It’s been three years since the UK has enjoyed a full festival calendar – from local queues to the likes of Glastonbury and Download.
But as COVID restrictions have faded and the summer is event-filled, industry figures are facing new challenges — and those they predicted in 2019.
“Our festival was growing organically, you know, everything was working really well,” said Adam Gregory, one of the directors of award-winning British rock and metal festival Bloodstock. “There haven’t been any real big blockages that we could say would prevent a festival from succeeding.
“Then Brexit happened, and literally all the barriers in the world came down overnight.”
It’s a sentiment that echoes in the music industry, whether it’s renowned artists like Elton John to smaller bands and those working behind the scenes, that festivals are harder to organize and perform after Brexit.
And while the philosophical argument over leaving the EU has been fought and won, there are now practical issues that those involved in the industry want to address.
One of the main issues is that groups of all sizes now need a carnet – an international customs document – to be allowed to travel between the UK and EU with all their gear, costing at least £600.
As well as increased costs and paperwork for UK bands wishing to cross the Channel, European bands wishing to come and play at UK festivals face the same hurdles.
And even artists coming from the US for European festival season have to consider whether it’s worth adding a UK event to their schedule.
“Some bands we know of actually didn’t come to the UK because of the headache,” says Mr Gregory. “They just can’t be bothered with it.
“I’m not saying it’s huge, but you only need one or two to get that momentum started and all of a sudden the UK becomes one of those countries that’s not just not added to the schedule.”
“Bands Skip the UK”
Labor MP Alex Davies-Jones, who has worked with festival directors on the issues they face, echoes his fears.
“If someone is on a European tour, they would normally have used the UK as a stopover, brought all their gear, brought their set, done one of those festivals, and then headed off to their next destination,” says- she.
“It can’t happen now. They’re skipping the UK because it’s just too complicated. It’s different rules, different regulations, too much red tape and it’s stopping us from having these world famous artists. at our festivals and find amazing new music.”
Justine Jones, lead singer of UK band Employed to Serve, said the new paperwork increased the amount they had to spend to get to festivals on the continent, and she knew their European counterparts facing the same thing had to come here for our calendar-defining events.
“Bands should get notebooks to literally list every instrument, set of strings, drums and more, complete with brand and serial numbers,” she said.
“We had to pay a professional company to do it and it cost us just under £1,000.
“And the logbooks only last for a year, plus they only cover a certain number of crossings, so if we go over that we have to buy a whole new one.”
“We’re not the only ones canceling shows”
But it’s not just the preparation that’s a time-consuming and costly nightmare.
“When the groups leave they have to join the queues with the truckers, so although it’s not the chaos we’ve seen recently in Dover, we can wait for hours,” says Ms Jones.
“Obviously these people have trucks of goods, say for Ikea or something, and we only have the equivalent of a small van. But we still have to line up with them and they literally have to go through every article. We have.”
The same goes for air travel, and the extra hurdles they have to navigate can often be confusing.
“We had to cancel our participation in the Resistance Festival in Spain because an airline lost our equipment,” says Ms Jones. “And we’re not the only ones. It’s happened to people who came to play in the UK.”
Alan Hungerford, whose company, Freight Minds, provides tour transport and logistics support to artists such as Queen, Adele and Gorillaz, describes how different it is for his clients post-Brexit.
“Let’s say you’re having a festival in Portugal on Saturday, flying a charter jet to the UK on a Sunday for another festival is now incredibly hard work,” he says.
“Previously these shows would come straight to the show, load up, get on stage, get off and go. Now you’re wasting hours – I can realistically say 12 hours for combined clearance – which obviously can have an effect of training on shows, which means artists have to book fewer shows.
“Before, you could go from Belgium to the UK overnight. Now you have to think about it, look at the situation in Dover and say ‘Are we going to this festival’?”
Hungerford said the concerns were for all groups, large and small, and there was still a lack of clarity around the rules.
“UK customs staff do not appear to have been properly trained in the handling of carnets,” adds Hungerford.
“There certainly hasn’t been any government support or clear guidance as to whether you need a notebook or not.”
Jobs, jobs, jobs?
It’s not just the movement of equipment and their owners that is causing difficulties for post-Brexit festivals.
Ms Davies-Jones says organizers of regional and gigantic events, including Glastonbury, have told her their main concern is staff.
“It’s partly the result of COVID,” she says. “A lot of people ended up having to go find other jobs because the music industry shut down.
“So skilled people, like riggers, lighting engineers, sound engineers, technicians who had experience with all of that, left the industry, which means you lose that skill set at the higher end of the spectrum.”
However, it’s not just the technical team that makes a festival work.
“The staff needed for the day-to-day running of an event, the set-up, the cleaners, the security, the people you rely on to run an event like this were from Europe,” she says. “They just aren’t here now.”
Hungerford agrees that staffing has had an impact on the industry, saying: “I was at an event in Sunderland a few weeks ago and we were expecting 52 crew to show up for the quarter of night to dismantle the stage. Only six showed up.
“Everyone had to work four times harder to get a job done. It took two days longer than they should have done.”
Mr Gregory says many of his fellow festival organizers have had to cancel events due to lack of staff.
“The combination of COVID and Brexit has wiped out a lot of people who previously had jobs in the music business or the entertainment business,” he says.
The festival director adds that it has been a ‘very worrying and very trying time’ and that the end of seasonal workers coming to work on a summer of events has led to ‘very hard work unnecessarily for an industry which brings in billions of pounds each year to the economy”.
“Festivals need help now, not in two years”
So what could be done to help festival performers ensure that the UK scene continues to thrive, not just this summer, but in the summers to come?
“Freedom of movement certainly needs to be settled for the arts and entertainment as an industry,” says Gregory.
“There’s a lot of lobbying going on to try and get some support, but it just seems to be falling on deaf ears. He’s really not getting anything but lip service from the part of the government for the moment.
“The industry needs help now. Not a year or two from now, it urgently needs this help.”
Ms Davies-Jones also said a seasonal worker scheme should be introduced to ensure festivals can bring in EU staff as before.
“We have all these festivals and events and all of our entertainment industries that are really struggling right now,” she adds.
“Our cultural activities all suffer from the same thing – struggling to find good staff for the jobs that people here don’t want to do.
“Without this scheme, the UK will suffer. We are known for our festivals. We are known for our incredible musical and cultural exports. And this great soft power is now in danger.”
For Ms Jones, it’s more personal: “The pandemic has highlighted how much people have relied on music to get through such a difficult time,” she says.
“Now everything is ‘back to normal’, everything has been forgotten and everything has been taken for granted.
“The festival industry and the music industry brings in billions in the UK.
“We have to nurture that, the top artists and the grassroots artists, especially the working-class people, who have no one to pay for things, but who have so much to contribute to art and music – it would be a shame for people like that not to be heard at festivals.”
We have raised these concerns and requests with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and a spokesperson said: “We are helping brilliant UK musicians adapt to new arrangements and facilitate tours and advocated with every member of the EU talking about the importance of touring.
“24 EU Member States, including the biggest touring markets such as Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands, have confirmed that they offer visa-free and work-permit-free itineraries to British artists and other creative professionals.
“We are continuing to engage with the few remaining countries that do not offer visa-free or work permit-free routes.”