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The Who’s Roger Daltrey ‘gets fooled again”

Thursday, 18 February 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

The Who’s Roger Daltrey “gets fooled again” as Brexit fallout leaves British performing arts industry fuming desperate for redo on EU work permits rights

For a performing artist who has spent decades singing about how he “won’t get fooled again” Roger Daltrey – the 76-year-old front-man vocalist for the Who – is proving just how slippery those words can be in real life. As a brazen Brexiteer who has compared the EU to a “mafia” Daltrey is now trying to explain why he is backing a petition signed by nearly 300,000 U.K.-based artists, technicians and other British entertainment industry supporters demanding the British government go back to the table with the EU and negotiate a visa-free work permit.

That petition has triggered a vociferous blame game, finger pointing and recriminations, including heated exchanges during a Feb. 8 British parliament debate on the issue. Questions are raging over why a world-leading 35 billion pound arts and culture industry, which benefited exponentially from the countries’ 47-year EU membership, was abandoned.

Predictably the Boris Johnson-led Tory government has heaped all the blame on the EU for not allowing U.K.-based artists a Brexit “carve out” exemption to work permit rules imposed on all non EU citizens that work in the bloc.

In response the European Commission has referred to negotiating texts it proposed one year ago that would have allowed for work permit exemptions for British artists, sportsmen, journalists and others as part of a trade agreement ”mobility” chapter. That chapter was rejected by the British government, according to the European Commission.

Speaking at the Feb. 8 British parliament debate British Digital and Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage acknowledged that the EU “mobility chapter” was not “consistent with the idea of Brexit that the majority of people in this country voted for.”

Dinenage could provide no answers to why the government could make compromises with the EU on fishing industry access and not for the far more economically valuable performing arts industry.

The ins and outs of the Brexit treaty negotiations aside, ultimately it is clear U.K. artists and the highly skilled productions teams including lighting, sound, video technicians that make the show go not only in the U.K. but at many EU festivals were sacrificed on the alter of a hard Brexit. The overriding Tory Party demand to “take control of the borders” in the name of a “sovereign, independent nation” was more important.

That demand is all too familiar to chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. In response to the Tory government heaping blame on the EU for no work visa-free work permits for British performing artists he said: “I don’t want to either meddle in British domestic politics nor judge the way British people have been informed or prepared for Brexit.” But he added that “a lot of the consequences of Brexit, which are numerous and serious, have been underestimated and often badly explained.”

Regardless of the ongoing EU-U.K. political fray, Daltrey, true to his rebellious roots, continues to insist he is “glad to be free of Brussels” despite the impending disaster facing younger generations of aspiring musicians and technicians. He is also quick to add that “we had no problem touring Europe before we became EU members.”

In response to a subsequent barrage of criticism from many of his contemporaries such as Elton John, Daltrey is now insisting the EU-U.K. free trade treaty agreed at the end of 2020 should be amended and the British performing artist industry should be treated as a “good” just like cars or food products that can enter the EU via one set of custom declarations.

Obviously Daltrey has not spent much time deciphering the nuances of international trade rules – not to mention EU single market rules that revolve around the free movement of goods, services, capital and persons. But when you are a waning, wealthy rock star ensconced in your country villa heaping in the recording royalty fees – some of which EU legislation has helped protect – you can shamelessly afford naive double standards.

Unfortunately for recording artists who have come along in the Internet era, the music industry has gone topsy-turvy since the days of the British pop music invasion in the 1960s. Whereas the big money used to be in record sales, online music streaming has decimated that business model. Now, instead of using live concerts as a supplement to promote record sales, bands rely on lengthy road tours to make money. Sales of merchandise at the concerts including recordings are also a vital supplemental source of income.

Since the days in the early 1960s when the Beatles refined their chops playing the Hamburg bar scene in Germany, touring continental Europe has been an artistic and commercial rite of passage for every aspiring British rock band. And in some EU countries that rite will continue albeit on a much more limited basis. Germany and France allow 90-day work permits for touring bands; other EU countries allow a month, some 15 days or others none at all. But the days of the months-on-end caravan tours in multiple EU towns, cities and festivals are over .

Just as important, all British band technicians and their equipment ranging from amplifiers, tour buses and even musical instruments along with band merchandise now face a profit-sapping blizzard of country-by-country bureaucracy, custom fees and taxes.

As many of the artists who signed the U.K. petition have testified – some of them doing so in tears – at a parliamentary hearing that preceded the Feb. 8 debate, the post Brexit conditions are terminal for their livelihood. Only the big name rock stars – think Sting, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and of course The Who, – will survive, they say.

“Touring the European continent has been a vital source of artistic growth as well as a commercial lifeline,” said Stuart Murdock, the singer and songwriter for the Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian, at the hearing. “But even under the best of circumstances when we could travel and work without permits before Brexit profit margins were thin.”

Tim Brennan, a video producer responsible for many of the backdrop montages bands, especially top acts from the United States, use for their European tours, said his U.K. passport is the problem.

“The promoters have made it clear they do not want to have to deal with the process of getting work permits for British producers like me for every country,” said Brennan, who launched the U.K. petition. “They want people who have an EU passport.”

During the Feb. 8 parliament debate Dinenage insisted the U.K. would use a series of joint oversight committees established in the EU-U.K. Trade and Cooperation agreement to address the work permit issue for the U.K. performing arts industry.

“The outcome of the negotiations is deeply regrettable for all our sectors,” said Dinenage. “There is scope to return to the issue in the future if the EU should change its mind and we would welcome it with open arms.”

Clearly Dinenage’s lip service provides little succor to artists whose livelihood has already been hammered by the pandemic and have little hope that when it is over the future will be any brighter.

By Joe Kirwin