Yorkshire artists face lost livelihood under Brexit

The importance of freedom of movement for working musicians

A man sitting on a large couch next to a guitar.

3 chords and the truth. According to music legend, that’s all you needed. For Huddersfield Alt-folk artist Johnny Campbell, it’s held true for the last seven years as a pro musician. 

Touring on trains and coaches all over Europe and the USA, guitar in one hand, rucksack of merchandise in the other, free movement has allowed Johnny to make a living performing his high-energy versions of traditional English folk songs mixed seamlessly with his own originals.

Until now.

When Britain finally leaves the EU on 1 January 2021, Johnny will have to fork out £244 for a visa every time he wants to work outside the UK. Not only that, but Brexit will see the return of the dreaded carnet: the forensic inventory of every instrument, string and plectrum (complete with serial numbers), that still strikes terror into the hearts of veteran musicians who can remember standing around for hours in freezing port car-parks while officials demanded to know what had happened to those two top E strings.

Not only that, but in the smaller, independent venues where Johnny works, artists are paid with a collection and their earnings supplemented by selling CDs. Under the new rules, such artists will have to fill out forms to pay tax in each country they visit, making touring unviable for all but the biggest artists. 

Of course, the biggest-selling artists don’t start off big: the Beatles went to learn their craft in Hamburg in a rickety Bedford van hiding George Harrison under luggage as he was still under 18. In 2017, the UK music industry was worth £4.5 billion, £2.6 billion of which was earned in export revenues. A multi-million selling artist like Ed Sheeran, who began by touring solo all over Europe in the same way Johnny does, would simply not be able to make it pay.

But it’s not just solo artists, as Johnny explains:

“Imagine a 30 piece orchestra all having to pay the £244 visa application. I think this will put an end to small-scale DIY acts taking a van with equipment abroad as the financial margins become too risky.”

But can’t solo acts like his do what musicians used to do, and bluff their way into Europe?

“I can see many musicians getting their merchandise printed within the EU and touring there ‘undercover,’ which is ludicrous to do if you’re a professional artist.”

“One hopeful thing is the Musician’s Union’s ‘Musician’s Passport’ campaign, encouraging government to put forward an affordable and easy visa which lasts for two years.”

“The only artists who can afford to suck up these costs are already established acts with funding and money. The reality of the music industry is the lifeblood of small venues and the acts who perform there. Culturally it is regressional.”

Johnny still has his guitar and his truth. Time will tell if he still has a living this time next year.

Find out more information about the MU’s campaign.

Can you help us reach more readers?