This week the Mercury Awards once again showcased the incredible talent and diversity that is British music at its best. Thousands, including some of the biggest stars in world music, crammed into the Hammersmith Apollo on Thursday as a huge audience tuned in on television and radio.
The voracious appetite for British music around the world has never been greater and has pushed our exports up 11% to a new high of £365million last year, according to recent figures from the BPI.
Tracks from Ed Sheeran’s third album were streamed over a billion times in the US alone this year. The same album debuted at number one in nine EU countries. Human by Rag’n’Bone Man topped the charts in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Adele’s last album sold over 20million copies worldwide and she joined Coldplay, the Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney in the top ten grossing worldwide music tours of last year. Major British acts Stomzy and Skepta are reaching new overseas markets all the time.
In fact, breaking new markets across the globe has been the key to the growing success of the UK music industry which is now worth more than £4billion to our economy. That is why it is vital for both the music business and the wider British economy, that nothing imperils that success.
It’s true that leaving the EU may open the door to new trade deals and could unlock barriers in established markets like the US. Trade deals could also create a framework in the fast-developing economies of the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to further boost music exports.
But the current uncertainty and lack of clarity about the Government’s Brexit plans threatens our success. It means some investment opportunities are on hold and long-term planning is seriously hampered.
That’s why it was welcome that the Conservative Government and the Labour Opposition are now talking of a post-Brexit transition period that will entail interim arrangements to help business adjust to what is likely to be a seismic set of changes. The Government must now prioritise achieving an agreement on a transitionary period by the end of this year to provide a degree of certainty.
To give that much-needed clarity, the Government must also commit to continued membership of the Single Market as part of any transitionary period. This would avoid a cliff-edge Brexit and allow individuals and businesses to stagger any changes in operations.
Copyright is of fundamental importance to the music industry. UK legislation is based on EU Directives that provide a high level of protection for copyright. This framework needs to be maintained and strengthened post-Brexit.
Leaving the European Union is also likely to result in new rules that restrict freedom of movement for people. That could have a serious impact on touring musicians and crews, and risk limiting millions of fans keen to see their favourite UK acts.
At present, there are no travel restrictions for UK artists performing in the EU. This means artists can play a gig in Amsterdam one night and then simply travel to Paris for a concert the next with no associated costs, red tape or other financial burdens.
It is a different story for artists and musicians from outside the European Union. For example, France requires work permits for performances by artists from non-EU countries. These can only be acquired following a lengthy and complex process administered by French promoters. For UK artists, who are used to short-term visits, this would be a major and costly change.
Theresa May has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to assess potential changes to our immigration system in light of Brexit. When it comes to the our music industry, we need a reciprocal system that supports temporary short-term permissions and exemptions for musicians and crews - both for those coming to the UK and those performing in the EU - to keep our touring industry vibrant and thriving.
The UK already operates a more complicated system for performing musicians coming from outside the EU than other member states. If the UK were to apply this to the EU following Brexit, there would undoubtedly be a risk of countries within the EU following suit - a prospect that would only harm our industry.
While there is no pan-EU agreement on work permits and visas for non-EU nationals, the Government should seek a single EU-wide live music ‘touring passport’ to avoid new restrictions, costs and bureaucracy on our artists and musicians. This new passport would be a vital asset in keeping UK music on the road across the world, showing off our cultural talent and continuing to support exports.
So this week, whilst the great and good from the music industry partied in the night away at the Mercury Awards in west London, a few miles across the capital in Westminster MPs returned to their constituencies after voting on the first stage of a Bill to sever Britain’s links with the European Union.
As EU negotiator Michel Barnier said, the clock is well and truly ticking on the countdown to Brexit Day on 29 March 2019. Brexit represents a huge potential threat to the British music industry. We can’t afford to mess this up.
Michael Dugher is chief executive of UK Music and a former Labour MP and shadow culture secretary.