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I’ve been touring in both Ireland and Continental Europe (Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Spain) on a regular basis — generally once a year, sometimes more — since 2008.

My European tours have always furnished a significant chunk of my income. Gig for gig, they’ve generally been more lucrative, both in terms of fees and in terms of merch sales, than my tours in the UK (or USA, for that matter); I’m not sure why that is. Better government support, just more of a culture of going out to hear live music, or a combination of both?

As a rule, European venues tend to offer decent fees, plus hotel accommodation and a hot meal before the show, with no haggling — and it’s usually a flat fee rather than a door split.

And at European shows, German ones especially, there’s always at least one punter who’ll walk up to the merch table, hand over a credit card and say “I’ll have one of everything, please!”

So when the twin demons of Brexit and Covid reared their hideous heads, it was a major blow.

Contending with Brexit and Covid

In April I made my first foray outside the UK since March 2020. I headed over to Ireland for a short tour in both the Republic and the North, before getting the Belfast-Cairnryan ferry for a run of UK shows. It started with a week of Scotland gigs, then continued down through England and back to my home base in Cornwall at the end of May.

For the Ireland tour, the Common Travel Area meant that work visas weren’t an issue. I do however have concerns about work visas for some of the countries I’ll be visiting during my planned March 2023 tour in Continental Europe. Not for myself, as I’m an Irish citizen, but for my tour manager/sound engineer, who’s British and will be travelling with me. It’s not entirely clear whether crew are covered by the work permit exemption in Denmark for example, for “musicians, whose participation constitutes a substantial or essential part of a noteworthy artistic event.”

I’m very much hoping that by March next year the situation for crew will be clarified, as I can’t tour without Martin, so it’s a real problem if I have to go through the process and expense of applying for a work visa for him.

Navigating customs

I’m also nervous about the fact that the two of us travel in a cargo van with just two seats in front, as the current cabotage exemption only covers splitter vans, not cargo vans.

"T-shirts form a big part of my merch sales, so I’m sure I lost money by not having them to sell at my Ireland gigs". Image credit: Shutterstock. 

Just establishing what we needed to do in order to comply with carnet and customs rules took weeks of research and endless exchanges of email questions and answers. We spoke with ferry staff, government departments in both Ireland and the UK, LCC/Boomerang personnel, fellow musicians and the MU’s very kind and helpful Dave Webster.

We eventually learned that for the UK-Ireland route at least, we were allowed to travel on a carnet as a passenger vehicle rather than freight (which would have tripled our travel costs), as long as we kept the merch we carried under the €1,000 “merchandise in baggage” limit. This limit was based on the cost price, not the retail value, of the merch we carried.

I’m hopeful that by the time I need to book the ferry for my March tour, the same will apply to ferry travel on the UK-Netherlands route, but at the time of writing that hasn’t yet been confirmed.

Merchandise and inventory limits

In order to keep the merchandise within the €1,000 limit and minimise any duty/VAT payable in Ireland, we carried a minimal quantity of merch and didn’t bring any T-shirts, as these are manufactured outside the UK/EU and would definitely have been dutiable.

T-shirts form a big part of my merch sales, so I’m sure I lost money by not having them to sell at my Ireland gigs. I also spent money shipping the bulk of my merch for the UK leg of the tour to Scotland, so that we could collect it after getting the Belfast-Cairnryan ferry.

Completing the required inventory of all the gear we carry (which includes a full PA system as well as instruments and other associated tech) took days, as every item had to be individually listed with its replacement value and if applicable, serial number.

The London Chamber of Commerce staff offered a number of helpful suggestions, for example, specifying a higher number of trips than we’re actually taking, just in case, since it wouldn’t add to the overall cost. They also suggested we list not only mine and my tour manager’s names, but also “Any Authorised Representative” in the “Authorised Representatives” section of the application. Again just in case, they also said that while technically I was entitled to allow for wear and tear in listing the values of the items, they recommended that I go with current replacement values, as I could get held up if a customs officer decided to query the values listed.

Carnets

A fellow musician we met up with during the tour told me he’d also been advised by Boomerang to include a line saying “Miscellaneous Items” with a value of £300. I wish I’d had that bit of advice before we applied for this carnet, and will take it up next time round, so that any small bits of tech we neglected to include can fall under that heading.

The total cost of the carnet from LCC, including a 12-month security bond to cover £15,333 worth of gear, came to £379.25. In order to be able to spread the cost of that carnet across three tours, I’ve scheduled another Ireland tour for Jan-Feb 2023 and a continental Europe tour for March 2023 — a decision I might not have taken if the carnet cost hadn’t been a factor.

I also spent hours putting together an itemised list of quantities and cost values for the CDs and LPs we carried, together with the original manufacturing receipts and an official “Statement of Origin” for the most recent album. As things turned out, nobody asked to see it and we weren’t asked to pay any duty or VAT. This could have been an anomaly, though, so I’ll keep making the same preparations for future tours and will continue to keep the value under the merchandise in baggage limit.

Finding out where we had to go to get our carnet stamped at the various ports also took a significant amount of advance research; it certainly wasn’t obvious when we got there, so the advance research was very much needed.

In Fishguard, we had to get the carnet stamped at the Border Force Office adjacent to the freight weighbridge before joining the car lanes to check in. In Ireland, we had to call at the Import Centre in Kilrane, about 1km up the road from Rosslare Harbour. Had we been returning via Rosslare however, we’d have had to call at the export office in the port itself.

As of this month there was still no border force presence in Cairnryan, so the stamps for both the export from Belfast and the import to Cairnryan were applied by the border force at the DAERA facility Duncrue Inspection Site, adjacent to the port in Belfast.

Getting the carnet stamped was simply a matter of handing over the paperwork and waiting about 15 minutes for the stamped carnet to be returned to us. At no point at any of the ports did anyone ask to look inside the van.

The whole process felt like a colossal waste of time and money. It’s basically a bureaucratic procedure that creates extra work for professionals like the LCC people and the port customs staff, who have more important things to be doing than dealing with the likes of me. Between the cost of the carnet and any customs/VAT that might be payable, the loss of potential merch sales and the burden of time-consuming work and stress it creates, it has a massive impact on my ability to tour and make a profit.

Closing thoughts

I sincerely hope that some agreement can be reached with the EU. An agreement that allows both artists and crew to tour in the EU without the need for visas OR carnets, to travel in cargo as well as splitter vans without being subject to cabotage rules, and to carry a sufficient quantity of merch for a 6-week tour without having to pay customs duty or VAT. The current “merchandise in baggage” exemption only exempts us from having to make an advance online declaration, not from having to pay duty and VAT.

I’m deeply grateful to the MU for all it’s doing to help clarify the rules for bewildered independent musicians like myself, and to advocate on behalf of artists at all levels of the industry. These are terrible times for all of us and we need all the help we can get.

For detailed guidance, resources and answers to common questions on working in the EU post-Brexit, see our dedicated information hub.

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Sarah McQuaid

Born in Madrid (to a Spanish father and an American mother), raised in Chicago and holding dual Irish and American citizenship, Sarah McQuaid has made England her permanent residence since 2007. Her sixth solo album The St Buryan Sessions was recorded and filmed live in the beautiful medieval church of St Buryan, not far from Sarah’s home in rural West Cornwall. Released in October 2021 on CD and limited-edition double LP, it features stunning solo performances by Sarah on acoustic and electric guitars, piano and floor tom drum, her lush, distinctive vocals echoing through the soaring space. Visit her official site: https://sarahmcquaid.com.

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