I’m the guitarist and singer in The Subways – this is how Brexit has affected musicians

Brexit, six years on: Where before there was a sense of freedom, now there’s limitation. It’s ironic, really, given Vote Leave’s campaign messaging

Billy Lunn
Wednesday 22 June 2022 18:43
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<p>We tried to explain to people who intended to vote Leave – friends and family included – what it would entail for bands </p>

We tried to explain to people who intended to vote Leave – friends and family included – what it would entail for bands

I was in my favourite pub in Hatfield when I received the call. “Can you hop in a van right now? Weezer need a support act for the European leg of their tour. First date is in Hamburg.”

I’d never been to Hamburg. In fact, I’d never even been to Germany. The rest of the dates listed were Dublin, Paris, and Glasgow. I sank my pint and ran home to pack. Back in those days, my dad would join us on the road. He’d always wanted to be in a rock band, so when we got signed, I asked him to join us on the adventure. He booked us a van, helped us load in our equipment, and soon we were on our way, passports crammed into our backpacks. Before we knew it, we’d crossed the channel on the ferry and found ourselves parked outside the venue.

It was all such a blur, we weren’t certain we’d left Hatfield. But there we sat, looking out onto the European streets, so much wider and brighter than those back home. My bandmate, Subways bassist Charlotte studied German at school, so she taught us a few handy phrases, which we scribbled down and recited to each other. By the time we walked out onstage, we knew enough to introduce ourselves and thank the audience for their applause.

The show itself was raucous, driven by a bewilderment over the fact that only the evening before we were all just twiddling our thumbs – and now we were doing what we love most in the world, in a new venue, in a new city, in a new country, and to a completely new audience.

Walking through Paris before our show at L’Olympia was an especially paradigm-shifting experience. As a working-class lad whose prospects projected no higher than the zenith of becoming manager of the hotel in which I used to work as “linen porter”, a visit to Paris might never have otherwise occurred to me. But there we were, strutting down the Champs-Elysees, trying not to let the grandiosity of it all overtake our focus on the gig ahead.

Not long after that, we bagged a number of support slots in similar fashion. Then we began booking entire European tours of our own. It reached a point (thanks to some well-received festival appearances) where we became much more popular on the continent than we were back home in the UK, and that’s something in which we still take pride.

With each new tour, we explored new regions throughout Europe, visiting new towns and cities and meeting so many wonderful people along the way – many of whom would become devoted friends who opened our eyes to different ways of thinking, creating and living.

Then came 2016, and with it the EU referendum. We tried to explain to people who intended to vote Leave – friends and family included – what it would entail for bands old and new, successful or just starting out. As we described the restrictions that leaving the EU would place on access to wider cultural and economic prospects, we were dismissed as “fear-mongerers” and “liberal elites” who didn’t want “£35m for the NHS each week”, and only wanted to “talk Brexit down”. Though, as we can all now see, we’ve reached the point where our initial fears are unfortunately being realised.

As I write, I sit in a venue called Hansa 39 in Munich, readying myself for soundcheck. I’m apprehensive, because my main amplifier spluttered and eventually refused to work two days into the tour, and I’m now praying my spare amplifier doesn’t go the same way.

Pre-Brexit, I’d usually have a representative from the amplifier company stop by the venue to issue a replacement, which they’d happily allow me to take back to the UK whilst the broken amplifier is being repaired. However, that now can’t be done, as we’re obligated to re-enter the UK in possession of every single item with which we left it, and no more. The faulty amplifier, like every single item we bring with us, is listed on the carnet (or “passport for goods”), with its weight, type, model number and serial number provided, and must simply come along for the ride.

The carnet expires in 12 months, and it can’t be altered until its expiration date. That means we must make extra sure to list and bring with us spares of everything we use, whilst also making sure that they won’t drastically increase insurance costs. That goes for every single item, right down to power adapters, power units, power leads, extension cables, XLR and quarter inch cables, patch cables, guitars, guitar cases, guitar pedals, pedalboards, guitar stands, drums, drum stands, drum cases, cymbals, cymbal stands, cymbal cases, microphones, wireless transmitters and receivers, in-ear monitors (plus their respective cases), and the rest!

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None of these can be replaced, as and when needed, while we tour Europe. Weeks before starting the tour, I was tasked with logging all the items on the carnet, which meant stripping apart pedalboards that had taken us 15 years to assemble, just to get at the serial numbers of every guitar pedal before weighing them separately.

As well as this, we also incurred the not-insubstantial cost of requiring someone to cast a keen eye over the carnet for approval before submission. Then there’s the wait during inspections at Dover, on the way out and on the way back, as the carnet is reconciled with every piece listed.

I’ve not even mentioned the additional strains that have been placed on our support band, whose situation Brexit has made so complicated and expensive that we offered them accommodation and transport on our tour bus. Gone are the days of merely packing up, hopping on the ferry, plugging in, and playing in the moment.

Where before there was a sense of freedom, now there’s limitation. It’s ironic, really, given Vote Leave’s campaign messaging. Culturally and economically, however, the arts industry’s suffering is really only just beginning.

Billy Lunn is the singer and guitarist in the rock band The Subways

To mark the six year anniversary of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, Voices brings you Brexit, six years on – a series exploring the impact of the vote to leave

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