European artists. Many of these largely depend on reaching the English-speaking music market if they want to be able to tour internationally at all, witness Phoenix, Daft Punk or First Aid Kit. This, of course, is part of the problem: equations like free movement go both ways— a principle we’re somewhat averse to on our small island. As Brennan puts it to Frost:

Never once have I come across anyone on the doorstep saying, “What are you doing to do about all these violinists coming over here from Poland, taking our jobs in this country?” […] We are not talking about people permanently coming to live in the UK, we are talking about having movement of artists and musicians and others in order to earn valuable export currency in an industry in which, as the Chair rightly pointed out, we have an export surplus.

John Nicholson puts it in simple terms for Frost: “The reality is that you sacrificed a £6 billion sector and its workers for Brexit’s anti-free trade movement zealotry.”

I could name dozens if not hundreds of Vashti Bunyans and Fenneszs, Yet it seems this core musical strata, of experienced or cult musicians touring small venues, is being disregarded completely in favour of a lazy ‘next-big-thing-to-superstar’ narrative. Looking after hardworking artists who tour small venues is not just about ‘the future of music.’ It’s about protecting its whole ecosystem, right here and right now. The three of us in Voka Gentle still consider ourselves to be an ‘emerging’ band. We have played big venues and small venues across Europe, from Amsterdam’s Paradiso to a tiny basement in Cologne. Both are fantastic for very different reasons. We do not have any immediate plans to ‘graduate’ from small venues; we simply want to play for our fans, who in return help sustain our career by buying tickets, our records and our merch. If the sizes of venues must grow, so be it. The may well shrink again afterwards. Touring has been a mainstay of our career from day one, a crucial environment in which to develop and learn how best to do what we do.

If there is one good example of the type of voice I’m talking about, it’s Tom Gray of Gomez, who spearheaded last year’s #BrokenRecord campaign about the ethics of digital streaming. ‘Who are Gomez?’ many of you might ask. Others will gasp in horror at that question. The answer is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he is a working musician who is making good noises, and he’s getting results: he appeared directly to a DCMS committee about the issue. It is perfectly illustrative that even as he garnered the support of Nadine Shah, Guy Garvey and Ed O’Brien, people like Quentin Letts of the Times couldn’t resist an infuriatingly condescending and ignorance-betraying jab:

O’Brien plays guitar with Radiohead, which rang a vague bell. Garvey was introduced as “frontman with elbow”. Useful sort to have around. But it turned out Elbow was a band.

I wonder if it’s time for a good old fashioned march. Or maybe a handful of marches. Many British artists won’t remember a less hospitable time to be a working musician, and less and less do I believe we can rely on the voices currently leading the charge to adequately communicate the situation. The point is, action needs to happen from the bottom and from the top, but also from the middle. If you’re a musician, don’t just post on social media. Do something. Organise an outdoor show to raise awareness. Mobilise your fans. If you’re a fan, go to shows. Of all sizes. As soon as you’re able. Go to lots of them. Buy merch. Make up for a year and a half’s dearth of live music. March alongside musicians, because their fight is the fight to bring you the music you love. Let the music move.

Voka Gentle at Paradiso, Amsterdam, 2019


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