Europe’s cultural integration has made it an oasis for electronic music and music exchange. That makes new hard-line British policy a potential setback.

The bright spot: by announcing the policy now, and introducing legislation, there is an opportunity for examination and (hopefully) change, before the policy becomes law.

Updated: already, here’s one action for change. The Musicians’ Union is fighting for a passport for artists. You can add your name to the petition and, if you choose, donate:

Let Touring Musicians Travel: Support Musicians Working in the EU Post-Brexit []

Ironically, I’m just back from Kaliningrad hosting an event with the generous support of the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy in Moscow and the British Council. At a time when Russian and UK diplomatic relations were frayed – even closing the consulate in St. Petersburg – musical exchange has opened the door to communication and cooperation. And even though I’m not a UK or European citizen, I’m hugely grateful for the ways in which UK diplomacy has enriched the music landscape worldwide.

I think that illustrates the importance of communicating about these changes – and understanding them in some larger context, even beyond the European one.

Reading the policy

To be clear, it is possible to overstate the UK policy – and if you’re on techno Twitter or other social media close to the issue, you’ve likely read some pretty draconian commentary. So let’s pull apart how the policy works, as described by Home Office policy documents and other reporting. (Major disclaimer: as an American, and a German resident, and very much not an immigration lawyer, my interpretation should be taken with a grain of salt. Knowing the readership of this site, we probably do have a UK immigration lawyer somewhere, so by opening my mouth as usual I tend to trigger some more enlightened discussion.)

Maybe the biggest surprise, as Mixmag points out, is that the Home Office policy statement is 180 degrees apart from the Government’s own Culture Minister. He said just last month that “it’s absolutely essential that free movement for artists is protected post-2020.” [See MusicWeek – and cultural minister Nigel Adams was himself a Brexiteer.] It also seems like a blow for UK-based music tech like Focusrite/Novation, who benefit from being part of a diverse and international community.

How it works now: Free movement for EU nationals is one of the fundamental treaties that makes the European Union what it is. That freedom of movement includes the right to seek work anywhere inside the EU – for all citizens. So if you’re an artist or DJ, this means you can hop over to the UK and play the gig, and it’s no different than doing it in the country of your citizenship, like Poland, Romania, or Spain.

This does not necessarily apply to residents of the country; the freedom of movement law is written for nationals of those member countries.

Free movement – EU nationals [European Commission]

“Now” is guaranteed for purposes of labor movement through the end of 2020, as part of the negotiated transition period for the UK leaving the EU.

How it would work from 2021, if adopted: The new policy is part of a larger point-based immigration system overhaul, which is also what the Trump Administration is advocating for the USA. As part of that larger shift, it tightens requirements for income self-sufficiency, even for temporary work by artists, and eliminates existinging temporary worker programs based on the EU’s free movement policy.

These changes were not inevitable with Brexit. They represent the UK government distancing itself from the principles behind the EU policies – and in a way that could even prove unpopular.

Full policy paper from last week: The UK’s points-based immigration system: policy statement

And blog post from the Home Office: Points-based immigration system: Latest Information

The UK had been proposing this for a while. It was part of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill read in 2019. And the Conservative Party proposed it again in the fall.

For artists traveling to play in the UK (including both musicians and DJs), the visa now required for EU citizens – as well as everyone else – is this:

Temporary Worker – Government Authorised Exchange visa (Tier 5)

The application cost is £244 – nowhere near as steep as countries like the United States of America, but a significant additional cost. (Musicians of course often play for less than that application fee.)

The visa response time the UK says “should be” within 3 weeks, with the ability to apply as early as 3 months prior to the gig. Expedited service fee is a whopping £500.

A certificate of sponsorship is required, with approved government agencies and programs. The program list is very specific, though; I’m asking UK partners if they can make more sense of this requirement.

Sponsors can approve multiple entry in that letter. This means that a smart strategy for artists playing in the UK may be to try to get a multiple entry visa so the fee is easier to swallow, since the visa lasts over a year.

The sponsorship letter is also an opportunity for artists to skirt an additional, potentially disqualifying requirement – £945 in savings which needs to be in your bank account 90 days before entering the country. A sponsoring organization can take on that requirement for artists.

Foreign artists also need to pay a healthcare surcharge. (Other countries I’ve dealt with allow private travel health insurance; this way you instead pay into the UK public health system.)

There is also a “Global Talent” visa, which replaces the existing Tier 1 “Exceptional Talent” visa. It’s more expensive, however, and has more stringent requirements.

Why it could hurt

I can make this really simple. I’ve never met anyone in music curation or arts – not one person – who wanted more restrictive borders for our field. Maybe this is a debate in other industries, but it seems universally within music that people want open borders. One question I have then is why our industry hasn’t been more effective working with government to lift restrictions on the arts.

It seems that changes in the UK would likely not only impact legal work mobility, but also would tighten enforcement of existing rules for everyone else. The existence of this requirement means it’s more likely border officers will ask tough questions and look for potential violations. It’s also extremely likely that European countries will retaliate with similar requirements for UK artists in Europe. That could have a chilling effect on the entire music market.

Free movement benefits music in three ways. First, it’s bi-directional – so more freedom means more international artists to compete with, but also more opportunities abroad. Second, the exchange of artists has the ability to increase the value of events – a dynamic scene means dynamic audiences, which can benefit everyone. Third, and most intangibly, exchange drives musical inspiration and transformation. Music is a form of communication that takes input.

I don’t know that artists should write off the UK because of changes to the visa. I think it’s a safe assumption that given Conservative Party control of the government, this long-sought-after legislation will pass – and it may be necessary for those of us working as artists and curators and in cultural diplomacy to adapt. I think it’ll increase the urgency for UK organizations and governments who do advocate for international exchange, too.

But adding visas where they didn’t exist before will certainly discourage artistic exchange with the UK, particularly for more casual DJ gigs and underground events.

Worse for the UK, the savings requirement could impact the diversity of artists traveling to the country.

The bigger picture

As immigration becomes a hot button issue worldwide, it’s long past time for the music community to get louder about immigration advocacy. Musical innovation and cultural wealth have always benefited from exchange and export, whether in preserving old traditions or creating new ones.

The reason I say it’s possible to overstate the UK policy is, it’s largely Europeans who have become accustomed to a unique level of international integration. Someone with a Russian or US passport entering the UK, for example, has a different experience.

It’s also clear that worldwide, the most popular visa for working artists is the “oh I hope people don’t ask what I’m really doing here” visa. In countries with tight borders – the US being a prime example – bending the rules can result in artists receiving long-term deportations, just because of fairly innocent activities like playing a DJ gig – hardly the sort of thing that wrecks a nation’s economy or steals someone else’s job. It’s more likely that gig will support the jobs of people working in nightlife than it is they would take them away. (Correction: I mentioned Canada but failed to mention a specific exception for DJs, relevant to the rest of this. See below.)

So if it’s an economic win to encourage travel, what would a more progressive artist visa look like? That’s not hard to imagine – it’s the way tourist visas work in most countries now. And it’s the same reason countries looking to boost their economy often waive even the usual tourist visa requirements. That’s happening even in countries known for having tougher borders. The Russian Federation recently introduced a generous e-visa program, for example. (The UK and USA were notably not included – arguably an example of what escalating restrictions can do as countries reciprocate rules.) We need containment for the COVID-19 virus for it to be useful again, but China also has 72-hour visa free transit for people extending layovers into small holidays. And that’s just to give a couple of examples of countries seldom mentioned for their openness to immigrants or light paperwork requirements.

So why not consider that maybe musical activities are comparable to tourism in their benefit? (Hey, I’d even say they’re lower-impact and more net positive in communities than tourists are.)

Before people become overly depressive about the UK, keep in mind – this visa still looks within reach for may artists, and it’s right now only in a policy document statement, not finished and passed legislation. Given the transition period for Brexit is likely to involve a lot of debate, it’s an opportunity to have already seen this policy in proposals for the last couple of years, and as the stated Home Office position in just the second month of the transition. There are no surprises here, and even the opportunity for UK citizens to lobby for having the requirements relaxed.

Also, at least the UK isn’t the USA, whose artist visa process is so complex and expensive I can’t even wrap my head around it enough to explain.

Europe is generally an edge case – for its citizens, at least, it offers a vision of a more open world. The UK will be the first country to have that kind of privilege and then let it go, which may prove instructive.

But for the rest of the world, artist policy could be an opportunity to talk about immigration in an understandable way – and perhaps to win more open policies, even if the political winds seem headed the other direction. So with all of this in mind, there’s a chance the UK handed the international artistic community a gift – dependent entirely on our next moves.

Other reporting:

Proposed Brexit UK immigration policy will have ‘devastating impact,’ music industry warns [Resident Advisor – and that’s December 2018]

UK government confirms touring EU artists will need visas starting next year [RA]

Non-EU artists will need visas to perform in the UK from 2021 [Dummy]

EU DJs and musicians will need a visa to perform in the UK from 2021 [Mixmag]

Brexit: The impact on dance music so far [Mixmag in 2017, and that was pre-Article 50]


Inigo Kennedy (whose music I love, so nice to get a comment) – writes to point to Canada’s permissive policy. There is a specific exception for DJs, as well as – well if you’re a circus or rodeo performer, you’re in luck, but also specific union-driven exchanges. And before I seem naive, it also makes sense that one place artists would be in favor of protections is union musician rules.

One thing I don’t know about this policy is whether live electronic music performers count as DJs or not – along with other details.

International Mobility Program: Authorization to work without a work permit – Performing artists

But at the very lease, this also shows some precedent for more open access for artists – as advocated here.

Image credit:


“LONDON HEATHROW” by Parto Domani is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0