Rhythm Knows No Borders

The Home Office's new rules for touring musicians inflict a harsh regime on musical workers, and try to put borders around sound. It won't work.

Upon reading the Home Office’s recent announcement that musicians from the EU hoping to tour the UK post-Brexit will have to fork out for a £244 visa application and prove they have a grand in the bank, my first thought was of my own former band, The Pipettes. This was a project I more or less sunk my life into for most of the 00s – and to some degree that commitment paid off. By pooling our resources we were eventually able to pay ourselves a modest wage. We signed to a major American label, toured the world, scored a couple of mid-tier chart positions in the UK, got to number two in Japan. But all that came later. 

To begin with no-one really got The Pipettes in the UK. We were a bit too pop to be taken seriously by an indie band scene dominated by tight-trousered new wavers and asymmetrically coiffured prog rockers, yet still too spiky to really cut it as a proper pop group. We doggedly toured the country’s toilet venue circuit to general bewilderment, rarely breaking even on the cost of shared Travelodge rooms and motorway Ginsters pasties. Across the Channel, however, things were different. For some reason, audiences in France and Sweden – a little later Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands too – seemed to get it straightaway. We found ourselves playing to sold out houses, headlining small festivals. For the first time, we got to feel a little bit like pop stars – and started to see a few quid trickling in as well. I have no doubt that experience buoyed us towards whatever success we later achieved.

The government’s new proposals – which one can only presume will be reciprocated by EU member states – would render all that impossible. With seven people in the band (plus a sound engineer and sometimes a tour manager), the combined cost of the visa applications alone would eat up way more than the kind of fees we could then command. And no-one in The Pipettes ever had a thousand pounds in the bank. Most of the time, we didn’t even have a thousand pence in the bank. Between us. 

Since then, given the near-total collapse of global record sales, the music industry has become even more dependent on revenues from live performance. But for up and coming bands, average fees have scarcely risen – least of all in the UK’s own domestic market. The freedom to travel and perform elsewhere has been a lifeline for many musicians and the comparatively more accommodating regimes in places like Norway and Switzerland prove it is possible for a country outside the EU to allow some space for what the co-curator of Glasgow’s Counterflows Festival, Fielding Hope, called the inherently “interconnective potential of music”, in an essay for New Socialist. And yet despite that, I hesitate to demand – along with some, such as the Musicians’ Union – for some special exemption for musicians. Nor do I believe that the liberty of artists to live and work outside the country of their birth should stop at the borders of Fortress Europe. 

Fielding wrote passionately in his New Socialist piece about the frustration he experienced when his hopes of inviting musicians from Ghana and Iran to Counterflows last year were stymied by the UK Border Agency. Music “is an international, polymorphous, and polyamorous phenomenon,” he wrote. “It is a power that we must treasure, and one that we must let flourish without divisions, hierarchies or borders.” But music’s fugitive nature, its lack of respect for walls and frontiers of any kind (a quality anyone with noisy neighbours can attest to), may also reveal something inherent to all life. There is nothing exceptional about the story of my old band, and I mention them here only as a metonym for a far greater desire: to roam, forge connections outside one’s immediate circle, experience difference and diversity, spread your wings.

I will never cease to find it strange that we have built for ourselves a world in which we take for granted the global mobility of money and goods, yet baulk at granting the same ease of passage to actual people. If workers lack the rights that inanimate objects possess, then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that we ourselves are worth less than stuff. “This music is healing as it flows,” wrote Joseph Jarman of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1977. Perhaps insofar as flows, it heals. Or to go one step further, maybe ‘music’ is simply a name for that healing, connecting, commingling, desiring force that runs all over the earth, untrammelled and irrepressible. In the beginning there was rhythm. It knows no borders.