Ministry bars foreign musicians

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The Independent Online
Aanyday now you will hear it: Work Permit Blues. A strict new stance on work permits is hitting overseas rock and pop musicians trying to enter Britain for concerts or broadcasts.

Performers, many with Top 10 hits to their names, are finding it increasingly difficult to enter the country as a result of Department of Employment rules being applied with fresh vigour.

The recording of an edition of Later, BBC2's music programme presented by Jools Holland, was cancelled after two bands booked to appear were refused permits.

On another occasion a group pulled out of an appearance on Top of the Pops after similar immigration problems.

Now record companies are being reminded of the criteria that performers have to meet to qualify for permits.

But some in the industry are calling for an overhaul of a system they say is unnecessary and biased against pop musicians, especially the burgeoning number of dance acts.

Under it, bands from outside the European Union do not need work permits if the visit is for promotion - including television and radio interviews - or business negotiations; but if they are booked for a live performance - TV, radio or concert - permits have to be requested four weeks beforehand, and granted before the trip is made.

For rock and pop musicians the problems are twofold: bookings are often confirmed only days in advance and many modern acts consist of only keyboard players and vocalists, often augmented by dancers, who, uncredited on the recordings, regularly have permit problems.

In the past, officials have helped push through late applications where possible, and showed flexibility. But in recent months, according to many in the music business, there has been a stricter approach, allied to a lack of understanding of the flexible line-ups of dance acts.

Tina Richards, of T & S Immigration, which handles up to 30 group applications a month on behalf of record companies, said: "Lately they seem to have been laying down the law. They said they would use discretion and common sense, but we've found they are saying, 'This is the rule', and if you don't fit with that you're out the window.

"I think part of the problem is they appreciate opera and classical music, but not necessarily this end of the music industry.

"Often acts are one guy behind a keyboard and the dancers are the main focus of the show. If you used British dancers who didn't have a chance to rehearse properly it could look awful and no one wants that."

But the acts due on Later were straightforward groups - leading "world music" performer Salif Keita, from Mali, and American band the Afghan Whigs. Show producer Mark Cooper said: "Sometimes the department can be accommodating but I think they wanted to make an example of these bands."

A Department of Employment spokesman denied therehad been any crackdown and stressed that the regulations were in place to protect home-grown talent: "The idea of the system is to ensure that people who live here and who can do the same job can do it."

But Rob Partridge, of Keita's record company, said: "We are talking about music which is largely influenced by the culture of West Africa. The idea you could just pick up a backing band here is impossible."

Charlic Inskip, spokesman for the Afghan Whigs, added: "I think it would help if the rules were changed. The meeting of minds between the music industry and the officials is so unlikely, that's the problem. The way the industry works is a million miles away from the way they work."

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