Many artists can’t afford to tour Spain as Brexit touring fiasco rolls on

Figures from the music industry have spoken to NME about how new visa rules in Spain mean that many UK artists can no longer afford to play there, as anger and frustration at the post-Brexit touring situation continues.

There have now been nine months of very loud criticism from across the music industry, after the government jeopardised the future of touring for UK artists when the Brexit deal secured with the EU failed to negotiate visa-free travel and Europe-wide work permits for musicians and crew.

One particularly sore spot to emerge is that of playing in Spain, with the cost of visas and the bureaucracy involved for artists and their crew to perform in the country proving extremely prohibitive. Rising post-punk bands Squid and Black Country, New Road for example, recently pulled out of Spanish shows “without any hint of rescheduling their respective tours” – as promoters Primavera Sound noted.

Ina Tatarko is one of Squid’s managers and usually works as their tour manager. Speaking to NME, she explained how COVID restrictions coupled with crippling costs meant they’d be unable to perform in the country.

“With the current visa requirements for Spain, which are basically saying that you have to pay for a work visa for £409 per person, we weren’t able to play these smaller shows because it wouldn’t have been financially feasible,” said Takarto. “Basically if you take into account that it’s a five-piece band and you have to pay for at least two of the crew’s visas as well, it’s a lot of money that adds up.”

Squid (Picture: Ashley Bourne for NME)

On the likelihood of the band returning to Spain any time soon, Takarto told NME: “Sadly, it’s just not possible to do anything unless the visa requirements change. We were doing Spain as the end of a big EU run, but thinking of even doing stand-alone shows in Spain is going to be difficult in the future.”

Noting the number, calibre and reputation of “amazing Spanish festivals and promoters”, Takarto said that “it would be such a shame to just have to erase Spain from the touring circuit for UK acts. There are a lot of great tastemaker festivals and industry showcases. It’s definitely a sad situation at the moment.”

She continued: “There are already very good steps by Spanish promoters to talk to their government. They’re putting in a lot of appeals and petitions. If more UK artists and people could speak out about it then the Spanish government could come to an agreement, but it’s a difficult position because the UK has caused this. The UK can’t put the blame on the Spanish government because Brexit is the UK’s fault.”

Black Country, New Road attend the Hyundai Mercury Music Prize 2021 at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith on September 09, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by JMEnternational/Getty Images)
Black Country, New Road attend the Hyundai Mercury Music Prize 2021 (Photo by JMEnternational/Getty Images)

Primavera Sound (who were promoting the pulled shows) posted on their website last month that Spain was “suffering the cancellation of tours that were already programmed and for which money had already been invested, whilst those tours which should now be closed for next year are still up in the air,” adding that “the lack of progress to solve this [visa] problem is leading us dangerously close to a point of no return”.

Javier Arnaiz, director of Madrid’s acclaimed Mad Cool Festival, said that this would have far more of an impact on emerging talent rather than established acts, and that the festival had already had to cancel some UK acts being booked for next year’s event as they “just couldn’t work the numbers out”.

“The truth is, we are talking about an economic issue here,” he told NME. “With Brexit, the costs for bands to be able to travel get really high and therefore it’s just not viable to book them.”

He continued: “It’s crystal clear that if Brexit’s current conditions don’t change, many emerging acts wont be able to grow and develop their careers. This is very dangerous for them as bands need to grow by touring all countries, in small-medium size venues where incomes can’t support the high costs Brexit creates.”

Asked about what needs to be done, Arnaiz replied: “British and Spanish governments should free the cultural sector from all the requirements imposed by Brexit so bands can continue to grow – otherwise many artists wont make it. This is an urgent matter as they will face a high risk of disappearing and we can’t afford that. All band’s cultural creativity should be protected by the governments.”

Wolf Alice at Mad Cool Festival
Wolf Alice on stage at Mad Cool in 2018. Credit: Derek Bremner for NME

Annabella Coldrick is Chief Executive of the Music Manager’s Forum, and spoke to NME about how spiralling costs caused by Brexit in Spain were putting many acts from booking shows there.

“It’s around £300-£400 for a visa to play Spain, but it’s still unclear if you can get the same visa for artists and crew or if you need different ones,” she explained. “Artists are getting different advice depending on if they’re speaking to a Spanish consulate in London or in Manchester. It then ends up costing you more because you have to use a visa specialist to help you complete the paperwork properly.

“A lot of the managers and artists I’ve spoken to are just saying that right now, it’s just not worth their while.”

Telling NME about the true scale of the issue, she continued: “Two Door Cinema Club made it out there recently, but with an additional £8,000 worth of visas. Some are navigating it, but to be able to absorb £8,000 of visa costs you have to be of a certain level already. Even then, that’s wiping out a lot of the money you’d have been making from it before you have to pay the crew.”

Explaining the importance of Spain as a key market to UK artists, Coldrick said: “Festivals are where you make money, but you need to do the headline and support tours in order to build the audience to get those slots and make the cash. If you can’t afford to do the standalone tours, then that endangers the festivals.

“I’m hearing that the Spanish promoters are seriously concerned about the situation. They themselves are lobbying the Spanish government because they’re saying this is just crazy. Festivals are quite a big tourism pull for Spain, and they’re concerned that if they can no longer book British artists due to these additional costs then they won’t sell as many tickets to British fans.”

two door cinema club reading 2021
Two Door Cinema Club at Reading Festival 2021. Credit: Andy Ford for NME

This summer saw the launch of the #LetTheMusicMove campaign, with the likes of Wolf AliceIDLESPoppy Ajudha and Radiohead among the 200 artists calling upon the UK government to urgently take action to resolve the ‘No Deal’ that has landed upon British music. The campaign was headed up by the Featured Artists Coalition, whose CEO David Martin told NME that he was hearing more and more “horror stories” of musicians and crew finding it “unviable” to play in Spain under the current circumstances.

“One established act in particular who travelled with quite a skeleton crew experienced £21,000 of visa costs to play one show in Spain,” said Martin. “The fees are also dropping to below 2019 levels. Tours are just growing more expensive. I have experienced managers telling me they just can’t fill in the forms.”

On what can be done to tackle the issues, Martin said that the UK government need to “fulfil their promises”.

“Firstly, they need to negotiate better terms and to reduce the barriers for artists and crew,” he said. “Secondly, to provide good quality guidance – which they haven’t done because they claim it’s not their job to provide that for other member states’ rules. I completely oppose that opinion because they published guidance about every country on Earth’s various rules on the Foreign Office. It’s not something they can’t do, it’s just something they’re unwilling to do. Everything they’ve published has been awful.”

He added: “Thirdly, in the interim we just need a transitional financial support package so that bands like Squid and Black Country, New Road aren’t having to cancel tours. These are artists who have had really successful years and aren’t able to go and tour in one of our biggest markets in Spain. It’s insane.”

Radiohead performs live during a concert at the Kindl Buehne Wuhlheide on September 29, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jakubaszek/Redferns via Getty Images)
Radiohead performs live during a concert at the Kindl Buehne Wuhlheide on September 29, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jakubaszek/Redferns via Getty Images)

Beyond the Spanish situation, the UK music industry at large still feels frustrated at the lack of progress from the government in overcoming the many obstacles created by their lack of post-Brexit touring planning for musicians and crew.

“In general, we are luckily in a position where we can make it work because we have an infrastructure around us,” said Squid manager Ina Tatarko. “It is definitely very tricky for a lot of other bands and artists that are depending on being able to tour in the EU and survive on merch sales.”

She added: “It’s been super-frustrating that you now have to pay customs to take your merch items into the EU. You have to get carnets for all your equipment and all the costs that weren’t there before are just adding up. For emerging artists, these are costs that they can’t front from anywhere. A European support tour would be a really great way to elevate their career and profiles, but this just filters a lot of them out because you’d have to have the funds to do it.”

Coldrick from the MMF meanwhile, damned the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s “incredibly slow” pace of action on the Brexit-touring matter. “They seem to just be spending months fact-finding,” she said. “Their last ‘announcement’ when they’re celebrated not needing visas in 19 out of 27 countries, they’d just done some fact-finding on the existing situation we all knew about – they hadn’t done any new deals. We’re still putting pressure on them to do something but we’re feeling incredibly frustrated with the lack of progress.”

Also calling for a transition fund in the Autumn Budget to help artists shoulder the new costs of touring the EU, Coldrick pointed to how many of the problems still related to transport and merchandise. While a government spokesperson told NME that Brexit will not change rules for splitter vans (meaning that equipment and people can be transported together), new regulations meant that many touring acts could still stand to make a substantial loss.

“The transport costs are quite serious,” said Coldrick. “It can be thousands of pounds extra per truck. This is the argument we’re having with the government. They’re saying, ‘Oh, you don’t need a visa for France, Germany or The Netherlands’, and we’re saying, ‘We take merch with us so these tours will now make a loss because that was the only way you’d make money.”

rock en seine
Yannis Philippakis from Foals performs at Rock en Seine on August 28, 2016 in Paris, France. (Picture: David Wolff – Patrick/Redferns)

This comes after figures from the UK’s live music industry warned that a “massive” amount of jobs and taxable income will be lost to the EU under the current Brexit deal, due to it making touring “nigh on impossible” for road crew. Cabotage rules currently mean that trucks travelling from the UK are only allowed to make one stop in an EU state before having just seven days to make a maximum of two more before returning home.

On what this means for the UK in real-terms, Coldrick explained: “You can no longer take a lorry from here and drive round all those countries. Instead you’re going to have to work with a European operator, so you’re going to have to pay a load extra to either get them to come over from Ireland or The Netherlands to pick you and do the tour.

“They’re going to be driving around with bloody empty lorries in order to do the collections and drop-offs. That costs money, and an awful lot of artists don’t have it.”

She went on: “All our crew who usually start touring here and then go around Europe won’t be hired here because it’ll be too expensive to get them visas. They’ll be using drivers and trucks from Europe rather than the UK. It’s pretty damaging to our industry as a whole and the government just doesn’t seem to get it.”

Having “spent so much time sitting in meeting after meeting,” Coldrick said that she was dismayed that the government continually seem to be “clarifying the mess they’ve made but not solving any of it“.

“They could at the very least treat music with the respect it deserves as a big exporter for the UK and pick up the additional costs that they’ve imposed on us as a result of Brexit – and they’re not even doing that,” she added.

Responding to the industry’s latest concerns shared with NME, A DCMS spokesperson said that the government were actively engaging with the eight Member States that have not confirmed that they offer visa or work permit free routes for touring professionals (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Portugal, Romania, and Spain) and “encouraging them to closely align to the UK’s more generous rules”. They also added that UK ministers and diplomats had been meeting with their Spanish counterparts in recent months in an attempt to resolve the issue.

“We want our creative professionals to tour abroad easily,” a government spokesperson told NME. “We have worked at pace and spoken to every EU Member State about the importance of touring, and 19 EU Member States have confirmed they offer visa and work permit free routes for performers and other creative professionals. This includes most of the biggest touring markets, including France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

“We recognise Spain is a particular challenge and urgent discussions are ongoing at ministerial and official level. We are working with the remaining countries to encourage them to match the UK’s generous arrangements, which allow creative professionals to tour here easily.”

Brexit protestors
Protestors demonstrate against Brexit CREDIT: Getty Images

This all comes after predictions that new rules and red tape would lead to musicians and crew facing huge costs to future live music tours of the continent – which could create a glass ceiling that prevents rising and developing talent from being able to afford to do so.

Amid months of inaction, the government has often been accused of treating the £6billion music sector like “an afterthought” in Brexit negotiations, compared to the £1.2billion fishing industry.

A recent poll found  that the majority of UK voters wanted the government to be doing more to solve the post-Brexit touring fiasco for musicians and crew, after over 280,000 people signed a petition calling for visa-free touring through the EU to be established for artists and crew.