Monday, 20 June 2016

The bland assertions of a Culture Secretary aren't enough, nor is the quiet compliance of our commentators

I've written here about this recently but am returning to it because I am, frankly, stunned at the lack of insight being given by the music media to the effects of a Brexit vote on the UK music industry. Last week Music Week reported briefly that Culture Secretary John Wittingdale had deigned to recognise one of the UK's biggest export successes by asserting that 'British music will continue to go on thriving' no matter what the result of the vote on Thursday.

This is, quite palpably, rubbish. Talk to anyone at the coalface of the music industry and they will quickly draw up a list of the issues that a Leave vote will bring to light. In recent weeks I have talked to fellow managers, agents, record company bosses and promoters. All are concerned, none are sure of what the vote would mean should it go for Leave but all are adamant that it won't be good for us.

Chief amongst our worries is the effect on touring Europe. This doesn't just affect the bottom line of bands. Add in management, agents and record companies (all of whom now rely on pipeline income from a percentage share of live income from their signed artists) and we all find ourselves looking at more red tape, less harmonisation, less certainty. Whittingdale seemed (from the scant coverage available) to be of the opinion that Adele's global success seems to equate to an open world of opportunity for UK artists. Again, this is simply not the case.

I've already covered the significant and prohibitve costs of US touring in the previous post but music, almost uniquely amongst UK export industries, is far more wedded to Europe than any other area. Partly this is cost. The budget required to tour Europe is, outside of domestic touring, the lowest option available.

No visas are a massive part of that equation, tax deals add to the increase in bottom line, whether Holland's straighforward regime or the more complicated, but workable, systems that you encounter in Germany, France and elsewhere where you may end up seeing some of the fee return a year later in the shape of withholding tax depending on approach and form filling and other factors. But geography plays an obvious part. A ferry carrying your entire band and crew on one bus is a much more economically sound option than a clutch of flights, whether transatlantic or far far away to Japan or Australia.

We are not like manufacturing where the new markets of China and India are open to us fully. Cultural differences may be eroding but the symbiosis between mainland Europe and the UK in cultural terms has been developed over 1000 years (2000 if you want with the Roman Empire) of shared cultural experiences, music chief amongst those. In time China and India may become big markets for UK music, the green shoots are there (although Chinese visas especially are costly and hard to obtain) but if you want to talk about the markets that matter for profit, for most bands Europe is key.

A Leave vote will not mean an immediate European rejection of UK bands. However, loading of costs and uncertainty into visa regimes, whether in terms of bottom line fees or administration costs to obtain them, will dampen both the desire to book UK acts and also the profits that such touring can deliver back to UK acts and music businesses and, ultimately, to the UK exchequer in tax receipts, not to mention the benefits of the 'soft power' that UK bands deliver on the continent by their popularity and availability. Being outside collective agreement on copyright and intellectual property will excacerbate differences and income. As I have said before import and export tax will add to cost and bear in mind a LOT of UK vinyl is pressed outside of this country.

As a final thought, I recently talked to a prominent booking agent about the US experience for UK touring acts. Although anecdotal, he told me that he knew of three bands that had made a profit touring the USA last year. My experience and those of other industry contacts tallies with that. You tour Europe to grow fanbase and create profit. You spend money to grow fanbase everywhere else unless you are a mega band.

This is a far more complicated argument than one blog post from me can deliver in totality. Further, it requires some more information from the other side as to what they actually envisage being the situation post Brexit. Having searched for such information high and low I see nothing on which I can develop an alternative vision. This is an argument against the wider Leave campaign for me personally but the music industry and the music media really should be holding feet to fires of those arguing for Leave involved in our cultural life before the vote takes place. So far, they have failed. They have three days to rectify the issue.

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