After Brexit, musicians fear that it is not just live shows - but a way of life - that is over

Petrol Girls performing live at Hafenklang in Hamburg, Germany.
Petrol Girls performing live at Hafenklang in Hamburg, Germany. Copyright Charles Engelken/Charles Engelken
By Orlando Crowcroft
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For generations of British musicians, Europe has been more than just a place to play - it has been a pilgrimage. With Brexit, that decades-long link could have been finally severed.


On one tour that Leeds-native and musician Luke Antonik-Yates organised to Europe in 2016, one of the artists liked the continent so much he never came home.

After reaching Europe via the Channel Tunnel, the convoy of four solo artists played a run of European dates before eventually winding up in Vienna, Austria. From there, three of them headed back north, but Michael Dey, a singer song-writer from Bradford, stayed on.

The move was not completely unplanned, Dey had wanted to move to Vienna for some time and the tour was partly designed to get him there as cheaply as possible. As their convoy moved across northern Europe, microphones, guitars and amps sat alongside bags stuffed with Dey’s clothes. He didn’t have a visa and, as a European citizen, he didn’t need one.

Dey’s odyssey is a storied one. Long before David Bowie tore up 1970s Berlin, musicians from the UK were crossing the English Channel, guitars slung over their shoulders, to ply their trade and often start a new life in Europe.

'Lifelong friends'

European musicians have gone the other way, treading the boards of Britain’s vibrant festival circuit, relocating to London, and winning friends and fans along the way.

Many, if not most, do it for hardly any money. Antonik-Yates estimates that his band, the Human Project, made “a few hundred euros” last time they toured the continent. Yet he speaks of playing in Europe with an almost spiritual reverence, as a rite of passage, a pilgrimage.

Luke Antonik-Yates
Antonik-Yates and band playing at the Punk Rock Holiday Festival in SloveniaLuke Antonik-Yates

“Touring Europe is one of the best and most enriching things you can do as a band, and just as human beings. No other place on earth gives you so many clashing cultures, languages, landscapes, climates, in such a compact area,” Antonik-Yates told Euronews.

“We have made lifelong friends in just about every corner of northern mainland Europe.”

It is little surprise that Britain’s exit from the European Union on January 31, 2020 -- and now the true separation post-transition period -- has made life more difficult for itinerant musicians on both sides of the Channel, as it has for everyone from hauliers, tourists and even truckers trying to enjoy an innocent ham sandwich.

You ask yourself: ‘Is everything that I have built my life around about to suddenly become unviable?’”
Ren Aldridge
Petrol Girls

Reports emerged this week that the British government turned down an EU offer to grant musicians visa-free travel in Europe after Brexit, fearing that the reciprocal arrangement would mean the UK would have to allow freedom of movement to European nationals.

The British government has denied the reports, arguing that the EU spurned its own conditions for visa-free travel for musicians. But whoever is to blame for the absence of a deal, it is a lack of clarity that is proving the biggest challenge for bands and solo artists at the start of 2021.

Britain’s Musicians Union has warned that the cost of visas and the process of applying for them could make touring Europe for British bands, and the UK for Europeans, financially out of reach for all but the wealthiest and best-known artists.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns in most European states, few musicians are on the road right now anyway, but as the vaccination drive across the continent picks up pace many artists are starting to look ahead to European shows in 2021. And it doesn’t look good.

Valentin Iser
Michael Dey performing in Vienna, Austria, in 2019.Valentin Iser

Antonik-Yates was forced to cancel his band’s 2020 European tour due to COVID-19, but if he were to book it again now they would face costs of around £1,200 just for documents needed to enter each European state. That includes £300 just to drive through France with their gear from the EuroTunnel disembarkation point on the French coast to the first show in Belgium.

For those British bands living in Europe, things are equally unclear. Ren Aldridge is a singer with punk band the Petrol Girls, originally from the UK but now based in Austria. Two of the band are British, one is Austrian, and since their Lithuanian bass player left a year ago they have played with various fill-in bassists, some from the UK and some from elsewhere.

It is not clear to anyone where the band collectively stands when it comes to their immigration status and ability to play in other European states.

“As a band with a mix of EU and UK members are we going to need different bureaucracy for different members everywhere we go? It’s unclear for now,” Aldridge told Euronews.

“I think that uncertainty is what is difficult because on a personal level you are asking yourself: ‘Is everything that I have built my life around about to suddenly become unviable?’”


As for many of those amongst the 48% of Britons that did not vote for Brexit - and the overwhelming number of Europeans who see Britain’s decision to leave the bloc as an act of collective madness - musicians view their current situation as the thin end of the wedge.

Those in punk bands are unlikely to be Brexit voters, and for members of the Petrol Girls and the Human Project, the idea of stronger borders or an end to freedom of movement is antithetical.

“I believe in freedom of movement for all,” says Aldridge, “not just for musicians. I see this curtailing of musicians’ movement as just another step in the wrong direction.”

Even if Brussels and London are able to hammer out a deal that makes life easier for musicians travelling between Britain and Europe, at the level of punk bands and solo artists like Dey, the margins in touring are so slim that multi-country European tours may not make financial sense.

“It is certainly going to be problematic being on the road as a musician. We cross the border into Switzerland, Germany, etc, every weekend in the summer,” Dey said.


But more important than that is that the very exchange that led to his move to Europe may not be possible today. Dey met his current bandmates in Vienna after they toured in the UK and slept at his flat in London. After Brexit, visa costs alone would likely have kept them at home.

“I fear that the number of bands willing to deal with visas and bureaucracy is going to put them off. That’s how I met my current bandmates and friends, and the idea of future generations not having that world open for them is really heartbreaking.”

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It's available on Apple and Android devices.

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