It was never Jaz Delorean’s intention to make history. For the past four years, European touring has been a key income stream for the frontman and his London-based band, Tankus The Henge, who play around half of their annual 140 shows on EU soil.
When the six-member band crossed the Channel on June 30th for a 15-date French tour, it was a simple case of economic necessity. But in doing so, Tankus The Henge became the first UK band to tour Europe since Britain left the EU last December.
“With the chaos that has unfolded in the UK, and the live music industry being let down on multiple occasions, we really had no choice,” says Delorean. “But we also wanted to show other bands it’s possible. Because there’s a lot of things that have apparently been sorted on paper – but nobody has actually tried it yet.”
No doubt, there will be more than a few musicians eyeing Tankus The Henge’s progress, with the band taking to social media to document the pleasures and travails of touring across France. But as Delorean points out, some of the knottiest demands of Brexit legislation had to be negotiated before they even loaded up the van.
“You don’t need a working visa for France, but you definitely need the international driving permit and green card. We all had to do a paid-for Covid test: I think that was £120 each.
“But the ATA Carnet is the big issue,” Delorean continues. “Solo performers don’t necessarily need it, because you’re allowed to take an instrument as a sort of hand luggage allowance. But as a band, you have to do a carnet. It’s an exhaustive list of everything you’re taking, so they can be sure you’re not selling any equipment.
"The carnet took us a couple of weeks of serious research, then a couple of days to fill it in correctly. It only lasts a year, and if you change your equipment, you have to get a new one. That could be a problem for bands with changing members. You basically have to know who you’re going to take on the road a year in advance and put their equipment on the list.
"We used a third-party company to check it, and the carnet itself costs about £800 to start with. That’s a chunk of a gig for us, and for more DIY bands, it’ll eat up a whole fee – especially if they haven’t got any merch.”
Post-Brexit bureaucracy and pressures on profit margins
With a band’s merchandise representing up to 30% of the live take, Delorean argues that the post-Brexit levy on every item taken across the border could be a killer blow to touring musicians with slender profit margins.
“For instance, we have t-shirts and three albums on CD and LP. That’s a fair amount of product, right there. And for every item, there’s an additional cost, which pushes the price up and makes people less likely to want to buy it. We don’t want to price out our fans and we can’t be paying out for this expense when we don’t even know if people are going to buy it.
“This legislation has to change,” he stresses, “or there’s going to be an uproar. It’s really serious for a live band to not have merch on the road in Europe.
"When you’re on tour abroad, you have to really work as many nights as possible. You might have your big anchor shows at major festivals. But then, the next night, we might do a club show in Bordeaux – which is a great vibe, but the reality is that it doesn’t pay the bills. So then you have to make it up with the merch. And if you haven’t got any, you’re really going to suffer.”
Once on the road, the band faced further hurdles. Waiting in line for the carnet to be stamped in both the UK and France meant a journey from London to Calais that previously took five hours now took ten. Upon exiting the Eurotunnel, recalls Delorean, the band faced a bewildering search for the Calais carnet office and Covid test centre.
“Many bands will be familiar with experience of just putting your postcode in the satnav and off you go. But at the moment, you have to get your carnet stamped again or it’s invalidated, then do a Covid test, which is tracked, so they know exactly where you are, and where you’re staying, for a week. Right now, we’re on day six of quarantine and we’ve had to lose three dates. We’ve been in France for nearly a week now – and we haven’t played a gig yet!”
This legislation has to change, or there’s going to be an uproar.
For this first toe in the water, Delorean’s band have purposefully kept the itinerary as simple as possible: no additional borders to cross and all musicians and gear loaded into the same van.
But a more extensive tour in a different vehicle could spell trouble, he says. “When you have a splitter van with a trailer – which is a great deal of bands – you basically come under the same legislation as a lorry driver, which is called cabotage. That means you can only do three stops in the EU. Which is a nightmare, because a tour might be 25 dates.
"So how do you get around that? Nobody knows yet. As for playing in multiple countries, you’d need the carnet stamping in every one of them. And while you don’t need a visa to tour in Germany, our friend who plays in Morcheeba told us that it’s 450 euros a head for the visa in Spain. So it’s off the list for a band like us. It’s a shame, because there’s some nice gigs there.”
The most frustrating part of all this, says Delorean, is that the paper trail seems to exist for no good reason. “Governments love paperwork, because it makes money. The biggest thing that we got from the carnet is that it’s a big money-spinner. Apart from stamping the document, nobody looked in the back of the van, on either side of the channel. We could have anything in there.
"And we dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ when it came to filling in the carnet. We counted the number of guitar cables. We even counted the packets of guitar strings. Because the way it’s written is that they’ve got the right to go through everything and check it against the checklist. In reality, they didn’t look in the back of the van at all.”
As for Tankus The Henge’s own bottom line, the singer says he hopes to break even, at best. “We’re expecting to pay ourselves, but we’re not expecting to put anything back in the kitty after that.
"We’re an independent band, so we have debts to pay and none of that will get paid. We’re doing it to put bread on the table for the musicians, who are all full-time members. But there’ll be nothing to put back into the business, to make the next record, for instance.”
The pleasure and pain of performing abroad
Despite the logistical mountain and myriad headaches, Delorean stresses there are positives to the post-Brexit touring experience. “We’ve found our insurance company to be really supportive. The officials who stamped our carnet at the Sevington border control were very helpful, because they know this is new territory for everybody.
"We’ve found the French live music industry is extremely receptive and sympathetic to international bands, too. Once they knew the issues we were having, they really bent over backwards to help us and make us feel welcome. The band were even offered an old farmhouse to stay at during quarantine by one of the venues.
“And of course,” he continues, “you still can’t beat being behind the wheel in the EU, knowing there’s a warm welcome waiting at every gig. It’s such a buzz, the audiences are so loyal and they’re so happy to see bands coming from Britain.
"My advice would be to leave yourself plenty of time to sort out the paperwork. And don’t give up. There’s a warm welcome here. We are looking on the brighter side, which is why we’re not just sitting at home. We have to keep planning. All of us. The whole of our industry, we have to keep planning. And if we get knocked down, we have to get back up.”
Based on what he’s seen so far, concludes Delorean, Brexit shouldn’t be seen as a brick wall for touring bands. But the bigger picture is of a system in urgent need of a tune-up.
“What would I say to ministers?” he ponders. “There needs to be a smoother transition for artists to be able to tour. It’s not just bands. It’s theatre companies. It’s opera. It’s ballet. It’s across the board. And if there isn’t an attractive and easy system to do it, artists will either stop making art – which would be a tragedy – or we will lose these artists completely to the EU.”
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